steven wise
Animal rights lawyer Steven Wise and a chimpanzee BBC

Wednesday night's (22 June) Storyville on BBC Four is a fascinating documentary, Unlocking the Cage, which follows animal rights lawyer Steven Wise as he files the first lawsuits that seek to transform an animal with no rights to a person with legal protection.

With the help of his legal team, supported by affidavits from primatologists, Wise insists that cognitively complex animals including chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights – based on scientific evidence.

The documentary becomes unsettling at points as Wise faced the unprecedented challenge of extending the legal concept of personhood to a chimpanzee – but can it be done considering corporations, ships and even rivers being considered for living purposes in the past?

If Wise manages to persuade a New York court to contemplate granting a writ of habeas corpus to a caged chimpanzee, he will "kick the first door open" towards wider animal rights, in his words, and his radical ambition could potentially speed up the process of more protection of animals.

Fascinatingly gripping, it is hard to ignore Wise's arguments throughout the programme. At one point, he cites: "I don't believe there's something extraordinarily exceptional about every human being. 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."

Watch Storyville: Unlocking the Cage at 9pm on BBC Four tonight (22 June).