Storyville: Unlocking the Cage – are animals people too?

David Butcher discovers the extraordinary legal battle aiming to grant sweeping new rights for animals in captivity

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Even if you’ve never seen the film, you probably know the clip. A young Bob Dylan stands in a back alley holding a stack of white cards with words scrawled on them. As Subterranean Homesick Blues plays, he casually peels off the lyric cards one by one and tosses them on the ground.

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The scene from his concert tour film Don’t Look Back has been parodied many times since – it was arguably the first sort-of music video. And incredibly the man who filmed it, DA Pennebaker, is still making documentaries today at the age of 90.

His latest airs in BBC4’s Storyville strand tonight and it’s terrific, the kind of film that delves into your preconceptions and gives them a good kicking.

Called Unlocking the Cage, it was made by Pennebaker and his wife Chris Hegedus, and follows the work of a maverick American animal rights lawyer called Steven Wise and his campaign group, the Non-Human Rights Project.

Wise is attempting something radical: to get the concept of personhood extended to a chimpanzee. It’s not as daft, legally, as it might sound: corporations, ships and even rivers have in various places been considered persons for legal purposes.

If Wise can persuade a New York court to consider granting a writ of habeas corpus to a caged chimpanzee he will, as he puts it, “kick the first door open” towards wider animal rights.

Most of us come to a programme like this with firm feelings either way about animal rights, but Wise’s arguments are hard to dismiss.

Take this quote: “I don’t believe there’s something extraordinarily exceptional about every human being,” he says, “That they have something that allows them to be the masters of the world and all non-human animals are the slaves of the world.”

Hearing that, my first thought was, well yes, but animals don’t cook or tell jokes or make documentary films or grant writs of habeas corpus – those are some of the things unique to humans, that make us, in his word, exceptional.

But Wise isn’t arguing that animals such as chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins are the same as humans; he’s saying that research shows these species are cognitively complex, have their own cultures, are self-conscious and self-determining, understand that they are individuals and so on. And all that, in his view, means they deserve rights.

Watching the course of Wise’s long legal crusade unfold on screen is gripping. He is an amazingly persuasive speaker, and a shrewd courtroom performer, albeit you can sometimes hear the tension in his voice as he answers questions from a coldly sceptical panel of judges who can’t quite believe what he’s asking of them.

Wise points out that legally, every non-human animal is seen as a thing with no rights. Historically, women children and slaves were for long periods also seen for some purposes as things rather than persons. We have moved on in those cases, and Wise believes we will do the same for animals – in time.

If that happens, Wise may come to be seen as a latter-day William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King figure. Before you judge for yourself whether you think that seems likely, watch this film.

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Storyville: Unlocking the Cage airs at 9pm Wednesday 22 June on BBC4