The lawyer fighting for animal rights in ‘Unlocking the Cage’ asks: ‘What kind of being are you?’

Steven Wise, seen here at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is the subject of the animal rights documentary "Unlocking the Cage."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Is an animal’s life always worth less than a human’s life?

This is the question that permeated public consciousness last month, when a western lowland gorilla was shot and killed by Cincinnati Zoo workers after a young boy fell into the animal’s enclosure. Harambe, the 17-year-old gorilla, was a member of a critically endangered species. He was born into captivity. He died because of human error.

What rights did he have?

None. Because under the law, he was a thing -- not a person. And that’s something that Steven Wise, the lawyer who heads the Nonhuman Rights Project, wants to change. The 64-year-old Harvard lecturer is the subject of the new documentary “Unlocking the Cage,” which follows his years-long quest to give autonomy to animals who have none.

As you might imagine, it’s been a bumpy road.

“When I started in 1980, the whole idea of animal rights was completely bizarre. People would literally talk about animal lovers as little old ladies with tennis shoes who would fill their house with cats,” said Wise, warming himself with a cup of coffee in a ski condo at the Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary premiered in January.


Today, we put our dogs up in posh pooch hotels when we leave town and devote entire Instagram accounts to them. But that doesn’t mean we consider them to be people.

To be clear, Wise doesn’t either. He’s fighting on behalf of those species that science has deemed to be the most intelligent: great apes, elephants, whales and dolphins. Wise’s first plaintiffs have been chimpanzees -- some captive in depressing roadside zoos, others confined to university research facilities. Armed with a bevy of research from animal experts, Wise has walked into a handful of courtrooms to argue that these chimps deserve to be relocated to a sanctuary in Florida. He has yet to win.

“We want to change the question from ‘What species are you?’ to ‘What kind of being are you?’” he explained. “Not ‘If you’re a human you have rights. If you’re not, you don’t.’ No one can make a rational argument that you draw the line at that place. I don’t know where you draw the line. But where it’s drawn now is completely arbitrary, and it’s not scientifically valid.”

Husband-and-wife filmmaking team D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus first heard about Wise’s mission nearly five years ago. Their dog had just died, and making a movie about animals felt somehow spiritually right.

“His argument made perfect sense to me,” said Pennebaker, 90, known for documentaries like 1967’s “Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back” and 1993’s “The War Room.” “That ape that was shot in the zoo the other day? If he was a person, he wouldn’t have been shot. And humans who are crazy or have no brains at all are still protected by the law.”

Wise, who lives with his wife and three children in Florida, is not, by his own admission, a huge animal lover. He has a dog named Yogi that he cares for very much, but there are other animals he’s “really scared of or [doesn’t] want to be around.” Like that alligator who dragged a toddler to his death at a hotel near Disney World earlier this month.


“When I look into the eyes of an alligator, I don’t get anything except I’m lunch,” said Wise. “When I look at them, I get a very different feeling than I do looking at a chimp -- one that tells me we’re very far apart from each other.”

Which isn’t to say that Wise wouldn’t try to protect an alligator. The way he sees it, we treat animals like slaves, and that’s not moral or just. It’s a line of thinking that began almost four decades ago, when he first read “Animal Liberation” by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. He realized how many billions of animals populate the planet, and how poorly so many are treated. No human being, he realized, needed him as much as they did.

Wise had never really considered the treatment of animals before the book came across his desk. When he was 12, he visited a farmers market and saw a bunch of animals crammed together, which bothered him. He wrote to his state representative to complain. But he had otherwise never campaigned on behalf of different species. After he got his law degree, he did criminal defense and personal injury work.

But Singer’s book shifted something in him. He became a vegetarian, and on a dime, he changed the focus of his practice to dangerous dog law. In Massachusetts, where he lived at the time, dogs who were deemed to have vicious dispositions were being killed. Wise challenged the law and saved about 150 dogs. But eventually, that started to feel like small potatoes.

“I thought I wanted to begin changing the legal structure itself, not operating within the legal structure, because it was so biased,” said Wise, who has taught animals rights law at Harvard. “It was like representing a black slave in the early 1800s: Everything was stacked against them, and they’re property. Animals are in the exact same position that black slaves were before the Civil War.”

That’s an argument that bothers Wise’s critics, who don’t think slaves should be analogous to, say, gorillas.

“We’re not comparing the animals to blacks,” said Wise. “The common law always looks back to what’s happened before and tries to build on it. We’re the first ones to argue on behalf of non-human animals, so the only cases that we can analogize to are ones that involve human beings.”

In any case, Wise is used to being scoffed at. During the years the filmmakers spent documenting him for “Cage” -- which will premiere on HBO early next year -- Hegedus surmised that his drive has its roots in the “frustration of years of being laughed at and barked at.” And now, in the wake of “Food, Inc.” and “Blackfish” -- in an era in which millions of adorable animal YouTube clips are shared daily -- his time may have finally come.

“When people don’t agree with me, I just feel sorry for them that they don’t understand yet what’s right,” Wise said. “I just keep pushing. I don’t internalize at all. We’re on a tide of history. Now we look at judges in the antebellum North and South who kept saying blacks don’t have any rights as jerks. Are you going to be the judges who tried to stop non-human animals from being un-enslaved? It might not be too early to start thinking about what your place in history is going to be.”

Twitter: @AmyKinLA