Geronimo the alpaca given 24-hour reprieve after emergency High Court bid

·4-min read
Helen Macdonald in the bio-secure pen with Geronimo the alpaca (PA Wire)
Helen Macdonald in the bio-secure pen with Geronimo the alpaca (PA Wire)

Geronimo the Alpaca, who faces destruction because the government believes he has bovine TB, has been granted a 24-hour reprieve at the High Court.

The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has ordered the destruction of Geronimo after he twice tested positive for bovine tuberculosis.

But the government faces a fight from the alpaca’s owner, Helen MacDonald, who believes the tests are returning false positives. She has refused to sanction a third test.

Defra agreed to delay enforcement of the destruction order on Geronimo until after an emergency High Court hearing, as Ms MacDonald sought a last-minute injunction to save her beloved pet.

In a hastily-arranged virtual court hearing, Mrs Justice Stacey said more information was needed to decide on the injunction application and adjourned the hearing until 3.30pm on Wednesday.

Defra, through its barrister Ned Westaway, agreed to a further delay in enforcing the destruction of Geronimo, while the legal battle runs its course.

The judge ordered the two sides to agree what the court is being asked to rule on, as well as the scope of further disclosure of evidence that Ms MacDonald is seeking from the government.

“I am not indicating one way or the other”, she said. “I am undecided on whether the application for interim relief should succeed, should not succeed, or is totally without merit.

“The final piece of the jigsaw is to understand precisely what it is that’s required.”

Ms Macdonald, who owns a farm at Wickwar, South Gloucestershire, has received an outpouring of support from the public since it came to light that Geronimo was facing destruction.

The pet, who was imported from New Zealand, first tested positive for bovine tuberculosis in September 2017 and has been in isolation since.

Catrin McGahey QC told the court that, although Defra argued in previous hearings that there was a “residual risk” to other animals, the agency has also agreed that Ms Macdonald’s bio-security arrangements are “impeccable”.

She said it had come to light following the publicity resulting from Ms Macdonald’s case that other animals who have been subjected to the same testing regime as Geronimo have later showed no signs of the disease after being euthanised.

Ms McGahey said: “The only issue is whether the defendants should have disclosed the fact that they had in their possession evidence that other camelids who had been subjected to repeated priming had gone on to test positive in Enferplex tests, and that there had been no sign of bovine tuberculosis on post-mortem examination.”

More than 130,000 people have now signed a petition calling on Boris Johnson to halt the killing, and publicity of Geronimo’s case is said to have brought forward other camelid owners whose animals showed no sign of disease after they had been slaughtered.

Mr Westaway argued a High Court decision from earlier in the month should stand, suggesting “this is a case that has come very much to the end of the road”.

“The suggestion of material non-disclosure is, frankly, unfounded”, he said.

Ms MacDonald must now say what further evidence is sought, before the judge decides whether to extend the stay of execution over Geronimo further.

Prior to the court hearing, the Government insisted that all the evidence on the animal’s condition had been “looked at very carefully”.

“We are sympathetic to Ms Macdonald’s situation, just as we are with everyone with animals affected by this terrible disease”, said a Defra spokesperson.

“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 £100 million every year.

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

Ms Macdonald’s lawyers have written to Environment Secretary George Eustice to suggest Geronimo’s life could be saved and instead he could be studied for research.

The British Alpaca Society said the current stand-off between Defra and Ms Macdonald has “considerably undermined confidence” in the voluntary bovine TB testing regime in the UK.

As well as alpacas, badgers have been a victim of the fight against bovine TB, with mass culling employed to stop the spread since 2013, sparking a huge public backlash.

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