The owner of an alpaca sentenced to death by government officials is spending the weekend on tenterhooks, not knowing whether – or when – a slaughter team might arrive at her farm to kill the animal.
Helen Macdonald and supporters insist the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is using untrustworthy tests to “prove” Geronimo had tuberculosis and justify ending his life.
The alpaca has twice tested positive, according to Defra, prompting staff to issue the death order, which Ms Macdonald has been fighting in courts for four years.
But the developer of the tuberculosis test himself says it can’t be relied on in this case, as The Independent reported on Thursday.
Since Ms Macdonald lost her final legal case on Wednesday, officials have given the alpaca two 24-hour stays of execution. Those have come and gone, and it was unclear on Friday night what the government’s next step would be.
The department has until 4 September to carry out the warrant to kill Geronimo, leaving his owner in “agony” and suffering “mental torture”.
The issue is about more than the life of one animal, as critics argue it raises questions about the government’s strategy of using the tests on cattle to tackle bovine tuberculosis.
A vet and TB researcher said the case could highlight large numbers of false positive tests in cattle, and accused the government of “trying to kill its way out of trouble”.
Iain McGill said Geronimo was twice “primed” – or micro-vaccinated – before being tested for TB, which caused him to have high levels of antibodies, which in turn caused false positive results.
Defra claims an accuracy for the TB tests of 99 per cent – but that is in animals that have not been primed. In fact, the test manufacturer has no data for its accuracy in animals that have been primed, Dr McGill said.
“We’ve got lots of data from alpacas that have been killed after having false positives and they haven’t got TB at all at post-mortem,” he added.
And he has issued a last-ditch challenge to the civil servants – who have refused permission for Geronimo to have a third test – to debate the science with him.
Volunteers have been on the alert to go to the Gloucestershire farm to physically defend Geronimo from a slaughter team.
Ms Macdonald, a veterinary nurse, said Geronimo has never failed a validated test. “Defra cannot produce any evidence to support their claimed suspicion of disease nor will they come out of hiding and admit there are lessons to be learnt,” she wrote on Facebook. “This is an absolute scandal being played out on the world stage.”
Defra would not confirm, when asked by The Independent, what method would be used to kill the alpaca, nor would it reveal its next planned step.
Ms Macdonald said: “There’s a principle at stake here about valid testing for all animals in the UK, proper science and we’re just not getting it. I’m just disgusted really by the whole attitude.”
A webcam has been set up in Geronimo’s pen so that supporters can see if any cull officials arrive.
Dr McGill told the Vet Times: “The reason they want to make an example of Geronimo by killing him is that they are hoping the problem will then go away. But I think it has opened a can of worms for the government.
“This isn’t just the tide turning, this is a tsunami that is going to change the way that TB is controlled.”
John Carr-Ellison, a Northumberland farmer, said five of his pet llamas had tested positive for TB and were slaughtered – but post-mortem results showed they did not have the disease. In some cases, culled badgers that have been analysed after death have been shown to be clear of TB.
A Defra spokesperson refused to comment on “operational matters” – the next step – but 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 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 £100m every year.
“Therefore, while nobody wants to cull animals, we need to do everything we can to tackle this disease, stop it spreading and to protect the livelihoods of those affected.”