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Standard procedure

Primate suspect

Today at Whipsnade Zoo, England, two chimpanzees escaped from their “compound”. (Have you noticed how the vocabulary of animal captivity is rather like that of alleged-terrorist captivity?) One chimp, Coco, was recaptured. The other, Jonnie, “could not immediately be caught and had to be killed”.

“Had to be killed”? Well, to ascribe agency where it is due, some people thought it necessary to call in the zoo’s own “specially trained firearms squad”, who shot Jonnie to death. Now, chimps are immensely strong and can be very aggressive to humans (as well as to each other). Still, the reporter did ask why Jonnie couldn’t have been shot with a tranquilizer dart. Well, apparently a tranquilizer “doesn’t work quickly enough”. Call me a bleeding-heart ape-lover, but if tranquilizer darts are good enough for most of the American ape-escape zoo incidents compiled in this handy list, why not for Whipsnade? Perhaps the British just can’t afford the good tranquilizer guns.

But what prompted me to post this here was the explanation offered by the Zoological Society of London:

“It’s just standard procedure, if the animal cannot be quickly and safely recaptured it will be shot.”

It’s just standard procedure – as though the mere fact that it is written down in some bureaucratic rule-sheet ought to satisfy any complaints. If you had some questions about the morality of the incident, the spokeswoman chose to answer a different question altogether. “Is it right that you should do this?” “Oh, don’t worry, we always do this.” The reassuring appeal to standard procedure tries to fog one’s mind sufficiently to head off any awkward question about how it came to be standard procedure, or whether it should remain so.

It’s rather classical Unspeak in construction, too. A “procedure” might make us think of a medical intervention, or some other well-defined set of actions to solve a problem, when here it it means simply killing; and “standard” carries the sense of, well, a standard, something to live up to or to aspire to, as well as performing the bogus substitution of ubiquity, or mere having-been-decided, for ethical desirability.

In all, it would make a good line, perhaps, to use next time the police shoot an innocent man on the London Underground. Just standard procedure, move along now, nothing to see.

  1. 1  Aenea  October 2, 2007, 1:45 pm 

    Reminds me a bit of the foot-and-mouth outbreak a few years ago where millions of animals were ‘culled’ to stop the spread of the disease, presumably because it was cheaper or easier than vaccination. It is highly contagious, but not actually lethal in the majority of cases. It smacks of the same disregard for animal life as this story, I expect farmers were also told it was standard procedure.

  2. 2  Steven  October 2, 2007, 1:54 pm 

    Yes, I posted about the use of “cull” earlier this year when a bunch of turkeys were gassed.

    Belatedly I realise that “standard procedure” also resembles or is maybe just a contraction of “standard operating procedure” or SOP, often used in military contexts. Perhaps there is an undeclared war on chimps.

  3. 3  Lily  October 2, 2007, 2:11 pm 

    Why are you so surprised? Animals being treated badly in zoos are nothing new. As long as animals are seen more as things than living creatures people (including zoo personnel) are going to treat them as disposable.

  4. 4  dsquared  October 2, 2007, 6:52 pm 

    It smacks of the same disregard for animal life as this story

    although I have to say that the foot and mouth cull was largely of sheep and beef cattle, so the merciless slaughter of animals by a heartless government was actually just a more public and economically costly version of the merciless slaughter of animals that happens anyway.

  5. 5  sw  October 2, 2007, 7:32 pm 

    The list of Great Ape Escapes you link to is indeed handy. The first smacks of tragedy:

    A 300-pound gorilla named Jabari escaped from an enclosure surrounded by a 16-foot concave wall at the Dallas Zoo and attacked four people. A 3-year-old boy was critically injured as a result of multiple bites to his head and chest. The gorilla bit the boy’s mother on her legs and threw her and the toddler against the wall. Another woman suffered injuries to her arms when she shielded several children from the gorilla. The fourth injured person was a child who was treated at the scene. Police evacuated 300 people and fatally shot the gorilla after he charged at officers.

