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Killing Geronimo is a PR disaster for Defra and makes a mockery of the UK’s priorities

Geronimo’s sorry tale goes deeper than the killing of just one animal. It both goes to the heart of Defra’s policy on TB control, casting doubt over its cattle-testing regime

Jane Dalton
Wednesday 01 September 2021 12:48 BST
Moment police lead Geronimo the alpaca away to be executed

When we look back on the history of the countryside, we will remember how for a while in 2021, Geronimo was the UK’s – and possibly the world’s – most famous animal.

The black alpaca, blissfully ignorant that his life was hanging in the balance while grazing in his Gloucestershire field, captured the hearts of a nation. To animal lovers around the globe, his killing seemed senseless, as they got behind the campaign to prove he did not have tuberculosis. After all, creatures infected with the disease surely do not live for four years without showing symptoms.

What were Defra chiefs thinking? Some might say that coming so soon after the government relented to allow Nowzad to airlift its 68 staff and 178 animals from Afghanistan, ministers did not want to be seen too much to be “giving in” to public opinion (although what do we elect them for if not to democratically carry out our wishes?).

But no – it’s clear that Geronimo’s death was planned from the moment the judge handed down her verdict refusing owner Helen Macdonald’s final legal battle. From that moment, all testimony that the TB tests used on the animal were flawed fell on stony deaf ears.

Geronimo was twice in quick succession “primed” – or micro-vaccinated – before his tests, which, according to campaigners, caused the false positive results. And the strength of his reaction diminished between the first and second tests. Even the test manufacturer told the court Geronimo’s result could not be trusted. Ms Macdonald said he had never had a positive reaction to a valid test.

Given, then, that a host of evidence cast doubt over the test results, Defra would have been far wiser to have had an open mind and at least agreed to a third test – a perfectly reasonable request. But in refusing, the department has set itself up for a predictable – and predicted – public relations disaster. It will face an almighty backlash if post-mortem results show the alpaca did not have TB - that is, if and when the results see the light of day.

I asked Defra why it refused Ms Macdonald’s other simple request - a meeting with environment secretary George Eustice. It stuck to its line that “The secretary of state has looked at this case several times over the last three years and has considered all of the evidence with the chief vet and APHA expert vets and scientists. Geronimo has tested positive twice and we must follow the evidence.”

But Geronimo’s sorry tale goes deeper than the killing of just one animal where much of the evidence points to its innocence. It both goes to the heart of Defra’s policy on TB control, casting doubt over its cattle-testing regime in pursuit of eradicating TB, and it also raises questions over the stubbornness of some in government.

Both David Cameron and Boris Johnson have been mocked for performing U-turns, but in the end don’t we all have more respect for a leader who is prepared to admit they got it wrong and to change course when presented with new evidence, rather than desperately clinging to a position, possibly to save face?

After Nowzad’s escape from Afghanistan – funded privately and organised in addition to the official Ministry of Defence airlifts – there were a lot of sanctimonious and misleading comments about “putting people before pets”, conveniently ignoring that the operation was not carried out at public expense, nor did putting rescue animals in an aircraft hold take up one iota of space that could have been occupied by people.

Similarly, some have claimed, driven not by ignorance but by swallowing government spin, that Geronimo was “TB-riddled” when there is no reliable evidence of his having been infected.

Meanwhile, the British countryside is in a permanent war. Determined, callous wildlife criminals poison and shoot precious birds of prey and persecute native species including badgers and hares daily. Rural crime has been described as “rampant”. This is where taxpayer-funded wildlife police officers should be focusing their time and efforts.

The sight of British police chasing an alpaca in a field to lead him to his death based on doubtful science was fatuous – and makes a mockery of our country’s priorities.

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