Unlocking the Cage

cage-portraitUnlocking the Cage is a documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A.Pennebaker, film-makers known best for Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the U.K., and The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. It follows the advocate Steven Wise as he attempts to make non-human animals, specifically chimpanzees, ‘visible’ to the U.S. courts: that is, to have them recognized as legal persons with a right to freedom. It’s a sort of court drama, then. An early scene shows Steven Wise passing under the giant architectural lettering ROBERT ABRAMS BUILDING FOR LAW AND JUSTICE. Law and justice: a giant institution and the giant ideal fruit of it, and, attempting to get the one to yield the other, this small (but not slight) David-figure, Steven Wise.

The law-question is certainly a momentous and fascinating one: for more on this aspect of Wise’s project, see an earlier VERO post, ‘Let my people go! Animals and the Law’ (linked in the notes below). But the film humanizes it as a sort of quest or modern pilgrimage, in which the court appearances are only the brief though cumulative crises. In between is the journeying: on freeways and country tracks, to and from airports, up and down courtroom stairs, along pavements and corridors, often with weighty boxes of documentation, like the “great burden” of sin that John Bunyan has his pilgrim carry.

These journeys join up the elements of Wise’s campaign: the courts and the chimpanzees. One set of chimpanzees he has to search out at their various lock-ups: a remote trailer-park, a shabby zoo, a home menagerie (“kind of creepy”), a smart and secretive university research lab. “We’re all ready to cry”, Wise says after one of theseMerlin.jpg excursions. And it’s not just a dismal present and uncertain future weighing on these animals: they’re adults, aging nearly as slowly as humans do, and they drag behind them strange and shocking histories of misuse, mainly as ‘entertainment’. Some die in the course of the film (“Captivity is killing these guys”). The other set of chimpanzees is found in dedicated sanctuaries, enjoying what can be afforded to them in America of freedom, and it’s this sort of freedom that Wise claims as a right in law for the imprisoned ones. Corresponding to these different situations, and responsible for them, there’s a range of distinctive human primate types, from shifty deal-makers to pioneering ethologists.

The third element in Wise’s journeying is the courts, to which these clips of heaven and hell are to be brought for consideration. The judges are attentive, quizzical, suspicious of a proposition so new to the law. Wise tells them it isn’t new: it’s there, implicit in the hundreds-of-years old writ of habeas corpus, a writ which orders the detainer to ‘produce the body’ of the detainee in court and justify the detention. At any rate it certainly isn’t new for Wise himself. As he treads the pavement towards yet another courtroom, and a colleague asks him what he’s thinking about, he says, “stuff I’ve been thinking about for thirty years”.

Those thirty years show in Wise’s face not as professional polish (even his suit and tie never make him look unhomely), but as a history of moral and intellectual activity: pocked stevewise-tekoand striated, but full of indefeasible humour and goodwill – morally a profoundly reassuring face. He’s likewise plain-speaking and unrhetorical both in court and outside it, as ready to summarize a case in the short minutes allowed by a judge, as to field challenges in a news studio, or to steer a joke genially his way on a TV comedy show.

Yes, all his “petitioners” are chimpanzees, but this is only the start of the campaign: “There’s going to be a lot of battles in the war. But it’s time to begin.” And at this stage, Wise’s key concept is autonomy: the capacity to know and direct one’s own life, a capacity which the writ of habeas corpus is especially fitted to address. This is a capacity which one might argue all animals possess in some form as their natural birthright (except perhaps ants and social bees), and Wise himself makes no exclusions. But chimpanzees show it with special clarity, and in fact Wise’s case is backed by affidavits on the subject provided by renowned primatologists: that’s some of what’s in the boxes.

In the film, we see aspects of that expert evidence, notably the easy communications between chimpanzees and their human students or carers. If these seem artificial (as indeed they must be), there’s the unprompted and astonishing sight of Koko the gorilla turning away from his favourite video, plainly moved and unable to watch a painful scene in which a mother says goodbye to her child at a railway station. The gorilla compassionates the humans. Am I dreaming, or is this a glimpse of a squandered moral kingdom? As the poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, and it is this one.”

