Alpaca with bovine TB sentenced to death

Alpaca with bovine TB sentenced to death

In 2017, Helen MacDonald, a Gloucestershire farmer, imported an alpaca named Geronimo from New Zealand. She hoped he would improve the quality of her herd of eighty alpacas. Before he left Down Under he was tested four times for bovine tuberculosis (bTB). All the tests came back negative.

Bovine TB is a serious respiratory disease. It is highly infectious and kills both farm animals and wildlife. The bTB bacteria can be transmitted from alpaca to alpaca when they touch noses or come into contact with saliva, urine, faeces and milk. It is dangerous because anyone can catch bTB if they come into close contact with an infected animal. Eradicating the disease from the countryside is proving to be very difficult. The government could do nothing and let the disease rip through the dairy industry but this has a high cost. Farmers are heart broken when their herds are infected. The disease can be managed by improving farm biosecurity and by confining it to known areas which are then closely monitored. Any farm animal that tests positive is slaughtered. Badgers, wild animals often blamed for its spread, can be culled but this is a controversial policy.

On arrival in Britain, Geronimo was tested again by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) but this time the result was positive, forcing the six-year-old alpaca into isolation. His owner refused to believe the result, arguing that a tuberculin injection given prior to the bTB test had resulted in a false positive. A further test also came back positive, meaning that Geronimo would have to be slaughtered.

MacDonald entered into a three-year legal battle with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) hoping to win Geronimo a reprieve. In July 2021 MacDonald lost a High Court appeal to save him and a second warrant for his execution was issued.

Reluctant to give up hope, MacDonald continued to insist that the test results were unreliable. She appealed to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to step in and save her alpaca. Her appeal fell on deaf ears with the Prime Minister’s spokesman confirming that permission for a retest would not be granted as false positives were very rare and that the test used was reliable.

The publicity given to Geronimo’s plight led to a petition to save him. It was signed by over 100,000 people. Defra’s position however remained unchanged, citing the need to protect animal health as paramount.

Alpacas are camelids and are related to llamas and camels. In their native Peru they are used as a form of transport as their hooves are adapted to climbing the steep slopes of the Andes. Their wool was first introduced to Britain by the textile merchant Sit Titus Salt, in the 1830s but it was not until 1996 that they began to be imported in greater numbers from South America. The British Alpaca Society estimates that there are now about 1,600 herds in Britain.

The fine wool of the young alpacas is as sought after as cashmere. As pack animals, alpacas have a well- developed empathy with other animals and people. They are used as part of animal therapies aimed at emotionally disturbed children and residents of care homes. Alpaca trekking holidays are also gaining in popularity.

The plight of Geronimo again highlights the impact of bTB on farmers and their animals. The government has to juggle the needs of livestock farmers with those of animal activists. Until bTB has been eradicated, or bought under control by animal vaccines, it is certain that more hard choices will be faced in the future.