The Geronimo campaign is about more than an alpaca – it’s about fixing a policy that has failed farmers

The story of Geronimo goes far deeper than a simple outpouring of sentiment over a cute, fluffy alpaca. It’s about overhauling Defra’s ineffective TB control policy

Dominic Dyer
Wednesday 11 August 2021 12:25
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Protesters urge Government to halt euthanisation of Geronimo the alpaca

Yesterday I spoke at a protest march to Downing Street calling for Geronimo the alpaca to be saved from a government execution order. Journalists almost outnumbered protesters at the event, which probably generated more headlines in Britain and around the world than for any previous protest held in this nation for the protection of animals. From London to Washington and Paris to Berlin the battle to save this creature has now become an issue of global interest.

Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) officials are working through the night pulling together briefings and media rebuttals to protect the reputation of their division. Cabinet ministers are having to be carefully briefed on the latest government position on Geronimo, before daring to venture into a media studio to discuss any aspect of policy.

Boris Johnson’s wife Carrie is being urged to lend her support to little Geronimo, and his father Stanley has expressed his public support in a national newspaper for calls to save the alpaca.

To many observers, this might seem another moment of summer madness in Britain, which has been amplified by a nervous and exhausted nation slowly emerging from the pandemic. However, the story of Geronimo goes far deeper than a simple outpouring of sentiment over a cute, fluffy alpaca. At the heart of this story is Helen McDonald, an incredibly brave and courageous veterinary nurse and alpaca breeder, who has been waging a David and Goliath battle with Defra for over five years concerning its bovine tuberculosis testing policy of cattle and camelids (alpacas and llamas).

Helen’s campaign to save Geronimo has gone all the way to the High Court and has shone a spotlight on the inconsistency, lack of transparency, and it seems to me sheer institutional bloody mindedness that is at the heart of the Defra TB control policy. It goes back decades and is so badly failing farmers, their cattle, our wildlife and other animals like Geronimo.

Helen brought Geronimo into Britain from New Zealand in 2017. Before entering the country, Geronimo tested negative for bovine tuberculosis using an advanced PCR blood test. On his arrival in Britain, Helen voluntarily agreed to have Geronimo tested again by Defra using an Enferplex TB test which detects TB antibodies (produced by the body in response to exposure to bovine TB). When the test came back positive, Defra demanded Geronimo be slaughtered.

Geronimo was primed with a tuberculin injection to increase sensitivity of the blood test. It is this priming process which is at the heart of this story, since the priming process itself could result in an antibody reaction, even in animals that have never been exposed to bovine TB infection.

Over the past four years, Helen has been arguing with Defra over the accuracy of the Enferplex TB test and the need to have Geronimo tested again using a more advanced phage PCR blood test – which detects the bovine TB bacteria itself in a blood sample – to prove one way or another whether he is infected, and therefore whether or not he presents a risk to other animals or people.

Since the Geronimo story hit the headlines, numerous other alpaca and llama owners have come forward to say their animals were slaughtered by Defra due to a positive TB result using the Enferplex test, but no evidence of TB infection was found at post-mortem examination.

The British Alpaca Society raised concerns with Defra officials and called for changes to the TB testing regime for camelids over five years ago. Defra officials even acknowledged at the time that they would give consideration to the issue, but no action has been taken to resolve this problem and Defra continues to use the Enferplex test following tuberculin priming.

Over-reliance on a TB skin test, which Defra accepts isn’t very accurate, has resulted in many infected cattle going undetected. These animals remain in their herds maintaining the infection, and could be traded across the country spreading the disease to other cattle and into wildlife.

Badgers are the collateral damage in this sorry saga. Since 2013, over 140,000 have been shot, at an estimated public cost of £7m, in the biggest culling of a protected species ever conducted in this country. To this day there is very little evidence to show this cruel and hugely damaging policy has any impact on lowering bovine TB in cattle herds in or around the cull zones.

As Downing Street circles the wagons around Defra and continues to defend the decision to kill Geronimo, public opposition is growing. Over 100,000 people have now signed a petition to save Geronimo. A dedicated band of volunteers has set up a human shield at Helen MacDonald’s farm, which could prove a major headache for any Defra contractors looking to implement Defra’s death warrant for this alpaca.

The prime minister set a precedent when he intervened on Defra TB policy in August 2019 to overrule the Defra secretary and the chief veterinary officer and withdraw a badger cull licence in Derbyshire. He did so under huge public pressure to prevent vaccinated badgers being shot by cull contractors.

It’s time for him to take control of Defra policy in this area once again, and call a halt to the killing of Geronimo on animal welfare grounds. He should allow Helen McDonald to test Geronimo using the phage PCR test and move rapidly to ensure the government provides this highly effective test to all farmers and camelid owners.

He should also order a final halt to the cruel, costly and ineffective badger cull and move the TB control focus at Defra to cattle-based measures and the long-term vaccination of cattle, camelids, and badgers against TB.

Boris Johnson has a chance to use the public outcry around the case of Geronimo to be a major turning point in bovine TB control policy, which ultimately will better protect farmers, alpaca owners like Helen McDonald, and the future of our precious badgers. He should not waste this opportunity.

Dominic Dyer (@domdyer70) is a wildlife and animal welfare campaigner and author. His book, Badgered to Death: The People and Politics of the Badger Cull, is available now

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