“Right now, the line between human and non-human animals is at an irrational place. If you’re a human, you have rights; if you’re not, you don’t. We’re saying that’s wrong.”
Is there in fact a fundamental difference between human and non-human? Certainly there is in the eyes of the law. It is through those eyes that Unlocking the Cage looks at the question. The film follows animal rights attorney Steven Wise and his legal team in his attempt to have a chimpanzee legally recognized as a “person”. He does so by seeking writs of habeas corpus for four chimps in New York state. Habeas corpus is usually used to obtain release for people unlawfully imprisoned. The fact that courts were willing to consider the application was a small victory in itself.
That may seem ludicrous at first. After all, animals are not people. However, the law does recognize corporations as “persons”, so is it really that much different? The law distinguishes between “person” and “thing”. It should be noted that, in past times, women, children, and slaves have all been treated in the law as things rather than persons. Since the concept of personhood can change, is it perhaps time to apply it to some animals?
Wise’s focus in this film is on chimpanzees, although he also looks towards efforts involving cetaceans and elephants. All of these animals, based on scientific evidence, have cognitive abilities that should be considered as intelligences. They have communal structures and bonds. Apes and cetaceans may well have language capabilities. Should those gifts be considered worthy of rights similar to what humans are granted automatically?
But why seek rights? There are animal protection laws, but they aren’t really effective. IN the search for the perfect clients, Steve and his team visit various places that have captive chimps, including academic research facilities. They are not in violation of the laws, but they are obviously not always happy settings. If, Wise’s reasoning goes, they were granted personhood, different standards would be applied.
The last third of the film is set within courtrooms as Wise makes his legal case and responds to questions from the court about where all this could lead. It is this part of the film I found most interesting. It is at once personal and theoretical. The arguments are well reasoned and challenging to the way we often see the divide between human and animal.
The very act of asking if a chimpanzee is a person raises the question of what it means to be a person. That is a status that we seem to take for granted. It conveys that the Declaration of Independence describes as “endowed by our Creator”. I’m not sure I buy the argument that a chimp or porpoise is entitled to those same rights, but the questions raised in this film do give us new insights into how we should be relating to the other beings that share this realm of creation with us.