Paging Dr. Zaius: Unlocking the Cage ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 9, 2016)

In my 2011 review of the documentary Nenette (a profile of a beloved female orangutan who has resided in the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris since 1969), I wrote:

Humans are silly creatures, particularly with our compulsive need to anthropomorphize our animal friends. You see what just happened there? I had an uncontrollable compulsion to say, animal “friends”. How do I really know they’re my “friends”? […]

And, throughout the four decades since she was captured in her native Borneo and transplanted to the Jardin des Plantes, Nenette has watched the daily parade of silly creatures that point and gawk and endlessly pontificate about what she might be thinking. The director gives us lots of time to study Nenette’s (mostly impassive) reaction to all the fuss; because the camera stays on her (and to a lesser extent, her three fellow orangutans) for nearly the entire 70-minute running time of the film. The zoo visitors are largely heard, and not seen, save for their ephemeral reflections in the thick glass that separates the simians from the homosapiens. “She looks sad,” says one little girl. “I think she looks very depressed,” one woman opines; “Maybe she misses her husband?” wonders another.

I’m sure that anyone who has ever owned a pet would tell you that animals express “feelings” toward their owners…but how deep and meaningful are those feelings, really? Are we just projecting? For all we know, it’s simply predicated on the fact that we give them food on a regular basis. Are they really that “intelligent”? Can they conjugate a verb? Balance a checkbook? Do they understand philosophy? Has an orangutan ever grabbed you by the lapel through the cage bars, looked you straight in the eye, and said, “I don’t care how you do it…but please just bust me the fuck out of this goddam prison”?

Have I found the perfect real-life champion for that hypothetical orangutan. His name is Steven Wise, an animal-rights attorney. In their new film, Unlocking the Cage, husband-and-wife directing team Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (the latter most well-known for his 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back) follow Wise and associates around as they seek furry plaintiffs for an audacious lawsuit that aims to have chimpanzees declared “persons” (as opposed to “things”). The goal? To break them out of their goddam prisons. Well, humanoids call them “farms”, “shelters”, “sanctuaries”, etc. but you get the picture.

It goes without saying Wise and his team has a number of hurdles to overcome (aside from potentially getting laughed out of the courtroom). Hegedus and Pennebaker divide screen time between accompanying Wise and his associates on visits to various facilities to meet potential “clients” (some scenarios are heart-breaking-especially for animal lovers) and observing less glamorous aspects of legal work; like scouring through endless boxes of court papers and related minutiae, looking for precedents and fresh new angles.

The crux of Wise’s argument is a tough row to hoe; he feels that once he convinces a judge that a chimp is cognizant enough to be considered an autonomous being, than “it” (as well as elephants and cetaceans) should be granted person-hood, and enjoy all associated rights of Habeas Corpus (easier said than done). After all, as he points out, corporations are now “persons”…that once seemed like a far-fetched concept, didn’t it?

One argument you wish he would stop making is his unfortunate conflation with slavery; while it’s obvious he’s not being purposefully disingenuous, whenever he dares broach it, it gets the knee-jerk reaction you would expect from judges, opposing attorneys, news anchors, etc. At any rate, it made me cringe every time he went there, because you have to watch him patiently explain “What I meant was-” which doesn’t really help his cause.

Still, I did come away from the film impressed by Wise and his team’s passion and dedication to fighting for our furry friends. There’s a lot of food for thought here as well; the next time you go to the zoo you may be tempted to slip the orangutan a skeleton key.

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