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Unlocking the Cage

Unlocking the Cage. 2016. Pennebaker Hegedus Films.  Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. USA. Review by Pete Porter.

Unlocking the Cage mixes profile documentary with real-life courtroom drama to tell a story of persistent animal advocacy. Unlocking centers on Steven Wise, who takes his legal team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), into the New York State courts to file writs of habeus corpus, which involves unlawful imprisonment, on behalf of four captive chimpanzees.  Many might recognize Professor Wise from the New York Times Magazine cover story of Spring 2014, which asked “Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?”  The combination of profile and procedural is an effective one as it creates a point of empathy while also detailing the legal struggle, neither of which would be as compelling on its own. Unlocking suggests that the road to animal liberation will require grit and conscientiousness; those who embrace the justice system as a source of change, as well as those who reject it, are likely to find supporting material here.

The central question of the film is “Who is a legal person?” and the unlocked cage of the title is both literal and metaphorical, in that it seems like an entirely new question for many who hear it, including judges, in the film.  What first need unlocking are really “cages of the mind” as Stanley Moon calls them on a tour of the primates at the London zoo in Bedazzled (1967).  One person who encounters the question in Unlocking the Cage immediately wonders if the move is to extend personhood to all nonhumans, but Professor Wise quickly limits the answer to primates, cetaceans, elephants, and other creatures who have human-like capacities that have been thoroughly documented.  As the official site of the film has it: “Supported by affidavits from primatologists around the world, Steve maintains that, based on scientific evidence, cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights (such as bodily liberty) that would protect them from physical abuse” (Unlocking the Cage).  Recent work by Frans de Waal and others is likely to add more species to the list of those deserving consideration as humans recognize and move beyond anthopodenial (de Waal).

A pivotal scene depicts a setback for Wise, followed by a debriefing.  What derailed the hearing, his team decides, is that judges framed the case in terms of animal welfare and Professor Wise failed to re-direct the discourse toward conceiving of the chimpanzees as persons.  It is an error that subsequent mock trials seek to correct and Unlocking the Cage ultimately builds to a more successful outcome.  A telling image in the film frames Wise behind bars as he moves down a staircase in his home, suggesting that even he struggles to escape his cages, whether the justice system, his framing of the case, or something entirely different.  Such images suggest a multiplicity of meanings, not the least of which is that the chimpanzees in question are not the only ones locked in cages.  If unlawful imprisonment is a standard that applies to chimpanzees, is it sufficient to move them to a sanctuary that nonetheless limits their movements, albeit less obviously?  Isn’t this still a temporary animal welfare solution to an enduring animal rights problem?  Few animal advocates would reject the solution out of principle, not when the quality of life increases so obviously; this is likely the best solution for our historical moment, one that subsequent legal battle promise to redefine.  Overall, it is to their credit that the makers of Unlocking the Cage raise such issues and resist the temptation to not question the hero of their story.

Unlocking the Cage represents a cogent, albeit inventive, way to advocate for nonhuman animals who deserve consideration in the legal system of the United States.  Of course Unlocking the Cage represents only a first, although key, step in what is undoubtedly an ongoing process.  Perhaps we can hope for sequels: Beyond the Cage.

Works Cited

Donen, Stanley.  1967. Bedazzled.  Twentieth-Century Fox.  United Kingdom-USA.

Unlocking the Cage: Official Site.  n.d. Accessed July 25, 2016. http://www.unlockingthecagethefilm.com/synopsis/

Siebert, Charles.  “Should a Chimp be able to sue its Owner?”  The New York Times.   April 23, 2014.  Accessed July 25, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/magazine/the-rights-of-man-and-beast.html

Waal, F. (2016). Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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