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Unlocking The Cage review

Unlocking the Cage
Unlocking the Cage follows a lawyer’s attempt to move the legal line between animals and humans

Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (“The War Room”) have covered some strange stories but the one in Unlocking the Cage may be the strangest so far.

Steven Wise is described as an animal rights lawyer. That is a significant understatement. He is not only fighting for increased rights for animals, he is making the legal case for moving, or erasing, the line between animals and humans. Once the courts agree that animals must be treated as humans, the rest is easy.

OK, not necessarily easy, but at least possible. The keys points in this blessedly brief essay on human rights law are cognition and personhood. The cognition line argues that higher level animals such as primates, elephants, whales and dolphins have been proven to have cognition with regard to past, present and future, autonomy, self-knowledge, reasoning and other traits previously ascribed only to humans. It is this cognition that entitles them to the same basic rights as humans.

The personhood line argues that throughout legal history many nonhuman entities have been granted legal rights and standing as persons. Ships, corporations and even a river have, at one time or another, been considered people. So why not animals?

At stake is not the right to use human restrooms or sit at the front of the bus. The key tactic invented by Wise is the granting of autonomy. As humans we readily understand that imprisonment is a punishment because it denies the basic human need for autonomy, the freedom to do what we want. Therefore, the imprisonment of higher functioning animals, the denial of their autonomy, is illegal punishment.

Has it worked? Well, this movie shows a few supreme court judges being driven to the brink of madness. It also paved the way for a couple of pretty well treated chimps imprisoned at Stony Brook State University of New York to be released into a primate preserve.


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