The battle to save Geronimo the alpaca made front page headlines recently and the world watched in horror as the order to kill him was carried out by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
As he was led away screeching, the shocking scenes showed an incredible lack of compassion for a sentient animal. DEFRA believed that Geronimo carried the deadly bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) disease. But they were unwilling to discuss the possibility that false positives can and do occur.
Protest outside DEFRA
The call to protest the brutality of Geronimo’s final moments led to a sombre mood as we assembled in the square outside of DEFRA headquarters in London on Wednesday 8 September. The protest was about more than Geronimo. It was about DEFRA’s policy of culling animals where there is suspicion of disease and then, to examine the evidence at post-mortem. Whether the results show positive or negative, we know that healthy animals are culled.
I watched as animal lovers like myself were moved to tears as Geronimo’s owner, Helen MacDonald spoke of the long, drawn out and ultimately unsuccessful fight to save Geronimo. I saw raw emotions beneath a steely resolve. We all agreed that some good must come out of Geronimo’s death. But the preliminary findings which showed no obvious indicators of bTB was bittersweet.
Badgers are not the only carriers
Many animals can be infected with bTB, and this includes cattle, cats, dogs, alpacas and badgers. Farmers have long blamed badgers as the cause of bTB infections. We must have some sympathy for those who have endured the loss of cattle; therefore it is important for all to follow the exact science and to strive for change.
The Badger Trust refutes badgers as the cause, blaming an inadequate testing regime along with poor cattle movement regulations. They are concerned that the Government is undertaking the cull without real evidence that it is working. In 2008, a scientific research paper entitled, Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence stated:
“We conclude that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.”
The Wildlife Trusts state that transmission within cattle is likely the primary cause of any outbreaks. 94% is likely to occur because of other herds. Only 5.7% of outbreaks may occur from badgers. Yet, even with this evidence, the cull continues.
It’s not just Geronimo
Dominic Dyer, an animal campaigner, policy adviser, and wildlife advocate for the Born Free Foundation was just one informed speaker at the Justice for Geronimo protest. Objecting to DEFRA’s bTB process, he stated that the Government had been consulting on new methods of scientific analysis for tests, biosecurity methods and vaccination of cattle for months. Although Helen MacDonald had requested Geronimo be used to aid research to keep him alive, the offer was refused.
The fight to save Geronimo has always been about more than one animal. There is a need to re-evaluate the methodology and to stop animals from meeting a similar fate. The current process of evaluating and dealing with a suspected respiratory disease appears both barbaric and unethical.
Licensed to cull
The Government has issued additional licenses for the badger cull. This year alone, an estimated 70 000 badgers will be shot as part of the mass cull. Approximately 280,000 badgers are likely to have been shot by the time the licenses expire.
I spoke to Valerie Russell from the Kent Badger Group who has long campaigned to protect badgers. She believes that these animals – often synonymous with the British countryside – have been made the scapegoats for the bTB crisis.
Valerie admitted she felt constantly stressed at the prospect that the cull on this native species might yet be extended to Kent. She explained that some of the setts could be hundreds of years old and yet the animals could be wiped out in a night.
But badgers are protected by Act of Parliament!
Badgers are legally protected under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, but they may be wiped out completely from some areas of the country. We are one of the most nature-depleted countries within Europe. We should feel a deep sense of shame that this outdated “shoot first and ask questions later” approach is still ongoing. Badgers are nocturnal and, while we sleep, a massacre is taking place.
In 2020, Boris Johnson spoke of upsetting the delicate balance of nature. He pledged to take action to protect against the loss of biodiversity. And yet, at the same time, authorised shooters were committed to carrying out the orders to cull approximately 65,000 badgers.
This does not make sense. There is no doubt that bTB is a serious issue, but until we test and contain cattle infections within herds, the disease will continue, and more animals will die unnecessarily.