April, a 15-year-old reticulated giraffe who lives at Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, N.Y., is expecting a calf.
Since late February, when her caretakers made available on YouTube a livestream camera feed from inside her stall, April has been viewed many millions of times. Her fame is international: The BBC deemed the birth "the most anticipated since Prince George made his appearance in 2013."
When I mentioned April's viral stardom to my husband last week — as "animal people" we spend a lot of time discussing animal behavior — he wondered aloud why it was thought OK to violate April's privacy that way.
My response? Privacy doesn't mean much to animals.
During 27 years of marriage, though, I've not been in the habit of dismissing my husband's thoughts. So I got to musing about that camera trained on April, and what its benefits and costs might be.
I'm not referring to issues of outright safety here. I'm talking about something more subtle: How to think about privacy in a situation like April's where the camera doesn't endanger the animal in any direct physical way.
As sometimes happens in the way of utterly cool coincidences, within a day of that conversation with my husband, I read an essay by science journalist Brandon Keim that made me think even harder about April.
Keim's "Should Animals Have a Right to Privacy?" is included among the essays in his forthcoming, quite wonderful book The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories from the Living World. After reporting the view expressed by animal-law scholar David Favre that it's best to take each instance of animal privacy on a case-by-case basis, Keim writes:
"At the very least, we shouldn't just assume it's our Darwin-given privilege to barge into [animals'] lives with cameras and data-gathering equipment whenever we feel like it."
Camera traps, GPS collars, acoustic monitoring equipment and wildlife drones may all be involved in this sort of privacy invasion.
But Keim ends the essay on a smaller, more personal scale. Walking in a park one evening, he noticed two raccoons curled up in a tree. "By all appearances," he writes, "it was a quiet, intimate moment, perhaps even a private one. I stopped to take photos. Through the lens I saw them looking at me. In retrospect, I wish I'd kept my camera in its bag."
That last sentence jolted me.
When I'm observing animals — bison and elk in Yellowstone, turtles and crows in my own yard — I become immersed in trying to document with my camera their social behavior. Compared to, say, not stressing animals by approaching them too closely, which I think about constantly, I have never been troubled by my photography.
Suddenly, my ethical questions have multiplied.
Is it more intrusive if we photograph or film social interactions between two or more animals rather than an animal resting or walking alone? Is it more troubling if the animals plainly can see us gazing at them (as in a close-up encounter of some sort) than if they are apparently unaware of a camera trap or video camera trained on them?
What is acceptable invasiveness and where do we draw the line?
I asked Keim last week by email how he would assess the benefits and costs of livestreaming pregnant April's behavior to the public. He emphasized that he would first talk with April's caretakers and giraffe welfare experts before forming a firm opinion in this individual case. He also said:
"Sharing information about a captive animal probably won't hurt them — at least, not in any scenario that jumps immediately to mind — but one can imagine how sharing information about wild animals could lead to their harm."
Harm in the context of hunting or poaching comes to mind here.
With regard to the sharing of captive animals' lives, he added:
"People learn to love and appreciate those animals, and then see the animals around them in a new light, too. There are so many examples of how telling stories about animals can make their lives better and our lives richer. So, so much good can come of it. It just needs to be done responsibly."
Keim also said that it is important for people watching, also, to consider who April is as an individual.
"Whatever judgments we ultimately make, we need to think those through with special attention to April herself as an individual. A four-legged person whose interests matter and maybe even deserve to come first. We don't have a *right* to live-stream her giving birth. Which isn't to say it's wrong, but we should be considerate and respectful.
By tuning in for our own entertainment, we're implicated in what's happening. We're obligated to think about April's life. (Can the park promise that April's calf won't ever be taken away from her? That they'll take care of them both for their entire lives, with all the devotion we'd give to a beloved pet? That seems like a really fundamental question here.)
One thing that jumps out at me is how little we know about April. Here we are watching a profoundly personal moment in her life, yet we don't know anything about her. Where did she come from? What has her life been? What will become of her and her calf? It doesn't seem like people know or are even curious. The news stories I read didn't even pose those questions. That doesn't seem right at all."
Keim's concern in this last paragraph is right on the mark — and I'm happy that some media outlets are now reporting on April with greater sensitivity to who she is. And in that regard, I should note, yes, there's a father, too: His name is Oliver, he's 5 years old, and this will be his first offspring.
The news about what will happen to the calf is less than rosy. The intentions of the animal park staff are quite clear, noted in their statement that accompanies the livestream on YouTube:
"Upon naturally weaning, the calf will move on to another facility to start a breeding program there. We cannot retain offspring, as it would lead to incestuous mating and undermine the genetics of the program and species."
Given what I know of some female giraffes' attachment to their calves in the wild, I wonder what emotional effect this plan may have on April: She is to be forcibly separated from a calf right at the point of weaning, rather than at a point the animals themselves would go their separate ways, were they living in the wild.
As I think of it now, it's part of our responsibility to raise these ethical questions.
When April finally gives birth, millions of people will presumably be drawn to watching her interact with her calf. I'll check in, too. I hope all of us who watch will take a few moments to think of April not just as a generic giraffe mom, but as a giraffe with her own likes and dislikes, and her own needs.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape