How does a thing become a person? In December 2013 attorney Steven Wise showed the world how, with a little legal jujitsu, an animal can transition from a thing without rights to a person with legal protections. He filed the first-ever lawsuits demanding limited personhood rights for animals, on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York State.
Steve has spent more than thirty years developing his strategy for animal personhood. After starting his career as a criminal defense lawyer, he was inspired by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation to dedicate himself to justice for animals. He helped pioneer the study of animal rights law, in the 1980s, and he was the first person to teach it at Harvard Law School, in 2000. Steve began developing his animal personhood strategy after struggling with ineffective welfare laws and regulations that do not keep animals out of abusive environments. Unlike welfare statutes, legal personhood would give animals irrevocable protections that recognize the animals’ critical needs to live in the wild and to not be owned or abused.
Our films, such as Don't Look Back with Bob Dylan and The War Room on Clinton’s first presidential campaign, are known for following exceptionally talented and passionate people who have devoted their lives to a particular pursuit. For the past four years, we have watched Steve pursue his lifelong dream to giving animals legal rights. We’ve seen the countless hurdles he’s faced, such as losing his first two chimpanzee plaintiffs, and have been there with him for moments that have moved us in ways we had not anticipated, like when Kanzi the bonobo spoke to us though his lexicon board.
Steve is determined to change the legal system, and his optimism and perseverance may very well do it. Already Steve’s lawsuits have brought animal personhood to the forefront of the conversation surrounding our society’s relationship with animals. The science is on his side and our culture is shifting. We believe that years from now, Steve’s lawsuits will be seen as a landmark moment that changed the course of the animal rights movement. Looking to the future, Steve describes his work, “Our lawsuits are not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but they are the end of the beginning.”
Our goal is that Unlocking the Cage will ultimately inspire people to think differently about animals and why they deserve protection. During the making of this film we visited many wonderful sanctuaries begun by people who have dedicated their lives to rescuing chimpanzees and bonobos. We hope that the film can be used to support these primates and that ultimately our chimpanzee subjects will find a final home there with other chimpanzees.