However, Steven Wise faces an uphill climb in this fight, since the legal community is hesitant to declare chimpanzees autonomous. "The law doesn’t take nicely to new ideas," says Pennebaker. "It’s based on such ancient concepts that it is hard to renew it regularly and if you start to renew it then you are put in the position of having to decide to do that regularly and lawyers don’t like to do that." Hegedus adds that there is a slippery slope in this fight, since any rulings might set a dangerous precedent. "I think you need somebody very brave that can combat the slippery slope argument, because that tends to be one of the arguments that if you do it for this, you will have to do it for all animals and you need to have somebody who has vision."
One of the challenges in Steven Wise's fight is differentiating animal rights from animal welfare, since rights are irrevocable. "If you have a right, which people do, you can’t kill your child and eat it and that’s not going to be taken away easily, whereas legislation has a lot of loopholes, you got to have the police see the thing happen, there’s a lot of ifs and fuzzy edges," says Hegedus. "There are a lot of federal welfare acts and endangered species acts and things like that, that are getting more broad use in terms of protection, but a lot of legal welfare laws are very statewide."
The ultimate goal of Steven Wise's goal is to have captive chimpanzees relocated to an animal sanctuary known as "Save the Chimps," with Hegedus having nothing but praise for the sanctuary and its founder Carole Noon. "She was a visionary and really such a brave person to decide that all these chimpanzees that were being kept, a lot of them from the space program, a lot of them used in bio-chemical research, should all be rescued and she was going to create a sanctuary," says Hegedus. "They go through incredible chart decisions to acclimate their chimpanzees to different families and make sure they have friends and communities and it’s incredible to go there. It’s very, very inspiring. I’m sad that none of our plaintiffs in the film have made it there yet."
In an aside towards the end of the conversation, both Pennebaker and Hegedus make note of how amazed they are at the intelligence chimps show, particularly when it came to their involvement in the space program. "They were able to drive rockets at three and four years old," says Pennebaker. "Nobody put up any statues for them afterwards, but they really made a lot of the early space program possible."
"There was one space story about one of the chimps that had been taught a series of buttons or levers to do on the space flight and if he didn’t do it right, it would shock," says Hegedus. "It malfunctioned and he kept getting shocked, but he knew he was supposed to do it, so he just took the shock and did the correct thing, which I always thought was kind of amazing."
Unlocking the Cage opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.