    You notice that they don’t appeal to “standard procedure”: the gorilla (allegedly) charged the officers, no doubt hopped up on PCP and granny juice. Of course, tucked in at the end is a throwaway sentence that explains it all:

    Some children had reportedly been teasing Jabari before the incident.

    Hopefully the ones he bit.

  6. 6  richard  October 2, 2007, 8:49 pm 

    Some children had reportedly been teasing Jabari before the incident.
    Hopefully the ones he bit.

    I suppose that might seem like poetic justice, but really, aren’t all children equally guilty?

  7. 7  Steven  October 2, 2007, 10:06 pm 

    It’s all a bit like the end of King Kong, as one quondam commenter here has communicated to me privately.

    Do children who “tease” captive apes, as in the narrative sw properly brings to our attention, merit death? (I wonder what this teasing consists in? Just shouting “Hey, you’re a big smelly monkey!” probably wouldn’t enrage your average 300lb gorilla, although I Am Not Dian Fossey.) At least such children could serve as a warning to others, who will no doubt henceforth treat animals with all the respect that society teaches them.

    Another film to consider in this context, of course, is Planet of the Apes.

  8. 8  sw  October 2, 2007, 10:22 pm 

    As apes are relatively less savage than little kids, I fail to see why there is this sudden upsurge in sympathy for the chomped children.
    You ask about the nature of the teasing, but not the manner in which Jabari charged the police officers. Perhaps “charging the police officers” is unspeak for “existing outside a cage while simian.”

  9. 9  Steven  October 2, 2007, 10:39 pm 

    Yes, you are right to insist on this point too. Lacking further information, we might be forgiven for thinking that Jabari “charged” the police officers in just the same way that Jean Charles de Menezes vaulted ticket barriers while wearing an explosives belt under a heavy overcoat etc.

  10. 10  Steven  October 2, 2007, 10:47 pm 

    More details emerge:

    A zoo spokesman stated: “No staff or members of the public were injured. But in the interests of public safety Jonnie was shot. That is normal practice if a chimp cannot be recaptured. But at no stage was the safety of our visitors at risk.”

    Ah, in the interests of public safety, Jonnie was killed, even though he posed no threat to, er, public safety. Another report:

    Although no-one was hurt or injured, one of the chimpanzees, Jonny had to be put down for safety reasons.

    “In the interests of public safety, Jonnie was shot. […] In these situations it is important to act as quickly as possible to make sure that the animals do not endanger the public.”

    So the public was not in fact endangered, which made it okay to kill the chimpanzee in case at some point in the future he were to endanger the public.

    This is rather like the approach to Saddam Hussein, isn’t it?

    More details:

    Last night, with Coco back behind bars, the zoo launched an investigation to discover how the pair got away. The most likely theory was that they had dug an escape tunnel under the tall enclosure fence, built three years ago, although nothing was immediately found.

    If only they’d had a motorcycle.

  11. 11  Leinad  October 3, 2007, 2:26 am 

    I am playing AC/DC’s ‘Jailbreak’ as a measure of respect to Jonnie.

    “It was all in the name of liberty…”

  12. 12  Guano  October 3, 2007, 10:54 am 

    I went straight from reading this thread to reading the Independent’s story about the de Menezes court case (Wednesday’ Independent). At the end of the Independent’s story the defence QC (Ronald Thwaites) is quoted as saying “The prosecution are attempting to dictate to the police how they should be doing the job”.

    Yes indeed, Mr Thwaites, and with some reason. An innocent man was killed by the Police. So either the “Standard Procedures” were not followed or the “Standard Procedures” are wrong. When this happens we expect a public forum to examine what happened and to ensure that “Standard Procedures” don’t lead to innocent people being shot. As Steven has pointed out, the fact that something is written down on a bureaucratic rule-sheet doesn’t mean that it is necessarily right.

  13. 13  dsquared  October 3, 2007, 3:38 pm 

    I am playing Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak”, with its legendary couplet which serves as a memory-jogger for anyone who might otherwise be inclined to confuse Phil Lynott with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ..

