Such a black farce, all that was missing was the Benny Hill theme tune: As Geronimo is finally put down, ROBERT HARDMAN examines an undignified end to the sorry tale
Were it not for the unhappy ending, this could have been a 21st Century Keystone Cops moment – or, for younger viewers, a remake of another police comedy caper, Hot Fuzz.
Here were two dozen officers and a team of Government scientists in chemical warfare kit charging round a paddock trying to lasso a runaway alpaca.
There was just one problem: which alpaca?
The only person who could actually identify Geronimo from the rest of the herd was the farmer, Helen Macdonald. And she was in no mood to help his would-be assassins. She had deliberately absented herself from her 25-acre Gloucestershire farm in the hope that without the presence of the legal owner, the authorities would be unable to do their stuff.
Besides, she couldn’t bear to see her healthy, virile specimen being dragged off to meet his maker after a four-year battle to keep him alive.
It was all a bit of a shambles.
At 11am yesterday, it all came to naught. With a fleet of police vans sealing off surrounding lanes to prevent reinforcements – and even a drone to keep an eye from above – the men from the ministry (they were mainly men) turned up with a death warrant, cut open a gate and went for the UK’s Most Wanted camelid
‘They should have had the Benny Hill theme tune,’ sighed ‘Save Geronimo’ campaigner Peter Martin, one of a devoted band of supporters who have spent the last four weeks creating a ‘human shield’ around Britain’s best-known farm animal.
At 11am yesterday, it all came to naught. With a fleet of police vans sealing off surrounding lanes to prevent reinforcements – and even a drone to keep an eye from above – the men from the ministry (they were mainly men) turned up with a death warrant, cut open a gate and went for the UK’s Most Wanted camelid.
After making a prize fool of them in the field, Geronimo and his pals were finally cornered in a barn. The other alpacas (all identical) did their best to maintain the confusion with a final ‘I’m Spartacus’-style runaround through the straw.
But, in the end, it was his microchip which did for him. The Defra hitmen had come armed with their incontrovertible proof: a barcode-reading machine.
They still had some trouble locating the microchips beneath these dense, award-winning fleeces (Ms Macdonald’s alpacas have won many prizes for their wool over the years).
When it finally flashed up that Defra had got their prey, Geronimo’s number was up.
Even then, he didn’t go down without a fight. Indeed, it took several officials and a thick rope to haul him into a Defra horsebox as police held back the Geronimo fan club. ‘Go on! Nut him!’ one of them yelled as the alpaca tried to headbutt a vet in a hazmat suit.
Sitting in Ms Macdonald’s garage, I found the round-the-clock ‘Save Geronimo’ team pondering what to do next. Around half a dozen have been camping here since a judge passed a death sentence on Geronimo a month ago
‘Call yourself a vet?’ screamed another.
One protester was arrested for squirting police with a children’s water pistol. She was an NHS nurse from Somerset called Liz. She had sacrificed a fortnight’s holiday allowance to camp outside Geronimo’s barn but said she’d do it again. The police bundled her into a van and left her there for ten minutes before de-arresting her.
Finally, the cops blocked the traffic again and Geronimo was driven off to a secret location. Defra’s agents had even gone to the trouble of blanking out the number plate on the horsebox.
Inside the box, Geronimo was having one last kick.
He is – or was – surely Britain’s most energetic TB patient, judging by his Herculean efforts yesterday. He looked more like a candidate for an alpaca Olympiad rather than the victim of a hideous respiratory disease.
But then the whole basis of the campaign to save Geronimo is that he never had tuberculosis in the first place; that he has become the high-profile victim of a flawed Government policy; that there is ample scientific proof to dispute the two positive tests he received four long years ago. That, at least, is what Ms Macdonald and the 140,000 signatories to a petition on Geronimo’s behalf have claimed.
She returned to the farm yesterday lunchtime and was still awaiting formal confirmation of Geronimo’s death last night. Within minutes of the animal being carted off, Defra had told the Press that the alpaca had been destroyed.
‘No one’s told me a thing,’ Ms Macdonald said several hours later, emerging from her farmhouse after a long conversation with her lawyers. ‘I just want our vet to be present for the post-mortem because, after what we have been through, I simply don’t trust those bullies not to fiddle the results.’
After making a prize fool of them in the field, Geronimo and his pals were finally cornered in a barn. The other alpacas (all identical) did their best to maintain the confusion with a final ‘I’m Spartacus’-style runaround through the straw
Harsh words, certainly, but they were those of a woman who has spent four years and £30,000 of her life’s savings on fighting officials who have steadfastly refused to allow one more blood test to resolve all this. The Geronimo saga stems from the Government’s long-running battle with bovine TB in Britain’s cattle herds.
To fight the disease, the Government embarked on a major cull of badgers eight years ago, a programme which is still ongoing, much to the fury of wildlife groups who point out that the culls have made no major difference to TB statistics. Any other infected animals – and they include llamas and alpacas – are subject to the same policy. Many of those who have been fighting for Geronimo are veterans of other battles, not least Peter Martin who is a former chairman of the Badger Trust.
He could hardly be described as a fanatical animal rights activist. A marketing executive and former deputy mayor of Tetbury, near Highgrove, he used to be Prince Charles’s local councillor. He has every sympathy with dairy and beef farmers who have seen their herds plagued by TB. His gripe is with the quirks and inaccuracies of the Defra testing system and he reels off statistics about false positives.
Mr Martin points out that just before Geronimo was tested for TB, he received two jabs of a priming agent called tuberculin.
