The alpaca that broke a nation’s heart – could this be Geronimo’s last day alive?

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Helen Macdonald and Geronimo the alpaca - Tom Wren /
Helen Macdonald and Geronimo the alpaca - Tom Wren /

Eight year-old Geronimo loves bouncing around his field in Gloucestershire and begging for grass pellets. “Give him a hay net and he gets very excited,” says his owner, Helen Macdonald, who adds that such is the seemingly indefatigable nature of her cheeky stud alpaca that he’s never had so much as “a sprained foot.”

And yet time is fast running out for Geronimo, who, despite his apparent clean bill of health, is now on death row, having tested positive for bovine tuberculosis (bTB), a respiratory disease primarily associated with cattle, in 2017.

Last week Macdonald lost a High Court appeal to prevent him from being killed, and a second warrant for his execution – starting today – was issued.

The brutal culmination of a bitter three-year legal battle and “senseless destruction of an innocent animal” has “horrified” not only Macdonald, 50, who insists Geronimo’s bTB tests were unreliable, but animal lovers everywhere.

Yesterday wildlife TV presenter Chris Packham joined the growing outcry on social media, tweeting that the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) would be “killing a beautiful animal which is not diseased” while a petition addressed to the Prime Minister to ‘Save Geronimo’ has amassed more than 7,000 signatures.

“If they want to execute him, they [are allowed to] bring the police and come in, unless I arrange to put him to sleep,” says Macdonald, a veterinary nurse who has 80 alpacas at her farm in Wickar, south Gloucestershire and “lives and breathes” the animals she’s been breeding since 2002. “What am I supposed to do? They want me to kill a healthy animal to absolve them of blame.”

She and other critics of Defra’s testing system claim blood tests for bTB can result in false positives, owing to controversial “priming” injections of the protein derivative tuberculin that animals are given before their test, which increases the sensitivity of the blood samples.

Macdonald certainly has reason to doubt Geronimo’s diagnosis.

An infected alpaca would be unlikely to survive two years, and would ordinarily show symptoms within weeks. Yet although Geronimo – regularly inspected by specialist vets – still seems perfectly healthy four years after his diagnosis, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), the safeguarding arm of Defra, is refusing to test him again.

For Macdonald to do a private test without the agency’s permission is illegal, and could result in a prison sentence – “six months I think,” she says.

Dr Duncan Pullar, CEO of the British Alpaca Society, explains that permission for a bTB test – usually requested via a vet – is “not normally withheld” but says the agency’s attitude appears to be, “we’ve done two tests – why would we do another?”

But that, he continues, “ignores the passage of time since those tests, and the fact Geronimo is still alive. In alpacas the course of the disease after infection is relatively quick. It tends to be counted in three, four, five, six months.”

Defra, it seems, wants neither their testing system called into question nor to set a precedent that would open “floodgates” to every farmer who has to shoot an infected cow, putting their whole bTB strategy under threat.

Yet their decision has caused consternation among many of the 3,000-odd owners of the UK’s 45,000 registered alpacas, who are bred for their fleece production and to allow livestock owners with small acreage to earn income from their land.

“Why wouldn’t you test [again]?” asks Pullar. “If it’s positive, you’ve confirmed it. If it’s negative – well, it’s telling you something odd is going on, and isn’t that worth trying to understand?”

Before Macdonald bought Geronimo from a respected breeder in New Zealand in August 2017, to improve the quality of her own breed at her farm in Wickar, south Gloucestershire, the alpaca was given four tests for bTB, which all came back negative.

On his arrival in Britain, Macdonald voluntarily got Geronimo tested again. “We’d had our whole herd tested already and wanted to set an example,” she says. “There was no doubt we had a perfectly healthy alpaca.”

But unlike the rest of the herd, she says, Geronimo's blood samples were taken for testing after a tuberculin injection, which she believes rendered the results invalid.

“One of the bones of contention is that as part of the blood testing regime you give tuberculin, and ten days later you take the blood sample,” explains Pullar of the “priming” process. “The idea is if there is any infection it’s multiplied by the tuberculin.”

Although there isn’t any “concrete evidence” he says, “there is concern among alpaca owners that multiple priming will increase the frequency of false positives.”

“Priming” is routinely used in cattle testing, but its effects are less known among alpacas, part of the camel family and closely related to llamas. “They’ve extrapolated from cattle data and applied to a different species without evidence,” says Macdonald. “We raised concerns but they ignored them.”

Defra told The Telegraph the injection of tuberculin enhances specific antibodies in already infected animals but does not trigger the production of new antibodies.

When the APHA told her the test was positive, and Geronimo needed to be “removed,” Macdonald was shocked: “I asked the case to be escalated and got a lawyer.”

Geronimo, meanwhile, had to isolate by law. “He had his own barn and his own field, next to his companions, on a couple of acres,” says Macdonald, who never countenanced killing Geronimo, because she says he simply hadn’t been in a situation where he could have contracted bTB. “There was no doubt in my mind he was a healthy animal.”

The APHA agreed to test Geronimo again that November, but again injected tuberculin beforehand. While a separate skin test came back negative, the blood test showed signs of bTB, albeit less than after his first test, which hardly confirms signs of a progressive disease. “We disputed the protocol,” says Macdonald.

A protracted legal battle with Defra ensued. Environment Secretary George Eustice dismissed her concerns, and at London’s High Court, in spring 2019, the judge “refused to reverse the decision to slaughter him,” says Macdonald. “They didn’t look at the science. They looked at whether they’d followed their own procedures. It was shocking, after all the evidence we had, that they thought they’d done a good job. We appealed.”

That appeal was rejected again, then “Covid happened,” and Macdonald heard nothing more until December 2020, when APHA applied for a warrant for Geronimo’s death. After that was granted this May, Macdonald appealed again.

She was “there throughout” last week’s hearing, which left her reeling. “None of it makes any sense,” she says, insisting that “people are losing healthy animals” as a result of the priming process.

“In the High Court the judge gave Helen a week to euthanise the animal herself,” explains Dr Pullar. That week has now run out, and as of today, “the APHA has the right to enter her property, potentially with force if necessary, to carry out their legal duty and kill the animal themselves.” There are a number of methods, he says, but the most likely are chemical euthanasia or a “captive bolt” – a form of stun gun used against an animal’s head.

He says the case risks mistrust among the alpaca community: “If people don’t trust the testing and don’t do it, the danger is the disease becomes more widespread. We want to learn from this. It may be too late for Geronimo – but what a shame to waste an opportunity to try and understand.”

Earlier this week, 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 APHA and its veterinary experts, as well as passing several stages of thorough legal scrutiny.”

Macdonald, meanwhile, refuses to give up hope, and is still lobbying the Government for an eleventh hour stay of execution. “They think if they ignore me I’ll go away, but that’s not going to happen. I’m still asking Boris to sort this out. They don’t have to shoot him today.”

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