Documentary “Unlocking The Cage” Debuts February 20th On HBO

The film offers a compelling look at the unprecedented challenge to expand legal personhood to chimpanzees.

Jennifer Coxby Jennifer Cox

“They used to bark at me when I walked into the courtroom,” said renowned animal rights attorney Steven Wise (in an official press release) – after 30 years of struggling with ineffective animal welfare laws, Wise and his legal team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), have found a novel way to protect animals. They are making history by filing the first lawsuits that seek to transform an animal from a thing with no rights to a person with legal protections.

Directed by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker (who previously collaborated on HBO’s Emmy®-winning Elaine Stritch at Liberty), the thought-provoking documentary Unlocking The Cage follows Wise’s unprecedented quest to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans when it debuts Monday, February 20th at 8pm, exclusively on HBO and HBO Canada.

In December 2013, Wise and his legal team, using writs of habeas corpus (historically used to free humans from unlawful imprisonment), filed three lawsuits demanding limited personhood rights for four captive chimpanzees in New York State. Supported by affidavits from scientists and primatologists, the NhRP urged the courts to release the animals to Save the Chimps, a Florida sanctuary.

The first plaintiff was Tommy, a 26-year-old chimp who began life in Hollywood movies, and was found living alone in a garage on a used trailer lot. The lower court judge was sufficiently impressed with the merits of the case and directed the lawsuit up to the Appellate Court in Albany, where five judges heard Wise’s argument in Oct. 2014. It was the first time a U.S. court openly debated whether a nonhuman animal should be considered a legal person.

Two months later, the Appellate Division in Rochester considered a second case involving Kiko, an abused showbiz chimp living in a Niagara Falls storefront. The initial decisions on these cases were wildly divergent, and showcase the legal disarray wrought by Wise’s efforts.

But his final case, on behalf of Hercules and Leo, chimps used for research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is the one that truly challenged the court. Arguing against New York’s assistant attorney general, Wise made an impassioned plea that inspired state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe to openly question, “Why can’t a chimpanzee be deemed a ‘person’ for the sole purposes Mr. Wise says: of permitting the habeas writ to the very limited extent sought? Why isn’t that an appropriate use of this great writ?”

This historic declaration – along with the legal ground that Jaffe broke when first granting the writ – became a milestone in animal rights.

Unlocking The Cage is an intimate look at a lawsuit that could forever transform the legal system, and one man’s quest to break down the wall that separates humans from animals.

Photo: Unlocking The Cage