Saturday, May 01, 2010

My own private hidy ho*

Cat Scan by Pants

Towards the end of the last millennium, there was a total eclipse of the sun in the UK. For days before the event, media pundits speculated on how the few minutes of unexpected darkness would affect the wildlife. Would birds fall from the sky? Would dogs go barking mad? Would cats recognise it as the sign of a long-heralded prophesy that they would one day take over the world and storm the Houses of Parliament?

One's adored Guardian featured a cartoon that day. There were two birds. One bird said to they other,

They say when it happens, all the humans will go inside and watch television.

We are fascinated by other creatures and how they live, bestowing upon them all of the attributes of social behaviour we hold dear. We love it when they go on long, perilous off-road trips, or indulge in life-risking water sports. We thrill to see them going at each other like binge-drinking teenagers and giving birth to more young than they can feasibly support. It's the Daily Mail for Guardian readers. And we love to see the surviving babies fall face-first out of trees or into stinking piles of elephant turd. It's the Funniest Home Video Show for Guardian readers.

Our interest in the doings of our fellow travellers from other species is as old as time, or at least as old as National Geographic Magazine. But now a British academic is saying that the filming of animals' private moments without their consent is wrong and that Sir David Attenborough's programmes for the BBC are unethical.

Let me take a moment while I digest the shocking news that one's revered BBC could possibly have omitted to distribute consent forms amongst the whale schools, badger sets and osprey colonies it has been tracking all these years. Scandalous.

Dr Brett Mills, from the University of East Anglia's School of Film and Television Studies, said,

'We can never really know if animals are giving consent, but they often do engage in forms of behaviour which suggest they'd rather not encounter humans, such as running away or building a burrow. It is difficult to equate consent but some animals display no consent by their behaviour such as building homes where they cannot be seen. '

So the building of a burrow is a message to humans that an animal does not want to be seen? If they knew us that well, they'd surely twig that the proper etiquette would be to put up a sign that says 'trespassers will be prosecuted'. We don't know exactly what it means but we have all seen Bugs Bunny.

'The question constantly posed by wildlife documentaries is how animals should be filmed, they never ask whether animals should be filmed at all,' continued Dr Mills.

Readers should note that the question Why has just poured itself a large chardonnay and parked itself on the contemplation settee. Well, proposes the question Why, if wildlife documentaries were to make such an inquiry, they would have to move to BBC2 and come out as a long-lost Beckett play. The question Why and I agree that would be financial suicide for a wildlife documentary and is therefore unlikely to happen while the Amazon stubbornly refuses to freeze over.

"There are many activities which animals engage in which are common to wildlife documentary stories but which are rendered extremely private in the human realm. Mating, giving birth, and dying are recurring characteristics in nature documentaries, but the human version of these activities remains largely absent from broadcasting," claims Dr Mills.

The question Why and I would submit that Dr Mills has never watched EastEnders in which all these things happen to people on a half-hourly basis. If they're very lucky, they also get to die more than once. We believe we can safely claim the proposition is false and would be very pleased if Dr Mills could forward to us his own viewing schedule as we would very much like to find programmes in which mating, giving birth and dying didn't feature quite so prominently.

Interestingly Dr Mills's study did not include the BBC's Springwatch, the whole point of which is to witness the mating and birthing patterns of animals whose infants are so tiny and vulnerable that they are rarely seen. When asked about Springwatch, Dr Mills replied,

'Nests are a private space and to stick cameras inside is a form of CCTV.'

I suppose if one was arguing for equality for animals, it might be considered a measure. Let them enjoy the same level of constant surveillance as the humans do. Viva la revolucion! The question Why would like to suggest that Dr Mills learns some basic zoology as it thinks that birds might actually be building nests in secluded places to elude bigger birds and rodents rather than the BBC's peep-cams. The question Why would like it known that it passed Grade12 Zoology so knows of what it speaks.

Naturally, (forgive us, the question Why is a bad influence), Dr Mills's claims have been challenged by the BBC. He doesn't even have friends amongst the animal rights groups. Unsurprisingly, fears that humans might be watching animals snogging on television are not as high on their action list as trying to stop cruel factory farming and the poaching of endangered species.

But the BBC did think the challenge sufficient enough to elicit a quote from the venerable Sir David Attenborough,

'The whole object of Natural History programming is trying to prevent the animals knowing you are there so that you see their natural behaviour,' he said.

The question Why and I have had quite a lot of chardonnay but even we recognise that Sir David's answer does support, in principle, Dr Mills's claim that animals' privacy is being violated. We will now have to retire to consider our verdict - the question Why wishes to clarify that it grew up on Perry Mason.

Readers should note that some time and rather more chardonnay than is advisable in the circumstances has transpired.

Our response to this baffling moral dilemma of our time is that wide-ranging consultation needs to be carried out. The truth is that we don't know what animals want. Why has no one thought to ask them? It beggars belief.

The question Why and I would like to make it known that we have a proven track record in consultation and that we feel we would be best placed to undertake this work. As previously stated, the question Why has (an admittedly low-grade) pass in Zoology but we don't feel that our lack of experience with actual animals would be a disadvantage as we are both outward-facing and client-focussed. We would talk to the animals, learn all their languages, maybe take an animal degree...

* Title inspired by email from Ms Ann O'Dyne