    “Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak
    Somewhere in this town”

    but where, Phil? Where is the jailbreak going to happen?

  14. 14  Steven  October 3, 2007, 3:41 pm 

    Perhaps it’s a town with several jails?

  15. 15  richard  October 3, 2007, 3:58 pm 

    by strange coincidence I note that plans are afoot for a Tintin movie or three. You may recall that back in Herge’s day the zoo was considered a safe place for an unruly ape to be kept.

  16. 16  Graham Giblin  October 5, 2007, 10:43 am 

    The passive voice, as Steven has suggested, in “had to be killed” is just another way of saying “the chumpy chimp was asking for it. It caused its own demise”. “Standard procedure” seems to me to smell of “don’t you worry your little head about what the big people do, dearie. It’s all under control; it’s just boring, ordinary, bureaucratic stuff you don’t want to think about. None of our previous clients has ever complained.”

  17. 17  Graham Giblin  October 11, 2007, 2:38 pm 

    In the forlorn hope that someone might actually read comments on a blog post that is as ancient as 10 days old—almost too old even to wrap a piece of fish—I note a more chilling use of “standard procedure” than the one which initiated this post.
    Saifedean Ammous, at 3QuarksDaily, writes “in memory of Iman Al-Hams, on the third anniversary of her murder”. Iman was a thirteen-year-old girl who, on her way from her home in Rafah refugee camp to school, strayed into an Israeli security zone. She was shot dead. A “Captain R” ‘confirmed the kill’ by firing additional bullets into her head. Captain R then emptied the remaining bullets from his machine gun into her body.

    Anywhere in the world, you would expect such a murderer to be tried and to receive a very harsh sentence. Unfortunately, the laws that apply in most of the world do not apply to Palestinian children and their murderers. An Israeli military court, on October 15, 2004, cleared the soldier of any wrongdoing or unethical behavior, declaring that “confirming the kill” is standard procedure.

    So that’s all right, then. Well no, it apparently was not. Captain R had been very harshly treated.

    Captain R was … compensated with 80,000 Israeli Sheckels (around US$20,000) plus legal fees for the inconvenience of being taken to court over a triviality such as the life of a Palestinian child. The court also criticized the Military Police for investigating the case in the first place. Captain R was then promoted to the rank of Major, and continues to serve in the Israeli Army, where he may well have murdered other children in the past three years.

  18. 18  Steven  October 11, 2007, 5:26 pm 

    Something about the last sentence of the second extract you quote seems very wrong to me.

    It’s a good example of “standard procedure”, though. Is it still “confirming the kill” if the person you are firing bullets into is not dead yet?

  19. 19  richard  October 11, 2007, 7:28 pm 

    Am I the only one that thinks “confirming the kill” sounds like a hunting term?

  20. 20  Steven  October 11, 2007, 7:53 pm 

    You’re right, it does, like you have to confirm it and maybe take a photo so your buddies will be proud of you.

  21. 21  zoe  July 15, 2008, 5:50 pm 

    It seems to me that most of the comments posted have been done so out of naivety and single mindedness. Being a zoo keeper myself, I am sure that the action to shoot the chimp was a last resort and a regretable one. There is no such thing as a keeper who will choose to take that career path without a passion for animals and conservation.

    Nobody seems to be recognising the fact that zoos INCLUDING WHIPSNADE have a huge part in breeding to release endangered species into the wild (such as corncrakes). The animals are not kept for human ‘entertainment’ and ZSL is actually a registered charity. There is a lot of fund raising and so forth that goes on behind the scenes which some are clearly not interested in!!

    Those who mention the likeness to movies obviously think that the candidate who had to shoot the chimp was wearing khaki, had a pointy moustache with an evil grin across his face as he pulled the trigger. Yes, it does sound rediculous, but so do a lot of the other posted comments… laughable in fact!!

    Before making bloody minded comments, please try to broaden your knowledge and have a non-biased point of view.

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