‘If you get double jabs for Covid then you’ll have a positive Covid antibody test. Well, this is the same thing,’ he said.
Finally, the cops blocked the traffic again and Geronimo was driven off to a secret location. Defra’s agents had even gone to the trouble of blanking out the number plate on the horsebox
Sitting in Ms Macdonald’s garage, I found the round-the-clock ‘Save Geronimo’ team pondering what to do next. Around half a dozen have been camping here since a judge passed a death sentence on Geronimo a month ago.
‘We’re just a bunch of middle-aged people who wanted to try to save a healthy animal,’ said Liz, the Somerset nurse who will, today, be back on Covid vaccination duty.
I met Bridget Tibbs, another alpaca breeder, who went through exactly the same process a few years ago. She was ordered to destroy a healthy, pregnant alpaca after a false positive. A subsequent test on stored blood samples two years later showed that the animal had been absolutely fine. As with the plight of those dogs and cats in Kabul, this is an issue which has polarised the country, especially rural communities.
Some cattle farmers, just like the Government, argue that rules are rules and any potentially infectious animal diagnosed with TB – whenever that was – must be destroyed.
Geronimo fans and others ask why Defra was so obdurate in refusing a conclusive and above-board test for an animal which has been in the rudest of good health for four years.
Even then, he didn’t go down without a fight. Indeed, it took several officials and a thick rope to haul him into a Defra horsebox as police held back the Geronimo fan club. ‘Go on! Nut him!’ one of them yelled as the alpaca tried to headbutt a vet in a hazmat suit
Last night, Ms Macdonald learned that the Prime Minister had voiced ‘sympathy’ for her plight.
‘I don’t buy your sympathy, Boris Johnson,’ she said. ‘I just want honest answers.’ Moments later, she received a message of support from the Prime Minister’s father, ex-farmer Stanley Johnson, a longstanding Geronimo supporter.
Then up to the door came former Defra minister, Dan Norris, now Labour’s executive mayor for the West of England. He said he had been astonished to learn that dozens of police and civil servants had been dragooned into chasing and destroying an animal which could have been subjected to a simple blood test.
‘The Government’s whole TB policy is wrong and sending this huge police presence seems disproportionate and just against everything British. They should just have done a third test,’ he said.
He had already been to the Macdonald farm a few weeks back, he said, and met Geronimo then. ‘He looked ever so fit to me,’ recalled Gordon Brown’s former rural affairs minister. ‘All I can say is that I wouldn’t have wanted to try and catch him.’
Geronimo is dead… but fight for ‘truth’ goes on
By Alex Ward for the Daily Mail
Four years after testing positive for bovine tuberculosis, Geronimo the alpaca was finally put down by government vets yesterday despite a campaign to save him.
His owner, Helen Macdonald, 50, is adamant that he was not infected with the disease – and she has vowed to fight for the truth.
She said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had made a ‘martyr’ of Geronimo.
It is believed that the animal will now be tested to confirm if it carried the disease. But Miss Macdonald fears officials will try to prove he had bovine tuberculosis (bTB) no matter what. She has now demanded that a post-mortem examination is observed by an independent vet.
Miss Macdonald also called on Environment Secretary George Eustice to resign, accusing him of ‘murdering an innocent animal’.
Four years after testing positive for bovine tuberculosis, Geronimo the alpaca was finally put down by government vets yesterday despite a campaign to save him
Geronimo’s killing was the culmination of a David and Goliath legal fight between Miss Macdonald and Defra that gripped the nation.
The eight-year-old alpaca, who was born in New Zealand before being brought to Britain, was consigned for slaughter after he twice tested positive for bTB in 2017.
Miss Macdonald has always disputed the results – but the legal battle concluded with a High Court ruling in July that he should be destroyed.
And yesterday Defra officials and dozens of Avon and Somerset Police officers forced their way on to Miss Macdonald’s farm in Wickwar, South Gloucestershire, to take Geronimo away.
But the officials were delayed after they initially turned up at the wrong farm. When they arrived, the activists who had been camping at the farm tried to repel them but failed.
The Defra vets finally identified Geronimo using his microchip and dragged him away with rope. The alpaca was then bundled into a horse box and driven away.
His owner, Helen Macdonald, 50, (pictured) is adamant that he was not infected with the disease – and she has vowed to fight for the truth
Miss Macdonald last night claimed Avon and Somerset Police had questions to answer for ‘facilitating murder’. She added: ‘The bully boy tactics exhibited today by Defra today are frankly unforgivable. The testing regime is dead in the water. If they can kill a healthy one on a whim, then no animal is safe in this country. They made a martyr of Geronimo.’
Defra refused to disclose where Geronimo was taken but he was believed to be transported to a facility at Aston Down in Gloucestershire – a 45-minute drive from Miss Macdonald’s farm. Defra officials last night said that he was put down, but did not disclose any further details. Boris Johnson’s father Stanley last night offered Miss Macdonald his condolences. His said: ‘Nobody could have fought harder than you did. May he rest in peace.’
Defra said Geronimo’s removal was undertaken by trained and experienced Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) veterinarians in accordance with animal welfare guidelines.
Chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said: ‘No one wants to have to cull infected animals if it can be avoided, but we need to follow the scientific evidence and cull animals that have tested positive for bTB to minimise spread of this insidious disease and eradicate the biggest threat to animal health in this country. Not only is this essential to protect the livelihoods of our farming industry and rural communities, but it is also necessary to avoid more TB cases in humans.’
Avon and Somerset Police said: ‘We’ll always support our partner agencies to carry out their lawful duties and our role was to prevent a breach of the peace and to ensure public safety was protected.’