Why ‘Unlocking the Cage’ Matters

Monica Miller, animal rights lawyer and subject of Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker’s new documentary argues in favor of growing a global community of nonhuman rights advocates.

Monica Miller is an attorney with the Nonhuman Rights Project, whose long-term litigation campaign on behalf of chimpanzees and other animals is the subject of a new documentary—Unlocking the Cage, directed by the acclaimed filmmaking team Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker.


Unlocking the Cage follows the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), as they make history with the first lawsuits that seek to transform an animal from a thing with no rights to a person with legal protections. Using writs of habeas corpus (historically used to free humans from unlawful imprisonment), the legal team argues on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York State. Unlocking the Cage captures a monumental shift in our culture and takes an intimate look at a lawsuit that could forever transform our legal system.



The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital is proudly hosting the film’s DC premiere on Wednesday, August 31st, 7pm at E Street Cinema. The screening is a part of DCEFF 365, our year-round lineup of film events, outside of our annual Festival in March.


Here, Miller unpacks the significance of nonhuman animal rights and encourages you to join the fight behind Unlocking the Cage.


In 2013, we went to court to free four chimpanzees from captivity not because we thought their human owners had failed to look out for their welfare, but because captivity itself constitutes a violation of their fundamental rights.

In 2012, as we were preparing these lawsuits and hitting the road in search of suitable plaintiffs, Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker happened to meet [NhRP President] Steve [Wise]. Intrigued by our mission and plans, they decided to follow the NhRP in the early stages of our long-term litigation campaign—embracing the challenges of creating a documentary about the nitty gritty work of lawyering, on the one hand, and the boldness of going into court to demand legal rights for nonhuman animals, on the other hand.

Chris and D A even followed us into court, showing what it looks like to argue before judges that these animals should be recognized as legal persons and freed immediately to sanctuaries.

Based on the response to Unlocking the Cage we’ve seen so far, the film is already helping to mobilize—and energize—everyday people who are rightfully frustrated by how animals are treated under the law and feel newly hopeful about the possibility of real change. If this is your reaction to the film, when you see it on August 31st, then please join us in growing and strengthening this global community of nonhuman rights advocates!

Our plaintiffs are self-aware, autonomous animals who’ve been deprived of anything resembling a natural life. While they languish in cages, their counterparts in the wild continue to face innumerable threats from human beings, including the destruction of their habitats. As Unlocking the Cage demonstrates, all nonhuman animals remain entirely subject to human interests—as long as we fail to recognize their fundamental rights.


Monica Miller is an attorney and Legal Working Group Leader of the Nonhuman Rights Project. She also serves as Senior Counsel at the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. She graduated from Pitzer College in 2008 and from Columbia University in 2009 with a Masters in Public Administration for Environmental Science and Policy. Learn more about her and her work here.

Photo Courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films/HBO. A First Run Features Release.


Find the Environmental Film Festival on FacebookTwitter and Instagram for more film and event updates. Follow #DCEFF to stay connected with the Festival.