Unlocking the Cage a documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker


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“They used to bark at me when I walked into the courtroom” says renowned animal rights attorney Steven Wise. After 30 years of struggling with ineffective welfare laws and inadequate government regulations, Steve and his legal team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), have found a new way to protect animals. They are making history by filing the first lawsuits that seek to transform an animal from a thing with no rights to a person with legal protections.

Unlocking the Cage documents Steve’s unprecedented challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans.  Steve argues that based on scientific evidence, cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and elephants have the capacity for fundamental personhood rights (such as bodily liberty) that would protect them from physical abuse.


In December 2013, Steve and his legal team, using writs of habeus corpus (used to free humans from unlawful imprisonment), filed lawsuits demanding limited personhood rights for four chimpanzees in New York. The lower court judges were sufficiently impressed with Steve’s legal arguments to hold oral hearings and then direct the lawsuits up to the Appellate Courts for a decision on animal personhood. The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, and other international media reported on the unusual cases.

Although we have captured the dramatic events leading up to this historic moment, the story is not over.  We need to be there for Steve’s ultimate challenge when he argues his case in the appellate courts this fall. Nine scientists from around the world provided affidavits on chimpanzee behavior that are crucial to the case. We want to include their research. Finally, we want to hear the owners’ side of the story, and if the chimpanzees are declared legal persons, see them given a new life at sanctuaries.

Unlocking the Cage will raise significant questions about the complex legal interpretation of personhood but, more importantly, we hope that the film will contribute to the evolving debate about our society’s relationship to animals, why it is critical to protect them and how we can do it. Steve’s life is dedicated to justice for animals, and we believe that like our films The War Room and Startup.com—stories about passionate people who take risks to accomplish lifelong goals—Unlocking the Cage will capture a pivotal moment in history.

Unlocking the Cage is produced by Frazer Pennebaker and Rosadel Varela.