“Personhood” is the concept at the center of “Unlocking the
Cage,” a new work by iconic documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris
Hegedus. From a legal perspective, are there cases in which animals can be
considered persons with rights that might include not being confined in cruel
or onerous circumstances? In the past it was assumed that persons were
individual human beings. But then came the Citizens United case, where the
personhood of corporations was affirmed. Might the definition be expanded to
include certain non-human, non-corporate individual beings?
The fight for animal rights has been a growing movement in
recent decades, one with many fronts and expressions, from principled
vegetarianism to protests against scientific experimentation on animals.
“Unlocking the Cage” focuses on the U.S. legal front and one intrepid animal
advocate in particular.
From his home in Florida, attorney Steven Wise recalls that
he had a standard practice for a young lawyer back in 1979 when someone gave
him the book that changed his life, Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation.”
Deciding he could do much more good in his life trying to defend a whole species
rather than individual human miscreants, he dedicated his career to making the
case that non-humans should have rights under the law.
It was not easygoing, especially early on. “People laughed
at me,” he recalls. “They barked when I went into a courtroom.” But Wise’s
persistence eventually produced results. In 2000, he began to teach a course on
the subject at Harvard.
“Unlocking the Cage” follows Wise and his colleagues in the
Nonhuman Rights Project over about three years as they push cases regarding
individual animals through the courts of New York state. Attempting to give his
efforts certain boundaries that will make them more effective, he generally
focuses his arguments on three types of non-humans—great apes, elephants and
These have all been studied and determined to have highly
developed cognitive abilities and awareness of themselves and their
environments. Wise says that each has a “theory of mind,” the meaning of which
is rather murky even if his intent is clear. From both legal and publicity
standpoints, these three non-human groups also have the advantages of not
residing in the United States or figuring into the diets of its (human)
In any event it’s only apes that figure into the cases
before New York’s courts in “Unlocking the Cage.” We see Wise and his
colleagues going around the state and looking at apes in different
circumstances. Some are in protected sanctuaries where they demonstrate
sometimes quite astonishing abilities to reason, remember and communicate with
their human keepers. Others, though, are apparently being kept just for the
sake of being kept and exhibited (or possibly, used for experiments); it’s
these non-humans that Wise builds court cases around.
We see several of his appearances in front of judges making
his arguments, and it must be said these are no more scintillating or full of
high drama than most courtroom procedurals. All the same, there’s import and interest not only in how careful, respectful
and scrupulous most of the judges seem but also in how gradual and
painstakingly incremental the animal advocates’ strategy is.
They’re arguing about individual animals, apes with names
like Merlin and Koko, but their real aim is to gain legal personhood for
animals—at least certain kinds, as a start. And in the course of the film, we
see them make some small but important steps toward that goal.
Where will this lead? When Wise appears on his show, Stephen
Colbert wonders if his dog will soon be suing to get on this couch. The idea
that an ape can be granted habeas corpus—as the film shows, similar cases are
afoot in other parts of the world—generates all sorts of mirth, derisive and
otherwise. When he’s asked if all of this could end up in a cow successfully
suing not to be slaughtered, Wise says this might come only generations after
his own lifetime, but he wouldn’t be unhappy if it eventually happened.
Of course, as its title suggests, “Unlocking the Cage” is a
kind of advocacy journalism, not an attempt to weigh the cons as well as the
pros of whether non-humans should have human-like rights. But the film will
surely have its own role to play in the arena that perhaps counts most: the
court of public opinion. Polls show that public views of animal rights have also
been evolving in recent years. Wise, obviously, has reasons for optimism. At
least they’re no longer barking at him.