“UNLOCKING THE CAGE”— Protecting “Nonhuman” Animals


Protecting “Nonhuman” Animals

Amos Lassen

From filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, we get a real-life legal thriller about one man’s lifelong quest to protect “nonhuman” animals. This is a PSA-style piece advocating nonhuman-rights activism that follows Harvard law professor Steven Wise over a three-year span as he attempts to help pass legislation that would recognize the personhood of certain nonhuman animals. Hegedus and Pennebaker worked for three-year efforts s to uncover animal rights violations.

Animal rights lawyer and activist Steven Wise has been fighting for non-human rights for 30 years. In 2011, he and his team at the NonHuman Rights Project upped the ante when they filed lawsuits on behalf of four captive chimpanzees. Their goal was to prove to the courts that animals have the rights of a “person” in “Unlocking the Cage.”

Steven Wise and his dedicated team of professors, attorneys and law school students who have spent years fighting for the rights of the animals that cannot fight for themselves in a court of law. This film helps us understand it all better. The directors have, essentially, divided the film into two distinctive parts.

For about the first half of “Unlocking the Cage,” Steven Wise and the members of the NhRP search the state of New York for suitable “clients” to present before the court. The search has its highs, when they find Merlin and Reba at the Bailiwick Zoo in Catskill, NY, and lows, when they learn that Reba died and, shortly after, Merlin does, too. The team faces an uphill battle to find the right chimp to represent but they keep dying. Eventually, of course, they do find their clients.

Once the search process is over, the movie goes into the actual litigation for the court. The legal drama unfolds in a succession of appearances in the NY lower courts, then, all the way to the state Supreme Court.

For decades, animal rights lawyer Steven Wise took on individual cases on the behalf of cats and dogs, but with 160 animals being killed with every heartbeat, he decided to reach higher.  Along with his team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Wise began to fight for personhood rights for cognitively complex animals like elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins.  In December 2013, Wise and his legal team filed three lawsuits using writs of habeas corpus to attain the release of four chimpanzees.  What he was doing, in effect, was unlocking the cage.

Wise, who has received national media coverage for his efforts, more than likely had a lot to do with the passage of new laws protecting animals.  The filmmakers then follow Wise as he searches for candidates to push his agenda.  We see amazing evidence of just how intelligent these animals are, from chimps using computers to conversing with researchers using sign language. 

Eventually the team settle on Hercules and Leo, two chimps in an ambulatory study at Stony Brook and the legal drama begins.  Wise has many pitfalls to sidestep in his arguments with judges frequently citing the animal welfare laws which have failed him in the past.  One judge takes exception to Wise’s comparison of the apes’ situation to those of slaves (he also cites former laws which excluded similar rights for women and children). The film is both heartbreaking and heartening at the same time and equally as what we see is a profound examination of animal rights issues and a portrait of a heroic activist.

The focus is on the efforts of Wise to rewrite the book on personhood, starting with higher-order mammals like primates, pachyderms, and cetaceans. The title refers to an actual book, Wise’s Rattling the Cage, which advances a “theory of mind” that puts some animals on a cognitive level with humans.

Wise and his team push several cases up through the appellate system of New York State, which happens to hold a number of chimpanzees in less-than-ideal conditions.

We go on visits with chimps and see their startling abilities to communicate. We see others that are being held in terrible conditions. Wise and company are very careful not to demonize their litigants, who are often quite attached to their charges, but who acting out of ignorance or profit motive. What’s most interesting here, on the dramatic front, is the genuine engagement they achieve with judges and state’s attorneys encountered along the way, suggesting that even opponents of the rebranding of animals from “things” to persons are interested in keeping the discussion open.

    Co-directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker have a knack for knowing how to make a documentary that finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually.

Unless you’re made out of stone and have no compassion or humanity, you’ll find yourself rooting for the chimps. Ultimately, “Unlocking the Cage” is a captivating, alarming, gripping documentary.

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