Unlocking the Cage


Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker


Frazer Pennebaker and Rosadel Varela


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Director Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Producer Frazer Pennebaker and Rosadel Varela



Unlocking the Cage follows attorney Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project as they plan to change the course of history and our society’s relationship with animals. The team has developed a legal strategy to transform highly cognitive animals, such as chimpanzees, from legal things to legal persons who could only then be protected in a court of law.

In December 2013, after 30 years of developing his arguments, renowned animal rights attorney Steve Wise filed a series of unprecedented lawsuits that are changing the course of history. The lawsuits filed on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York State are an attempt to break through the legal wall that currently separates animals from humans, by demanding personhood rights for the chimpanzees that will transform them from legal things to legal persons. Unlocking the Cage follows Steve and his team the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on their journey from assembling their cases to arguing them in courtrooms around New York.

The film joins Steve and the NhRP as they begin building the type of lawsuit they seek to file: a writ of habeas corpus in a common law court. Going back in time to famous uses of habeas corpus, Steve explains how the groundbreaking Somerset Case in England was used to transform a black slave from a legal thing to a legal person.

The film accompanies Steve as he finds his plaintiffs -- captive chimpanzees in New York State -- and then travels to various chimpanzee sanctuaries around the country to find a new home for the animals. After facing many hurdles, including the deaths of the original chimpanzee plaintiffs, Steve and the NhRP file three lawsuits on behalf of four chimps, including two that are used in biomedical research at Stony Brook University.

The lawsuits are met with a media frenzy, and the NhRP is surprised by the support they receive from the public. Soon after, the December cases are directed to the New York Appellate Courts, and Steve spends a year preparing for the appellate hearings by putting his arguments to the test with legal experts and animal behaviorists. The film then shows Steve making his arguments in front of the NY Appellate judges. Later Unlocking the Cage captures the extraordinary moment when the Stony Brook case is reopened in NYC’s Supreme Court, and Steve argues against New York State’s attorney general and before a judge who raises the question, “Isn’t it incumbent on judiciaries to at least consider whether a class of beings may be granted a right?”

While the film shows the many steps and challenges faced by Steve and his team, it also captures a monumental shift in our culture as the media and public show increasing receptiveness to Steve’s cases. From Steve’s speech at the 2015 TED Talks Conference to his press tour around the world, the film shows one person’s quest for change as our society begins to change itself.

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