The government will have a “PR disaster” and a legal battle on its hands if Geronimo the alpaca is killed and then tests negative for bovine tuberculosis (BTB), The Independent has been told.
Scores of people demonstrated on Monday outside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) office in Westminster against the decision to kill the eight-year-old alpaca.
Despite previous claims that alpacas would be joining the protest, none were brought to the demonstration as there were concerns for their safety amid the crowds of people.
Holding placards and chanting “retest, not death”, protesters called on the environment secretary, George Eustice, to spare Geronimo’s life, insisting that the testing system the government used to diagnose him with BTB is invalid and outdated.
The campaigners have said that the tuberculin primer injected into the alpaca’s skin, used to increase the sensitivity of the blood tests, can return false positives.
Geronimo’s owner Helen MacDonald, from Gloucestershire, brought him to the UK from New Zealand in 2017. Geronimo had four skin tests in New Zealand before he was exported – and all were negative.
He then had two blood tests and a skin test in the UK which all returned positive results.
Last week, Ms MacDonald lost her final appeal to save her alpaca at the High Court and now a warrant has been signed for him to be put down, with a 30-day window having started on 5 August.
The prime minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, has written to Mr Eustice urging him to put a halt to the “murderous errand” and to give Geronimo a “new test”.
Bovine TB expert and practicing vet Dr Iain McGill told The Independent at a rally outside Downing Street on Monday that, if Geronimo is put down, it is standard procedure for Defra to test him again.
If he dies, Ms MacDonald is free to instruct a vet to test his blood to gauge whether he had BTB, he said.
But it is illegal for Ms MacDonald to test Geronimo while he is still alive, as the government had outlawed the private testing of animals that have tested positive for BTB, Dr McGill added.
If Geronimo tests negative then “all hell will break loose” and farmers who have lost alpacas are likely to file a class action case against Defra, which would be a “PR disaster” for the government, he said.
He claimed that the government is hesitant to fix the BTB testing system, as a shake-up of methods could negatively impact the British beef and milk industries.
Dr McGill has urged Mr Eustice to resign over the ordered killing of Geronimo and for Mr Johnson to sack him if he doesn’t step down.
James Hamilton and Bridget Tibbs-Hamilton, of Cotswold Alpacas, had to have their 11-year-old alpaca Karlie put down in 2018.
Their herd had to undergo testing by Defra after a neighbouring farm had a BTB outbreak. But after Defra ordered for Karlie to be put down, a post-mortem test showed that she did not have BTB.
Speaking to The Independent at the first rally outside the Defra office, Mr Hamilton said that Karlie was a “perfectly fit animal” who was condemned to death by a system that “doesn’t make sense”.
He said he hopes the government will change their minds about killing Geronimo and instead “look at the science and fix the system” that he says has been in place since the 1940s.
Mr Hamilton urged the government to “admit there are false positives” rather than “blitz an animal” out of stubbornness.
Campaigner Dominic Dyer told The Independent that about 50 Gloucestershire locals who could not make it to the London protests have been camping out at Ms MacDonald’s property since Sunday night to form a “peaceful human shield” around Geronimo.
He also urged Carrie Johnson, a conservationist, to encourage her husband, Boris Johnson, to save Geronimo.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “We know how distressing losing animals to TB is for anyone. That is why the environment secretary has looked at this extremely carefully and interrogated all the evidence.
“The fact remains that Geronimo has sadly tested positive twice using a highly specific and reliable and validated test. This is something the environment secretary has looked at very carefully.”
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