“We may be the only lawyers on earth whose clients are all innocent,” says pioneering animal rights lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Right Project (NhRP). His 30-year struggle’s recent groundbreaking successes are chronicled by legendary filmmaker team Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker in their riveting new documentary, “Unlocking the Cage,” which plays like a legal thriller (with comic relief).
Frustrated by the profound limits of poorly enforced animal welfare laws and the designation of all nonhuman animals, regardless of their level of cognitive complexity, as things (as slaves and all women once were), and therefore without any legal rights, Steve and his team devised a remarkable strategy. With affidavits from scientists and primatologists, NhRP began to build a case that animals such as great apes, elephants and cetaceans (whales, dolphins) have “the capacity for fundamental personhood rights (such as bodily liberty) that would protect them from physical abuse.”
Wise, based in Coral Springs, FL, located four plaintiffs/chimpanzees (in a Niagra Falls storefront, an upstate garage and a research lab at SUNY Stony Brook). In December 2013, using the writ of habeas corpus, he filed three lawsuits in New York State, demanding limited personhood rights for Kiko, Tommy, Hercules and Leo. The NhRP urged the courts to release the four to Save the Chimps, an animal sanctuary in Florida, created by NASA.
The 2014 decisions of the courts in Rochester and Albany varied widely, but denied personhood for the chimps. During an appearance on the Colbert Report, the host, always absurdity-aware, suggested to Wise that if Tommy wanted rights as a person, “he should form his own corporation.”
But in New York, Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe, presiding over Hercules and Leo’s case, signaled a seismic cultural shift, questioning, “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?”
On July 30, 2015, Jaffe ruled that personhood for nonhuman animals was a possibility and Stony Brook announced that it would no longer use Hercules and Leo in research. The slow work to have them retired to Save the Chimps was immediately begun by the NhRP.
Wise, quantifying the progress that has been made in achieving rights for nonhuman animals, called Jaffe’s ruling “about the end of the beginning” of the battle.
(There’s no denying that the culture’s consciousness is being raised. I recently saw a commercial–for a company, Petco, that might have to change its name–selling food “to help them thrive,” which referred to dogs and cats both as pets and companions in the same 30-second spot.)
“Unlocking the Cage” will open on Wednesday, May 25 at Film Forum. Chris Hegedus, D A Pennebaker and Steven Wise will be in person at the 7:00 pm shows on Wednesday, May 25, Thursday, May 26, Friday, May 27 and at the 4:40 pm show on Saturday, May 28.