"Unlocking the Cage," A Documentary About Primate Rights

Supreme Court Rules Corporations are People; What About Chimps?

Two Chimpanzees
Two rescued chimps play at Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven

Just who is a legal person? The public hurled insults when Mitt Romney, while running for president in 2011, stated that corporations were “persons;” and the Supreme Court agreed. But corporations have always been persons in the eyes of the law. This is not a new concept. It’s routinely used as a litigation and liability tool and not as scandalous as Romney’s detractors made it out to be. If Romney’s haters truly wanted to spoil Mitt’s presidential chances, they should have made more of a fuss over the fact that he strapped his dog to the roof of his car for a 12 hour drive.

However, any comparison of corporations-as-persons to non-human animals-as-persons is flawed. The legal protections for non-human animals at issue is not so animals become liable for damages; it’s so they become free from harm and exploitation.

Still, if corporations are persons, the notion that animals should be afforded the same legal protections as humans is logical. Their DNA is more closely related to people than it is to corporations. Fervent animal-rights advocates have always argued for primate personhood. But critics denounce the assertion as absurd. The idea of animals having rights has always been met with skepticism and condemned as sentimentality and anthropomorphism, as if that settles the whole affair.  

But the movement towards legal protections for primates has been quietly and zealously inching forward over the past three decades and now, one filmmaker has taken notice.

Unlocking the Cage” is a film created by Chris Hegedus, an award-winning documentary filmmaker; and her husband, fellow documentarian, Donn Allen (D.A.) Pennebaker.

Their production company, PHFilms, brought us many compelling films including the 1967 Don’t Look Back, a movie about the life of Bob Dylan, and a 1993 movie about the Clinton presidential campaign, The War Room. The filmmakers have now created a 91-minute film that will rock the world of primates just as Blackfish was a game changer for captive orcas.

The film follows the efforts of animal-rights lawyer Steven Wise, Director of the Non-Human Rights Project, a non-profit organization whose board of directors includes the world-renowned chimp champ, Jane Goodall. Wise is an attorney who earned his law degree at Boston University Law School and a B.S. in Chemistry from the College of William and Mary. He’s using the law for animal protections. In the world of Animal Rights, Wise is a rock star. A well-respected author and teacher, his courses on “Animal Rights Jurisprudence” and “Animal Rights Law” is offered at colleges around the country including the University of Miami, the St. Thomas Law School and Harvard Law School. Yes. Harvard. He’s authored four books on legal rights for animals. So he knows whereof he speaks. If the illustrious Harvard Law School accepts the idea of Animal Law, well, that’s quite a feather (found on the ground, not taken from a bird) in Wise’s pleather cap. 

“Unlocking the Cage,” earned praise by Jon Stewart, the previous host of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” who commented the film was “Thoughtful, compelling and heroic” and said it made him “proud to be a primate.”

The documentary was released in January, 2016 with a premier showing at the Sundance Film Festival and subsequent showings around the world.

International media outlets praised the film using such adjectives as “heroic” “crisp” and a “suspenseful …courtroom thriller.”

A courtroom thriller with a lot at stake for animal-rights activists and the animals for whom they speak.

In December 2013, Steven Wise, Esq. used writs of habeas corpus, a tool employed to liberate unlawfully held (human) prisoners, to garner the attention of judges in the Empire State.

Three separate lawsuits petitioned the courts for certain “personhood rights” on behalf of four chimps living in captivity in New York State. Exhibits filed on behalf of the petition included sworn affidavits from internationally-renowned scientists and primatologists. This was no easy feat. The law requires that a plaintiff, a person who wishes to bring a lawsuit, have “legal standing.” This means that the plaintiff has or will suffer as a result of the actions of the defendant(s).

 Since animals can’t speak for themselves, organizations such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund , A CORPORATION and therefore legally recognized as a person with the right to sue, has been bringing lawsuits for years on behalf of food animals, monkeys, burros, dogs and wild animals.

 In Wises’ case, however, the plaintiffs themselves were real animals.

Tommy, the first plaintiff in this courtroom drama, is a 26 year old washed-up actor from Hollywood who happened to be a chimpanzee. When his acting career ended, his handlers, having no more use for him, left him to languish in isolation in a garage. The lawsuit, using the writ of habeas corpus, demanded the court release Tommy to a Florida sanctuary, “Save the Chimps.”

According to the official synopsis, “The lower court judge was sufficiently impressed with the merits of the case to direct the lawsuit up to the Appellate Court in Albany, where five judges heard Wise’s argument in October 2014. This was the first time that a U.S. court openly debated the issue of whether or not a nonhuman animal should be considered a legal person.” The decision was unfavorable. Tommy was instead moved to a roadside zoo, still in deplorable conditions. The NHRP is still on the case.

Next is a chimp named Kiko, another show business has-been who had been living in squalor in Niagara Falls. The end result of this case was so different from the first case it “showcased the legal disarray wrought by Wise’s efforts to enlarge our legal system to include other sentient beings.” (from Unlocking The Cage synopsis).

The decision was also unfavorable as the court found that habeas corpus is not available to non-humans. Kiko's fate is undecided.

Wise filed a third case brought by chimp plaintiffs Hercules and Leo who had been abused as lab specimens at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

The New York Assistant Attorney General filed an appearance on behalf of the defendant, but Wise’s argument moved Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe to ask, “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?” 

It was a historic and monumental moment for animal rights. But even with that promising declaration, Judge Jaffe’s decision was not a good one. While she agreed that apes can be plaintiffs, and that writs of habeas corpus can be brought by such plaintiffs, she denied the writ itself.

Mr. Wise is not deterred. He's earned himself a reputation of which he can be proud. "They used to bark at me when I walked into the courtroom," he once quipped. Now that's notoriety!

Dr. Jane Goodall has been an outspoken advocate for non-human primates, and made a video pleading the case of Hercules and Leo. On May 3, 2016, University of Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center, the company who owned Hercules and Leo announced that not only would they release the plaintiffs, but also 218 other chimps being held in laboratories.


Wise’s legal efforts are heroic and groundbreaking.

 But the movement to recognize primates as persons began as a whisper when Peter Singer founded the Great Ape Project whose “…aim was to grant some basic rights to the nonhuman great apes: life, liberty, and the prohibition of torture.” He unveiled his concept to a stunned and impressed audience at the 1993 Washington D.C. animal rights conference. Well, at least I was stunned and impressed.

Sometimes trying to understand the inner workings of the legal system is dry and intimidating. Unlocking the Cage helps us to understand the legal system, something animal activists must do if they are to ever advance the cause of legal rights for animals.