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One Man’s Legal Quest to Change How We View Animals

In Review: Unlocking the Cage

Given that I’ve written in great detail about Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project’s efforts to get some animals recognized as “persons,” the basic premise and much of the convoluted legal gymnastics showcased in Unlocking the Cage were not new to me. Nevertheless, even for someone well informed on the subject matter and plotline, the documentary is a compelling watch.

Steven Wise and the NhRP teamPhoto courtesy of Pennebaker Heeds Films/HBOSteven Wise (second from left) and his team at the Nonhuman Rights Project wants to to punch a legal hole through the wall that separates animals from us.

The 91-minute film by celebrated documentarians Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker (The War Room, Monterey Pop, Don’t Look Back, and Kings of Pastry) follows Wise, founder of NhRP, and his colleagues over the course of three years as they file the first lawsuits aimed at changing the legal status of animals from “things” with no rights to a “person” who possesses, at the very least, the basic rights to life and liberty. 

Wise, who is in his mid-60s, has spent nearly three decades developing the legal strategy for this initiative. He changed the course of his legal career to focus on animal law in 1980 after reading philosopher Peter Singer’s groundbreaking 1975 treatise, Animal Liberation, and experiencing a moral epiphany.

Citing reams of scientific evidence, Wise maintains that cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights that would protect them from abuse. Recognition as legal persons, he says, would protect these animals from being held captive by private citizens, or in zoos, circuses, and theme parks. It would also save them from being subject to invasive experiments in laboratories.

poster of Unlocking the Cage

The NhRP’s focus on these particular species is basically a strategic choice. Given the evidence about the self-awareness and “humanlike” intelligence of great apes, elephants, and cetaceans, and the fact that none of these animals are native to the US, Wise and his team believe there’s a greater chance a judge would be willing to consider granting them special status as nonhuman persons.

The NhRP’s long-term goal however, is, as Wise told me back in 2104, “to punch a legal hole” through the wall that separates animals from us.

Unlocking the Cage picks up the thread of Wise’s long-drawn effort as it builds towards a climax of sorts — as NhRP’s work is moving from research and planning to execution, and Wise and his colleagues are trying to track down captive chimpanzees in New York State who might be eligible to become their first nonhuman clients.

This isn’t a sentimental, outrage-inducing film that focuses on the many ways humans abuse animals, though are a few short clips that are painful to watch. Given its provocative subject matter, it certainly isn’t lacking narrative tension.

Pennebaker and Hegedus, who are known for their cinema-verite style of filmmaking, use handheld cameras and follow Wise as he holds forth on his “theory of being” in a classroom (he teaches an animal law course Harvard), is interviewed about NhRP by incredulous TV hosts, meets famous gorillas like Koko, who have shown us just how intelligent and social great apes are, and scopes out the locations of the four captive chimpanzees in New York State — Charlie, Keiko, Leo, and Hercules — who the NhRP ultimately ends up representing in court.

We see Wise making arguments to establish the personhood of these chimpanzees before various judges. The basic thrust of NhRP’s argument that chimpanzees are entitled to liberty is based on precedents regarding the status of slaves, women, and children, all of whom were once treated as property of men.

Wise is somehow at his least eloquent during these courtroom scenes, yet many of the justices seem intrigued by the case he makes and are willing to hear him out. This seems to be a clear indication that, as a society, our views on animal rights have been evolving.

At the same time, the film reveals that Wise’s effort to “punch a legal hole through the wall,” is in reality more like a gradual, often painstakingly slow, chipping away, with more legal setbacks than advantages. But as Wise says towards the end of the film: “This isn’t a static issue. We view our lawsuits as really a dialogue between us and the judges, and we think that there is going to be an evolution of that dialogue. In fact there already has been.”


Unlocking the Cage film has already been screened in select cities. Here's a list of further screenings. It will open theatrically and premiere on HBO in early 2017

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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