Kill Geronimo the alpaca, and quarter of a million badgers too
What is an animal’s life worth? If you’re Helen Macdonald, owner of a doomed alpaca named Geronimo, the answer is about fifty grand in lawyers’ fees.
Geronimo was imported to the UK from New Zealand in 2017. Shortly after his arrival on our bovine tuberculosis-infected soil, he tested positive for that disease. A few weeks later, he was re-tested; positive again. In July 2018, DEFRA issued a death warrant. Ms Macdonald went all the way to the High Court to save Geronimo’s life, but lost her fight. Geronimo stands condemned.
Geronimo’s case was a no-hoper. The law allows the Secretary of State an enormously wide discretion.
Section 32 (1) of the Animal Health Act 1981 provides that the Minister “may , if he thinks fit, cause to be slaughtered any animal which is affected or suspected of being affected” with bTB.
So DEFRA don’t have to prove that the animal is infected, just that they suspect it. The words “the Minister may, if he thinks fit” are legal language for “the Minister can do what he bloody well likes”.
To get DEFRA’s decision quashed, Geronimo’s owners would have had to prove that the decision was irrational; i.e. that no Minister in his right mind could have made the same decision. Suspecting that an animal which has tested positive twice has bTB may, on this occasion, have been wrong, but it wasn’t irrational. The Court declined to interfere.
And the Court was right not to. George Eustice –Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and ‘the Minister’ upon whom this decision fell– quite obviously didn’t like the toxic publicity attendant on being an alpaca assassin, but couldn’t have exercised his discretion in any other way.
A pardon for Geronimo would have been a slap in the face for the owners of every one of the 500 animals DEFRA slaughters every week in its attempts to suppress bTB.
Still, it can’t have been the easiest decision for Eustice. A campaign, led by soppy slebs including Chris Packham and Joanna Lumley, gathered 100,000 signatures in support of Geronimo.
Carrie Johnson will be making one hell of a fuss about it, and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Carrie.
But the Minister is holding firm. He has the surprising and creditable support of Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer, who –though himself of faintly camelid, llamaish appearance– agreed that DEFRA had ‘no alternative’ but to kill Geronimo; to the fury of his few remaining supporters among his party’s membership.
The problem around Geronimo isn’t just an excessively harsh policy response to the threat of bTB. Suppressing the disease is of course important; ultimately, the purpose of keeping it out of cows is to make sure it stays out of people. And it wasn’t that the Minister was irrational. Helen Macdonald was irrational to expect that the beast would be treated differently from any other farm animal that tests positive. It’s that the British public are reliably and depressingly irrational in their sentimental and selective treatment of animals.
There is, however, one respect in which Helen Macdonald is bang on the money: “If we can use this publicity,” she told The Sunday Times “to highlight that TB is horrible for farmers every day, not just for one alpaca in one situation, then that would be a positive out of all of this.”
She’s right. In particular, it should highlight the crazy, UK-wide policy of tolerating almost any level of losses to farms, and the destruction of any number of cattle, rather than properly addressing the most prevalent wild animal reservoir of bTB: badgers.
Ms Macdonald herself, as the High Court noted, recognises the threat badgers pose to her alpacas and has invested heavily in biosecurity. Her property is surrounded by badger-proof fencing, which isn’t a practicable or affordable option for most farms.
Badgers are heavily protected by the law, but that doesn’t mean they’re rare. Foxes aren’t protected, because everyone knows they’re widespread and common and under no threat at all. Natural England and The Mammal Society estimated in 2018 that there are around 350,000 foxes in Britain. And more than half a million badgers.
Over the last decade, the UK and Welsh Governments have expended vast amounts of political capital and public money in organised badger culls to limit the spread of bTB. They paid marksmen staggering sums to do a few thousand badgers in: a cost of around £5000 for each stripey scalp.
You can get a judge whacked for that sort of money. This, while almost every beef and dairy farmer in the country owns a rusty old shotgun and would be delighted to point it in Brock’s direction and do the job himself.
Looked at scientifically, there’s an easy solution. Repeal the protection, let farmers shoot the badgers, fill in their setts and clear them out from areas with higher concentrations of cow farms.
This still leaves most of the country for badgers to thrive, and instead of statutory protection, DEFRA could introduce incentives for farmers in less bTB-sensitive areas to tolerate or encourage the presence of badgers.
Unfortunately for farmers and their cattle, badgers have a well-funded army of supporters, whose fanaticism in support of the cause would elicit awed respect from the Taliban. The same sort of people who –oblivious to the irony– sobbed into their cornflakes as they read about poor Geronimo.
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