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'Unlocking the Cage' makes a reasonable case for personhood for animals

The documentary's main protagonist is crusading lawyer Steven Wise, who began his law career representing humans but decided early on that animals, so often abused in clinical or zoo settings, needed his advocacy more.

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    A bonobo named Kanzi appears in the film 'Unlocking the Cage.'
    Courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films/HBO
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Should animals – nonhumans – be granted personhood under the law? As outlandish as this may seem, the documentary “Unlocking the Cage,” directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, makes a reasonable case for it. 

To be clear, not all animals fulfill the personhood criteria set up by Steven Wise, the crusading lawyer behind the Nonhuman Rights Project and the film’s main protagonist. Great apes, elephants, and cetaceans make the cut, but dogs and cats, for example, won’t have their day in court. Wise began his law career representing humans but decided early on that animals, so often abused in clinical or zoo settings, needed his advocacy more. He and his cohorts in the Nonhuman Rights Project are obsessed with their mission but they’re not kooks. (Jane Goodall is on the board.) We see him lecturing a law class at Harvard on the fine points of nonhuman rights, or taking part in a mock trial prior to appearing before a judge finally willing to hear his case.  

Wise has a sense of humor about his deeply felt mission, which is probably one of the main ways he keeps sane. He is also not, in the stereotypical sense, an animal “nut.” He doesn’t think chimpanzees are simply hairier humans – he just thinks that, defenseless, they need protections. The thrust of his legal argument, which emphasizes that “person” is a legal concept not synonymous with “human being,” is that these are not animal cases but, rather, civil rights cases. “Why,” he asks, “are nonhuman animals the slaves of the world?” His goal is to release the animals from a debilitating captivity and have them transferred to far less restrictive sanctuaries. (One such compound already exists in Florida.)

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The film follows Wise as he searches out suitable captive chimpanzees only to have several of them die – of natural causes, apparently – before anything substantive can be set in motion. He finally hits pay dirt with Hercules and Leo, two chimps that are being housed for medical experimentation at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in upstate New York. He describes the upcoming trial, presided over by a sympathetic judge, as the “first salvo in a strategic war.”

The filmmakers insert clips from “Planet of the Apes,” pointing up the far reaches of paranoia some people exhibit when confronted with animal rights issues. We also see a clip of Wise on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” in which Colbert, in a not-thinly-veiled reference to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, tells Wise that if his ape “wants to have rights as a person, he should form his own corporation.” The filmmakers are clearly on Wise’s side, but they are also eminently fair. More than one of Wise’s adversaries brings up the not-unreasonable slippery slope argument: Today, chimps and elephants; tomorrow, dogs, cats, and chickens?

The film pays lip service to the notion that Wise is a manipulative publicity hound who has found a headline-grabbing niche, but, unless you are far stonier than I am, it’s difficult to look into the vacant, enraged faces of these caged chimpanzees and not want to rescue them. Even allowing for the anthropomorphic misreadings that humans often apply to animals, it’s clear that many of the nonhumans in this film deserve a better life. “Unlocking the Cage” provides some legal ballast for that sentiment. Grade: B+ (This film is not rated.)

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