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Does an ape deserve the same rights as a human? Does an elephant? Does a dolphin? Steven Wise, a lawyer and the President of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), believes that these animals deserve, at the very least, the same legal protection that prevents homo sapiens from being treated as property. His quest to obtain this right for two chimpanzees being held for biomedical research is the subject of the new documentary, Unlocking the Cage.

After its initial premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the film opened theatrically on Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum and will soon open nationwide. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, Unlocking the Cage focuses on the attempts of Steven and his legal team to obtain a writ of habeas corpus for chimpanzees being held in confinement.

Known as “the Great Writ,” habeas corpus is a fundamental human right that prevents persons from being confined against their will for indefinite time and without cause. Denying human beings this right is tantamount to condoning slavery and, in the modern age, considered a severe violation of justice. As explained in the film, Steven and the NhRP believe that there are three types of animals whose cognitive and emotional capacity renders prolonged confinement a form of abuse. These animals include elephants, apes and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), and simply put, they are smart enough to suffer.

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Countless studies of these species have shown that their abilities to communicate, empathize, plan and problem solve, go far beyond the assumptions of past centuries. ”They not only know that they have a mind but that others have a mind,” Steven says in the film. “They understand that they are individuals that existed yesterday and will exist tomorrow. Because when you imprison a chimpanzee, the chimpanzee understands that tomorrow he will be in prison, and as far as he knows, it’s not going to end.”

Planet Experts was able to view an advanced screening of the film and speak with Steven alongside co-directors Chris Hegedus (Startup.com, The War Room) and D.A. Pennebaker (Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back). When asked if people ever call him crazy, Steven just chuckled and said, “I have not been in the crazy category for some years now.”

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After 30 years of practicing animal protection law, Steven became used to the jibes. People would laugh when he brought up non-human rights, even bark at him when he entered a courtroom. But that has changed.

Last March, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that they will end their controversial elephant acts in 2018. Seven months later, and following years of falling attendance and the fallout of the Blackfish documentary, SeaWorld was nearly forced to end its orca breeding program by the state of California. This year, SeaWorld capitulated, promising to end both its breeding program and its orca shows.

Poster courtesy of First Run Films

Poster courtesy of First Run Films

Documentaries like Blackfish along with the work of scientists like Jane Goodall and organizations like the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy have contributed to a new understanding of animal intelligence, one that calls into question the ethics of animal testing and the morality of zoos and marine parks.

Chris Hegedus admitted that there were people who were skeptical of a documentary featuring the NhRP, but that the mood “really changed during the process of shooting the film.” Steven’s fight to free chimps Leo and Hercules from their confinement at New York’s Stonybrook University generated the expected level of derision, but it also generated headlines that put the Project’s mission in context.

“[T]o our surprise, almost all of the media…many of them grasped the complexity of what we were doing and said they agreed or at least admired the attempt,” said Steven.

Ultimately, the story of Unlocking the Cage goes beyond the court battle depicted in the film. With Leo and Hercules’ case, Steven and the NhRP were attempting to “kick the door open” to the cases to come. And these cases, says Steven, will not occur over the next few decades but “over the next few months or years. We have capitalized on something, and I see that in what I read and when I travel. I see it throughout the world.”

Filmmaker Chris Hegedus.

Filmmaker Chris Hegedus. (Photo courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films/HBO.)

Chris added that, though the film is done, “it’s very hard to tear ourselves away from this project, because it keeps evolving.”

As to what drew the filmmakers to the Nonhuman Rights Project in the first place? Curiosity.

“The idea of going into a court of law where I normally go to pay my parking tickets, and watch a judge seriously consider what Steven is presenting,” said D.A. Pennebaker. “I wanted to be there and watch that judge figure it out.”

Unlocking the Cage divides its runtime between exploring the philosophy of Steven and his colleagues and their ever-evolving strategy to bring their case to court. When the films ends, it leaves the viewer with questions that cannot help but linger in the brain, such as, if the Supreme Court says that corporations are people, an abstract concept that neither thinks nor feels nor bleeds, why can an elephant be beaten every day of its life to perform tricks its body was never meant to perform? Why is it okay for a chimpanzee to be held in an isolated cell with nothing but a painting of a jungle and an old color TV? Why do orcas attack humans in tanks and never in the wild?

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The film makes it very clear that bestowing legal protections on apes, elephants and cetaceans is not the same thing as saying they’re human. But it does make a very good argument for protecting creatures that cannot ask for protection on their own.

Unlocking the Cage is being released by First Run Features in association with HBO Documentary Films. It is 91 minutes and not rated.

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