Back in Wise’s untidy office, the book-spines indicate the ethical background to his quest: Free Men All, Lincoln, The Dred Scott Case, Slave Nation. His key precedent for the use he means to make of habeas corpus is the decision of Lord Justice Mansfield, in London in 1772, on just such a writ served on behalf of the slave James Somerset. Mansfield’s ruling fixed, from then on, the illegality of slavery in England. But this ‘dreaded comparison’ (the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s short book about animal and human slaveries) is not liked by the judges when Wise uses it: “move in a different direction”, Justice Karen Peters warningly advises him. This same advice to keep off the slavery theme was given Wise during a BBC radio discussion, on which occasion he imperturbably replied, “My people were enslaved by Pharaoh a long time ago, and I understand it.” It’s a conclusive answer, but not one that can be used to correct judges, many of whom are evidently still uneasy about Darwin’s theory.

In fact this film shows how superstitiously entrenched speciesism is in the U.S. courts, as elsewhere. New York’s assistant attorney-general, whom Wise faces as opposing counsel in the final court scene, really has nothing but that to make his argument out of: the chimpanzees are a “different species”; to dignify them with the rights attaching to personhood would mean a “diminishment of those rights”; it would mean “opening the possible floodgates”, and “could affect our society in a negative way.” Fortunately this is not quite enough for Justice Barbara Jaffe. Without recounting this last critical event in the story as filmed, I can say at least that it marks, as Steven Wise says, “the end of the beginning”. And in the final scene, where an elephant, with a history of hardship in its eye and its gait, is directed by a ‘master’ to give rides to American families, there is Steven Wise, like any tourist, watching and taking photographic evidence. The elephants come next.

When the credits roll onto the screen, and lists of the non-human primates and of the judges pass by among the rest, the voice of Bob Dylan (earliest subject of a Hegedus and Pennebaker film) is allowed to give, to all that has been shown in the film, for the first time an outlet in impassioned eloquence:

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east;
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

 

 

Notes and references:

Steven Wise discussed the legal implications of his campaign on the BBC Radio 4 programme Unreliable Evidence, as reported in the VERO blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/let-my-people-go-animals-and-the-law/  All the details of Steven Wise’s Nonhuman Rights Project can be found at http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/

Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animals Slavery was published in the U.K. by Heretic Books in 1988.

The quotation from Paul Eluard is translated thus and used by Patrick White as the epigraph to his 1966 novel The Solid Mandala. That’s the only form in which I know it, but I gather that a more accurate if less forceful translation of Eluard’s words would be “There is certainly another world, but it’s within this one.”

A trailer and other details for Unlocking the Cage can be found at https://www.unlockingthecagethefilm.com/   There will be a showing of the film, sponsored by VERO, in the University during the coming Trinity term: see VERO’s facebook page nearer the time, at https://www.facebook.com/Voice-for-Ethical-Research-at-Oxford-VERO-734691993224030/

Let My People Go! Animals and the Law

Last week, BBC Radio 4’s legal affairs programme Unreliable Evidence, in its 47th episode, finally got round to the non-human animals. Given the numbers of these animals, vastly greater than the human population, and their vulnerability (a key concept in law) to cruel and fatal interferences by humans, this figure 47 is itself suggestive of the law’s complacent speciesism. However, the presenter, Clive Anderson, conceded at the start that animals “suffer in much the same way as we do”, and he invited four lawyers practising in this area to say whether the law was doing enough to recognize and address this fact.

Two of the lawyers act for organisations that promote field sports, farming, and other varieties of animal-use (the Countryside Alliance and the Country Land and Business Association). Naturally enough, then, they approve of the present law, based as it is on the principle that animals should be protected only from “unnecessary” suffering – that is, suffering which isn’t “proportionate to the purpose” to which humans are lawfully putting them (quotations from the Animal Welfare Act 2006). In such law, animals have no rights of their own; the question is only how absolute the rights of human beings over them shall be. “The idea that animals have a right to liberty”, said Jamie primate-psychology-brain-animal-experimentation-picture-1Foster, the lawyer from Countryside Alliance, “is fundamentally absurd”. Besides (he added, straying for his supporting evidence into Buddhist philosophy), “all life is suffering.”

