Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Animal Psychology


Do not be surprised when those who ignore the rules of grammar also ignore the law. After all, the law is just so much grammar.
-Robert Brault, Freelance writer


“I'm going to dig a big hole for myself here, Career-wise.” Fluffy Oakes is reeling off the challenges he faces from his fingertips. “An aardvark has Attention Deficit Disorder. We've got an autistic condor. The rainbow lorikeet can't gage what you're supposed to tell people and what you're supposed to keep to yourself, which can get uncomfortable. He's on the autistic spectrum too. Edgar, he's our silverback gorilla, his cage had to be padded to stop him from killing himself when he's repeatedly banging his head against the wall... I enjoy working at the zoo, but it's not a fucking easy job.”

Fluffy Oakes is overwhelmed. “I spend a lot of time with the animals, finding out how they are feeling, what they'd like to see improved, and basically fixing all the problems in their lives.”

When you live in a small brick room with three walls and a pane of glass, you develop issues. No matter what species you are. So, week by week, animal by animal, Fluffy Oakes sits down at the side of each animal enclosure and lets the creatures talk. Lets them blow off steam.

He jots into budget notebooks that the zoo provides, and he makes sure his notes make sense: he writes legibly, with what he assures us is good grammar.

“When I'm in group meetings with the staff, it's a different story,” says Fluffy. He's rarely the one making the notes at these times- maybe it's the doctor, the security officer, the cleaner or the zoo manager. These people are supposed to be a highly-trained team, who look after some of the most vulnerable animals in Britain.

“I've sat next to the the note-taker a few times in these meetings- there are a few members of staff I'm referring to here. I've seen the state of their writing. Their grammar is atrocious. That paperwork, which is already part of the shoddy service that the zoo offers, then goes on to admin staff, who you'd think have a grasp of the English language, at least slightly. But they don't know any better either!”

And everyone who works there is English, right?

“One member of staff isn't. She's Thai, I think. In all fairness, her notes aren't any better or any worse than the rest, but she still needs to sort it. In fact, every single member of staff, bar me, needs retraining in basic English grammar- admin and front-line animal handlers. These animals deserve better than this.”

Fluffy is well aware that “gripes go up, not down,” as Tom Hanks would say. He knows they don't go sideways, either.

“I spoke to the manager. He said it was okay to suggest corrections, by adding a written note explaining what I'd change. I tried that. But what I realised was that, even though I was a fuckload better at grammar than the rest of the staff, I'm still no grammarian. You can show someone what they've written, then show them how it should be written so they can see the difference. But explaining why one sentence works and another doesn't, that's a separate skill. One that I don't think I have. I work a lot with the English language, but I'm not an English teacher.”

So what then?

“I needed another opinion. I went to the union. I explained the whole situation. The union guy said, admin staff- and any other member of staff- shouldn't change a thing, no matter how dumb the mistake. Changes should only be made by the person who wrote it originally. He put it like this: Imagine that there was a major animal welfare scandal, like a zoological Baby P case. The authorities would swoop in here and they'd want to check every written item about that animal. The union guy suggested something like, Let's say I get a draft of a report and it says, 'investigators repeatedly found that the animals were abused.' I shouldn't, then, change it to 'investigators found that the animals were repeatedly abused.'

“First off, I want to make it clear that I would never let that happen. If anyone abused an animal in this zoo, I would abuse them.”

Considering how he threw me across his living room within five minutes of starting the interview, (http://powerisastateofmind.blogspot.com/2010/04/who-is-fluffy-oakes.html) I'm prepared to believe him.

“But that's beside the point,” Fluffy says. “What the union guy failed to understand was that it's the lack of good grammar in particular, and the way it's misuse can cause misinterpretations, was exactly what I was kicking up a fuss about.

“If an animal does find itself a victim of a sadistic bestialist... off the top of my head... the animal welfare officers, RSPCA and the police are all going to check everything. And when they check through the notes, they are going to say 'who the hell wrote this shit?'

“Somebody's going to lose their job. Now, because I'm the one these animals are talking to, mostly, people are going to ask me a lot of questions. I'm going to have to slag off a lot of my own colleagues. I know I've not done anything wrong. But because I want the best for these animals, I'm going to have to criticise those who are letting them down. Every member of staff that I've worked closely enough with- which is most of them- they've all made mistakes. I'm sure I do too, but I ask people about things before I go ahead with something, like if I have to help an animal to move position or something, I'll get advice. So generally, I don't make mistakes.

“We've all learned English- either as a first or second language. Well, all the human staff have, of course. So there's really no excuse for people to make these errors. And I'm fucking sick of the zoo brushing over it.”

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