Last Sunday afternoon, Jon Stewart arrived for Montclair Film Festival’s screening of “Unlocking the Cage” at Bellevue Theatre with wife Tracey and friends Stephen and Evie Colbert to shine a spotlight on an issue which is near and dear to his heart – compassionate and humane treatment of animals.
Addressing the audience, Stewart explained how, thanks to Tracey, the importance of animal rights has been a learning experience for him and his mind has been opened. Having purchased a 12-acre farm in NJ to harbor abused farm animals, and now about to partner with Farm Sanctuary, the Stewarts often get the question “how can you talk about animal rights when people don’t have their rights?” Tracey’s response is “can’t society do two nice things – by doing that it will elevate all of us”
“Unlocking the Cage” tells the story of animal rights lawyer Steven Wise who for 30 years has championed animal rights in the courts, and has recently filed multiple lawsuits attempting to change the legal status of chimps in captivity from a thing/animal with no rights to a “person” with legal protection to grant them freedom. Wise makes his case with affidavits from primatologists around the world affirming the high functioning cognitive abilities and self consciousness of chimpanzees and gorillas.
The sad stories of Tommy, Kiko, Merlin – chimps in captivity as pets in NY state – are difficult to watch.
And while some may find the idea attributing personhood to a chimp outrageous, Wise clearly differentiates the legal meaning of personhood from human being.
Whales, dolphins and elephants are also grouped as cognitively complex, however Wise’s strategy, as explained in the film, is to kick the door open on this issue, one species, one state at a time.
The documentary is a wild ride and begs the viewer to look at these sentient beings through a different lens, suggesting that they are worthy of respect and humane treatment.
After the screening, filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and attorney for the Nonhuman Rights Project Elizabeth Stein, spoke about making the documentary – and the court room drama depicted in the film. Pennebaker sat with me later discussing his work, saying that the making of this documentary was a “life-changing” experience. “Because of Steve’s work, animal rights is now taught at over 100 law schools in the country. It’s going to take a long time to make people change, but I think that in maybe 50 years, we won’t be eating meat.”
Steve Wise and Jane Goodall are on the board of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which, according to its website is “the only civil rights organization in the United States working to achieve actual LEGAL rights for members of species other than our own.” Kevin R. Schneider, Executive Director, was in the audience and told me years have been devoted to legal research and now there’s room for volunteers of all backgrounds to participate..”sharing the information on social media, grass-roots movements.”
If you missed this documentary, watch it on HBO, coming this July.