The other two lawyers argued for a radical change in the law’s thinking: it should start conceding, to non-human animals, rights that are founded on their own interests, rather than simply reliefs from the more unreasonably demanding interests of humans. One of these two, Steven Wise, described the desired change for animals as a move from among “the things of the world” into their proper company among “the persons of the world”, and he is even now trying to achieve this change for chimpanzees, in the courts of the United States. His voice was coming to the programme by telephone from the U.S.A., and it had something of the feel of a voice from the future. In fact when Clive Anderson wound up the discussion by asking him whether we might really be going to see chimpanzees and other animals winning, through the courts, that ‘right to liberty’ which Foster had ridiculed on their behalf, Wise’s voice enthusiastically replied “It’ll come! It’ll come!”

Two of the four chimpanzees which Wise is at present representing in the courts are called Hercules and Leo. They ‘belong’ to the University of Louisiana, but have been on loan (for one does lend “things”) to Stony Brook University for research purposes. The “proportionate” suffering of Hercules and Leo in that institution has consisted, during a period of six years, in repeated operations to insert electrodes into their muscles in pursuit of anatomical knowledge about early human locomotion. More essentially their suffering has involved near-solitary confinement throughout these years, and it’s this imprisonment which Wise has been asking the New York Supreme Court to declare unlawful. (Incidentally, the chimpanzees have recently been moved out of the New York jurisdiction and back to incarceration at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, perhaps with a view to frustrating Wise’s case. His proposed destination for them is the Project Chimps sanctuary in Fannin County, Georgia.)

In statutory law, American or British, such imprisonment for non-humans is of course wholly permissible. They have no presumed right to liberty – rather the reverse, as Mr Foster confirms in the quoted comment. The claim for Hercules and Leo is therefore founded in so-called common law, whose terms of reference are much wider and more liberal. They do not only consist in a body of case-law – decisions and reasonings recorded in previous cases. They consist also in general principles of equity, derived from what the nineteenth-century American judge Lemuel Shaw summarized as reason, natural justice, and enlightened public policy, modified and adapted to the circumstances of all the particular cases which fall within it.” “Natural justice and enlightened public policy”: animals might well hope that their claims to liberty would not seem “absurd” in such contexts. And the crucial instrument of liberation in the common law is the writ of habeas corpus, by which a person being detained by private or public force, or others acting on his behalf, may petition the courts to declare the detention unlawful. (The phrase habeas corpus means ‘produce the body’ – i.e. the writ directs the captor to bring their prisoner into court, at least figuratively, and show reason for the situation.)

It is with a writ of habeas corpus, then, that Steven Wise is even now before the courts on behalf of Hercules and Leo. And his key supporting reference is the decision made at Westminster in 1772 by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in the case Somerset versus Stewart. Charles Stewart ‘owned’ a slave, James Somerset, whom he brought with him on a trip to England in 1771. Having made a break for freedom, Somerset was recaptured and chained up ready for return to Jamaica. But a writ of habeas corpus was issued on his behalf by a group of London citizens, and Lord Mansfield determined that Somerset’s slavery was “so odious” that the common law could not countenance it. Effectively he made slavery illegal in Britain on the grounds that it was morally objectionable, the very reason for which you or I might even then (we hope) have deplored it, and for which we certainly ought to do so now.

There was no precedent in law for Lord Mansfield’s decision; there was, indeed, a strong presumption against it, urgently represented to him by Stewart’s counsel in court. But as Steven Wise said to the Supreme Court of New York last year, speaking of Lord Mansfield and hoping to instil in the court something of that man’s independence and courage, “one of the reasons he’s such a great judge is that he understood that there’s a first time for everything.”

