Owner of alpaca sentenced to death pleads with PM to save animal’s life

The government has issued a warrant for Geronimo’s death

Lamiat Sabin
Friday 06 August 2021 11:47
Owner of alpaca sentenced to death pleads with government to save animal’s life

A farmer fears that her alpaca Geronimo will be taken to slaughter “any minute” after he had twice tested positive for bovine tuberculosis.

Helen Macdonald said staff from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) could take the alpaca away to be put down after she lost her High Court battle last week to save him.

A new warrant was issued for Geronimo’s death on Thursday, with a “kill window” of 30 days. But his owner insists that the eight-year-old stud male has been “completely fit and healthy” over the last two years, and not infected by bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

Ms Macdonald, a veterinary nurse, who breeds alpacas at her farm in Gloucestershire, has disputed the results of the bTB tests since 2017.

Her unsuccessful judicial review relied on a new test result showing that Geronimo has not had bTB.

Outside the High Court, she had said that a judge had taken into account of the new test result but that the evidence “didn’t overrule the previous high court judgement.”

The judge also said that she “didn’t have a right to obtain new evidence”, Ms Macdonald added, as it is illegal to test an animal without permission.

She is now calling on PM Boris Johnson or Environment Secretary George Eustice to scrap the death warrant, adding that “they know this is wrong and they’re hiding behind this wall and the law is as it stands.”

Ms MacDonald previously lost a High Court appeal to challenge Mr Eustice’s refusal to allow Geronimo to be re-tested in 2019.

Geronimo has been in quarantine with five other alpacas on her farm since arriving in the UK from New Zealand in August 2017.

He had tested negative for bTB in New Zealand. But, in the UK, his tests came back positive after Ms MacDonald agreed to a voluntary test as part of national surveillance of the disease.

There is a legal requirement to report bTB if present or suspected in a herd, but there is no requirement for alpacas to be regularly tested.

In the past four years the restrictions enforced on her farm, due to Geronimo returning two positive bTB tests, mean she has been unable to trade livestock or receive any income from it.

The British Alpaca Society is calling for more research into the testing of bTB. Duncan Pullar, the group’s CEO, has said: “The system was put in place to test TB in cattle. There will be some false positives and some false negatives.

“It’s frustrating that there are no learning opportunities as to why he is fit and healthy but has a failed test against his name.”

Under The Animal Health Act 1981, the environment secretary would only need to suspect the disease is present to order the slaughter of animals and limit its spread.

Geronimo and his owner Helen Macdonald, who has been fighting a decision to put him down

Several celebrities, such as actress Joanna Lumley and naturalist Chris Packham, have urged the government to spare Geronimo.

Ms Lumley has said: “When in doubt, don’t. So please spare Geronimo, as there is real doubt hanging over this death sentence.”

Mr Packham urged Defra against “forcing entry” into the farm to kill a “beautiful animal which is not diseased”.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are sympathetic to Ms Macdonald's situation – just as we are with everyone with animals affected by this terrible disease.

“It is for this reason that the testing results and options for Geronimo have been very carefully considered by Defra, the Animal and Plant Health Agency and its veterinary experts, as well as passing several stages of thorough legal scrutiny.

“Bovine tuberculosis is one of the greatest animal health threats we face today and causes devastation and distress for farming families and rural communities across the country while costing the taxpayer around £100m every year.

“Therefore, while nobody wants to cull infected animals, we need to do everything we can tackle this disease to stop it spreading and to protect the livelihoods of those affected.”

Mr Eustice said: “My own family have a pedigree herd of South Devon cattle and we have lost cows to TB, so I know how distressing it can be and have huge sympathy for farmers who suffer loss.

“I have looked at this case several times over the last three years, and gone through all of the evidence with the Chief Vet and other experts in detail. Sadly, Geronimo has tested positive twice using a highly specific and reliable test.”

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