Winner of the 2016 Zelda Penzel “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” award, Unlocking the Cage is a documentary which focuses on the background, the history, and the developments that prompted the first lawsuit in the country to establish the rights of nonhuman animals to be free from enslavement in research cages, in circuses, and in displays where owners reap profits for their entertainment. The lawsuit was set to establish the legal protection of nonhuman animals as sentient beings whose near human intelligence (in the film the first battle is to establish this right for chimpanzees), qualifies them to receive the right of personhood.
The lawsuit, filed by lawyer and nonhuman animal advocate Steven Wise, was configured after years of research into developments in the science of animal cognition, the study of non human rights legal arguments and animal rights activism against non human animals’ violence and abuse. During the film we see how Wise fashions a brilliant approach to uphold nonhuman animals as beings beyond mere property. He argues the efficacy of lifting them into the nonhuman civil rights arena. That arena recognizes that nonhuman animals are sentient and not chattel like inanimate sticks of furniture to be subjected to their owner’s mistreatment and will to power.
Based on an exhaustive accumulation of research, Wise and researchers acknowledge that nonhuman animals manifest intricate acumen and higher level cognitive skills like humans. With their incredible intelligence, they understand and are aware of their own individual identity, autonomy, and place in time. Like all living beings, as nonhuman sentients they are desirous to exercise their free will and be free from incarceration.
Unlocking the Cage by acclaimed filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker is an adventure story and race against time to save chimpanzees in captivity before they die. The film chronicles Wise’s innovative legal approach and follows him into court. We are engrossed as we watch the techniques he uses to make the case for nonhuman animals’ personhood.
Filmmakers highlight the depth of Wise’s prodigious efforts to establish the legal rights for his clients, seven chimps held in captivity in New York State. During the developing story of his search to locate and visit the chimps, Wise discovers that three of them have died. Wise posits in voice over commentary that incarcerated chimpanzees die young. The stakes are raised to rescue the four chimps that are still alive so that they might be placed in a primate sanctuary for the rest of their lives. There, they will be able to socialize and appreciate a future that is not as hopeless as it once appeared.
Wise, who is the President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, (NhRP), has carefully chosen his battleground. Hegedus and Pinnebaker delve into the rationale behind Wise and his teams’ attempts to spring Kiko, Tommy, Hercules, and Leo from their cages. Chimpanzees function uncannily close to humans in their socialization, their cognition, reasoning, and ability even to communicate with words via computer and sign language akin to a human who has lost their power of speech, (filmmakers show clips of this research). Wise reasons that once judges and eventually legislators (lawmaking is a lengthy process), understand the amount of research done on chimps that proves their consanguinity with humans, their empathy will be stirred. They will be able to identify with the cruel abuse of the chimpanzees’ treatment as slaves; they will recognize that their psychic, emotional, and physical oppression is monstrous.
Indeed, during the film, Hegedus and Pinnebaker identify through Wise’s commentary the complexity of what the startling research on chimps reveals: they make decisions; their reasoning and problem solving skills are extraordinary; they are emotionally and psychically intuitive; they are extremely social, loving beings. To deprive them of their freedom and isolate them is a brutality that they cannot sustain beyond their youth. Their behavior “living” in a cage becomes aggressive, abusive, and self-mutilating. They exhibit extreme stress, frustration, and sorrow.
Such behaviors indicate that they understand the significance of being locked up. They know that there is unending suffering in their tomorrows that they will have no choice but to endure unless they escape. They internalize the violence being done to them, shown in their self-abuse (banging their head against their cages, cutting themselves with objects, pulling out their hair, etc.). They recognize that it is their very ethos that is the reason why they are locked up. In a twisted irony, their imprisonment fosters an even more acute recognition of who they are: a throwaway being to be punished and abused because they “are alive.” Imprisoning these high order cognitive beings in cages is a profound demonstration of species degradation and loathsome preeminence.
Chimpanzees’ mortality rate in captivity is high. It is as if they will themselves to die. Death is a far better option; it ends their emotional suffering and depression about a future has no meaning except to be the plaything of their captors.
As Hegedus and Pinnebaker follow Wise on his journey preparing the lawsuit and the various steps it takes to approach the legality of his personhood arguments, we follow him as he becomes acquainted with the his clients: Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo. Underlying his visits to see the chimps is the whispered imperative that time is “of the essence.” During this process the filmmakers have allowed us to trust Wise and understand his humanity, his loving concern for sentient beings, his steadfast determination to take on an impossible challenge. Already, we have learned about Wise’s background and history and how Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation offered a revelation in perspective from which Wise never turned.
Hegedus and Pinnebaker familiarize us with the gut-wrenching status of Wise’s clients. Hercules and Leo are on loan to Stony Brook University from the New Iberia Research Facility in Louisiana, which holds captive over two hundred chimps for research. The objects of lab experiments, Hercules and Leo have lived most of their lives in cages. They have undergone countless procedures requiring anesthesia. At the end of the film, Stony Brook releases them back to the facility in Louisiana.
When Wise sees Tommy, he is in a concrete bottom, metal cage in a cold shed with a TV on for company. His companions (the owner at one point had five other chimps), are missing and presumably have died in captivity. We learn that Tommy has gone missing by the end of the film.
Kiko is famous for being “the karate chimp” and has been photographed with celebrities (Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Joel, etc.). He was purchased by owners in the hope that he would be in a for-profit movie. The arrangement fell through. Though not in a cage and more like a pet, Kiko does have a chain around his neck and is deaf from the abuse he received on a Tarzan movie.
Filmmakers briefly examine Wise’s long journey into the present. When he initially solidified his arguments for public consumption, he was a majority of one and suffered criticism, taunts, verbal abuse and vilification (filmmakers include video clips of TV appearances). He remained undaunted. Eventually his perseverance yields fruit and we conclude as he does that he is going to succeed, if not today, then sooner than his detractors think. As he continues to marshal the evidence and provide unshakable arguments, his case will become airtight, irresistible, especially as a groundswell of public opinion rides the currents of his noble cause.
The timeliness of rescuing these nonhuman animals is vital and creates suspense which filmmakers capture in their editing and presentation following Wise into the courtoom. The case is a first. What occurs is heartbreaking.
Unlocking the Cage is cinema verite at its finest. We hope for these chimpanzees, but we realize that the likelihood of their being rescued and arriving at Save the Chimps, the beautiful sanctuary for chimpanzees in Florida decreases as the judge backtracks on an earlier ruling. What was a hopeful step in the right direction for establishing that chimpanzees are sentient beings with legal personhood becomes stalemated…for now.
This engrossing, must-see film is worthy of its awards. It is currently screening in theaters in the U.S., Canada, and in London (click here for information). It will be broadcast on HBO in early 2017.