Review: Unlocking the Cage (2016)

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Steven and an ape (Source)

Not too long ago I thought that animals didn’t deserve to be abused, but that was about as far as it went. What constituted a good and fair life? I had no idea. What made animals inferior to us in the first place? I sort of just borrowed arguments from wherever. I am now slowly coming to realise that they are far more intelligent and emotionally complex than I ever gave them credit for, and that regardless of their qualities in comparison with humans animals are fellow inhabitants of the earth and deserve autonomy and freedom in their own right.

This documentary follows lawyer Steven Wise and his team who set out to achieve legal recognition of personhood for several apes in New York in order to rescue them from inhumane treatment. Steven started off as a ‘regular’ lawyer before discovering his passion for defending the rights of animals. I had always admired people who worked with/for animals, but I used to think it was a luxury we could only afford to spend our time and money on when we’d sorted humans first, but Wise said something that struck a chord with me; that (speaking for developed countries at least) animals are the only group of beings that are tortured, killed and abused which the law often does nothing to prevent. It made me think about all the animals slaughtered for food, the ones kept in cages in zoos far from their natural habitats, ones that are forced to perform in shows etc. You can pretty much do what you want to most types of animals and there is little or no recourse.

We hear the stories of a handful of apes- all former performers, subjects of medical/scientific/cosmetic testing, and even ‘pets’ of loving owners who couldn’t see past their own needs to the needs of these apes who thrive independently in the wild with their own kind. We see the conditions they are kept in, and their obvious unhappiness. In the course of trying to find individuals to represent, Steven and his team find out several times that apes that they have chosen have died in captivity before the team is ready to take the case to court, which really hammers home why they needed urgent intervention in the first place.

Anyway, on to the hopeful news. The team manage to achieve legal personhood for a couple of apes which allows them to demand that they are released from confinement and live life in a sanctuary which respects their need to roam free in a situation as close to the wild as possible. These cases should make it easier to achieve a proper quality of life that takes into account the rights of the animal before the desires of any human in other circumstances with other species.

Two things I really loved about this documentary: no. 1- Their default way to describe animals was ‘non-human persons’. When you change the way you word things, you are changing the way you perceive them, and if you start to consider animals as persons everything changes. No. 2- The legal team could’ve gone down the route of trying to get the animal rights laws updated, but they decided to go down the harder route for the sake of future cases. By calling these apes people, you are not saying they should have the right to vote, but demanding that they receive the importance of say a child, who does not have the responsibilities of an adult, but is protected and valued all the same. Personhood will mean different things for each species, depending on what it means for them to have a full life and be properly protected.

Before I go on for years and years, basically I recommend you watch this even if you’re a little bit curious, because I was not expecting to get so much out of it but I did. If you’re in the UK it’s currently on iPlayer!

 

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