Filmmakers Documenting the Road to Legal Rights for Chimps Get Major Support

Award winning filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and his partner Chris Hegedus are getting major support for Unlocking the Cage, a documentary that will tell the story about lawyer Steve Wise and his groundbreaking efforts to crush the legal wall that separates humans and non-human animals.

At the end of last year Wise and his organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), made international headlines and history when they filed the first lawsuits in New York seeking legal personhood for four chimpanzees under the writ of habeas corpus.

Tommy, a 26-year-old chimpanzee living in isolation with only a television for company, was their first plaintiff. The next cases filed were for Kiko, a former victim of the entertainment industry, and then for Hercules and Leo, who are owned by the New Iberia Research Center.

The NhRP argued that they are entitled to the same fundamental rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity that we are automatically granted to as legal persons. Ultimately, they want to change the way the legal system sees animals as mere objects and property to recognizing them as complex, intelligent individuals who should be entitled to legal personhood.

The lawsuits filed on behalf of these chimps were the first of many the organization plans to bring on behalf of captive animals who have been scientifically proven to be self-aware, autonomous and capable of complex cognition, including four species of great apes, elephants and cetaceans.

Pennebaker and Hedegus have been chronicling the work Wise has been doing doing with the NhRP from the very beginning for Unlocking the Cage. The two have gotten big name support for their work from a number of people, including the Coen Brothers, Michael Moore and most recently Alec Baldwin, who spoke out encouraging people to help fund the project on Kickstarter.

Like Wise with his legal efforts, the filmmakers hope to help move the conversation about animal rights and the way we view nonhuman animals into the mainstream, writing on Kickstarter:

We hope that by exploring Steve’s lawsuit and illustrating the legal and ethical questions it raises, Unlocking the Cage will contribute to the evolving debate about our society’s relationship to animals and, more importantly, why we should protect them. We are very excited about this project. It’s a personal story of a man with an uncompromising need to change the system, a story that we want to tell from start to finish. Please join us and help make it happen.

Although the judges denied their arguments in the first cases filed, Wise and the NhRP have appealed and will be back in New York’s Appellate Courts this fall for a decision on personhood for the four chimpanzees they’ve been fighting for. Having exceeded their funding goal of $75,000 over the weekend, the two will be there to continue documenting what happens.

“We believe there’s a possibility of a legal revolution here,” Hegedus told Rolling Stone. “Win or lose, Steve’s lawsuit is pushing the conversation about how we view our relationship to animals and how to protect them.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe4 years ago

So many people think of animals as just 'things', it makes me sick!! Animals are smarter than some people I know!
I wish Steve Wise and his organization a lot of luck!!

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H4 years ago

I hope it works. It is certainly needed.

heather g.
heather g4 years ago

What a good cause and I hope their work and results snowball - gathering far more support for protecting many more animals from human abuse......

Donna F.
Donna F4 years ago


Angelika Kempter
Angelika Kempter4 years ago

thank you for sharing

Rehana VN
Rehana V4 years ago


SANJA l4 years ago


Marianne R.
Marianne R4 years ago

petition signed