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Unlocking the Cage: Pursuit of personhood rights for chimpanzees in captivity

One of the initial plaintiffs, Merlin, from the roadside Bailiwick Ranch and Discovery Zoo, died in captivity.
One of the initial plaintiffs, Merlin, from the roadside Bailiwick Ranch and Discovery Zoo, died in captivity.
Photo courtesy of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, used with permission

In 1859, Charles Darwin revolutionized science with the publication of his book On the Origin of Species. One of the most important concepts of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is the common descent of humans and ape.

Darwin’s fossil evidence and comparative anatomy studies concluded that apes (including gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees) shared a common ancestor. Through genome analysis, modern science confirms that chimpanzees are our closest genetic relative and share 98% of DNA with humans.

Primatologists and ethologists Dian Fossey (Gorilla), Birutė Galdikas (Orangutan), Takayoshi Kano (Bonobo), and Jane Goodall (Chimpanzee) have bestowed enormous contributions from their studies on these sentient beings in natural habitats. Nowadays, we are much more aware of the capability of animals and understand animals more in terms of behavior and cognition (memory, language, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making).

Logically, the next step is the legal recognition of civil liberties for chimpanzees in captivity. Led by Steven Wise, President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, this revolutionary legal pursuit of justice and equality is underway in New York.

Steven Wise, having practiced animal protection law for 30 years and instructed Animal Rights Jurisprudence and Animal Rights Law at the top law schools in America, is pursuing legal personhood through the common law writ of habeas corpus for captive chimpanzees in New York. The four chimpanzee plaintiffs in the three separate cases include Tommy, Kiko, and Hercules and Leo.

At the rear of a used trailer lot in Gloversville, a small cement cage in a shed holds Tommy captive. Kiko, The Karate Chimp, is caged on private property in Niagara Falls. Laboratory research chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, are caged at Stony Brook University.

Other plaintiffs, like Kiko’s companion, Charlie, died in captivity. Chimpanzee pair, Merlin and Reba, from the roadside Bailiwick Ranch and Discovery Zoo also died in captivity.

Acclaimed documentary filmmakers, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus of Pennebaker Hegedus Films, are in the midst of documenting Wise’s legal quest in their new film, Unlocking the Cage. “We’ve been following Steve for the past two years,” says Chris Hegedus. “It’s been an amazing journey.”

Unlocking the Cage is unique in it’s artistic approach as well as its subject. From Wise’s search around the United States to find the most suitable plaintiffs and the most suitable state statutes, Pennebaker and Hegedus have met the chimpanzee plaintiffs, laboratory researchers, chimpanzee owners, and attended many legal consultations.

Like Wise’s lawsuit, Unlocking the Cage, is bound to move the animal rights conversation and agenda to it’s highest peak yet. The breadth of the film encompasses our culture, animal cognition, the bonding between human and animal, and how our attitude towards animals is changing.

“This film will be different from many others because we've started at the beginning. You see why and how Steve was driven to do what he does. It's as much his story as one about animals,” Pennebaker says. “You don't always get to see that in films about this issue, because most of them go back to tell you how everything started rather than show it to you as it happens.”

Due to the need to begin filming immediately, Unlocking the Cage began without funding. The Kickstarter campaign for funding Unlocking the Cage is now underway and will only be funded if $75,000 is pledged by Friday, May 23 2014.

Meanwhile, Pennebaker and Hegedus are in the process of editing and doing archival research. With the three separate cases under appeal in different appellate courts, it is difficult to determine the release date of Unlocking the Cage.

“We don’t know how it’s going to end,” Hegedus says of the lawsuits and the film. What is certain is, as Chris says of the case that has received a huge amount of visibility in the United States and around the world, “Steve is making a path in the world.”

“Animals will become more equal to us as creatures of the earth and eventually we might be able to communicate with them,” Pennebaker believes. “As we learn more about them, we'll learn more about life itself. I see that coming and this, what people like Steve are doing, is the first wave.”

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