The writ of habeas corpus is the best hope for the unjustly imprisoned, and therefore pre-eminently for the slave. It must also then be the best hope for the non-human animal, because, so Wise re-iterated during the radio discussion, our relation to other animals at present is exactly a master-slave relation. Jamie Foster objected to this “constant use of the word slavery, on the curiously pre-Darwinian grounds that “it’s offensive to anyone who comes from any population that ever was enslaved to suggest it’s simply another version of the same thing.” He thereby illustrated the advocate’s maxim that you should never put a point to a witness which you don’t already know his or her answer to. Wise’s reply came back from America, “My people were enslaved by Pharaoh a long time ago, and I understand it.” 

It is a part of Steven Wise’s case in the American courts to show, through the testimony of stevewise-tekoexperts in chimpanzee mind and culture, that Hercules, Leo, and the others have what he calls ‘autonomy’, and it is upon this autonomy that he bases their title to legal personhood: “They are self-conscious,” he told the New York court; “they have a theory of mind. They can understand what others are thinking. They understand that they are individuals, that they existed yesterday, that they are going to exist tomorrow, that their lives mean something to them. They plan what their life is going to be like.” This sort of autonomy is not, of course, something that can be claimed for all other species of animal, although it very likely can be said of the elephants, orcas, and African parrots, who are next on Wise’s list of proposed clients. Therefore it’s true what his fellow animal-rights lawyer on the programme, David Thomas, pointed out: the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) which Wise has founded to promote and staff the legal campaign seems likely to help only a few animal species, if perhaps many individuals.

However, Steven Wise argued that although ‘autonomy’ was a sufficient condition for personhood in law of the sort he was seeking to establish, it was not a necessary condition: “We don’t know what other sufficient conditions may exist.” He hoped and expected the common law to proceed case by case, conceding rights to such fundamental interests as could be shown by science and reason to exist in any other species. On the NhRP web-site he again quotes Lord Mansfield: “The common law is a step-by-step process that, in Mansfield’s words, ceaselessly ‘works itself pure’. It rights the most egregious wrongs first. Then it turns to the harder questions.” Besides, once the breach in legal personhood is made, and lets in even one non-human species, or a single non-human animal, our collective assumptions about the human relation to other animals must be transformed. It’s indeed this fact which must explain the angry hostility and near-irrational alarm which the NhRP seems to evoke, in the courts and in such airings as the BBC discussion. We are seeing, in fact, a most interesting reprise of the sort of indignation which Charles Darwin’s science encountered about a century and a half ago. And that, I suppose, is because we’re at last beginning to appreciate what that science implies, morally and socially, and to act upon it.  Unlocking The Cage - Synopsis Image

But isn’t all this court-bothering “a very long-winded way of going about it?” asked the fourth of the lawyers, essentially putting that familiar objection ‘why not start somewhere else?’ (i.e. ‘Why not go away?’) And he added helpfully, “there are other ways of making things better for animals.” Good; then let’s get on with those other ways too, and meanwhile celebrate Steven Wise and his fellow-workers at the Nonhuman Rights Project for their heroic attempt upon the antiquated and ignorant human-freemasonry of the law. Certainly there’s a very long story ahead, but as Wise says in the documentary film Unlocking the Cage“It’s time to begin.”

 

References:

The episode of Unreliable Evidence can be heard again at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07qbcbq.

The quotation from Judge Shaw is from Steven Wise, Rattling the Cage, Profile Books 2000 (p.90), published in the U.S.A. by Perseus Books (1999). The Nonhuman Rights Project web-site is at http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/ , where you can find the transcript of the case recently heard in the New York Supreme Court, and other details of past and pending cases.

The film Unlocking the Cage was released earlier this year. A trailer and other details for it can be viewed at http://www.unlockingthecagethefilm.com/ .The still of Steve Wise with Teko, and the poster for the film, are by courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films.

The photograph of caged mother and child is by Brian Gunn, copyright IAAPFA.