Geronimo the alpaca dead: why was he killed, what is bovine tuberculosis - and what owner Helen Macdonald said

Defra ordered the alpaca to be euthanised to stop the spread of the disease

Despite a campaign to save his life, Geronimo the alpaca was put down by government vets on 31 August.

Prior to his death, Geronimo had captured the hearts of animal rights protesters after he was ordered to be euthanised by the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The order was given following two positive tests for bovine tuberculosis (TB).

However, owner Helen Macdonald said that she believes the tests were presenting false positives, and campaigners called for Environment Secretary George Eustice to halt the killing and immediately implement the latest bovine TB tests.

A post-mortem examination has provoked further dispute, with supporters of Macdonald claiming that initial results show the animal did not the disease.

This is what you need to know.

Helen Macdonald, the owner of Geronimo, has been fighting to save the alpaca since 2017 (Photo: Hollie Adams/Ben Birchall/Aaron Chown/PA)
Helen Macdonald, the owner of Geronimo, has been fighting to save the alpaca since 2017 (Photo: Hollie Adams/Ben Birchall/Aaron Chown/PA)
Helen Macdonald, the owner of Geronimo, has been fighting to save the alpaca since 2017 (Photo: Hollie Adams/Ben Birchall/Aaron Chown/PA)

What happened to Geronimo the Alpaca?

On 31 August, Geronimo was taken to a trailer to be led away from the farm we he stayed near Wickwar, south Gloucestershire.

Defra staff wore blue overalls, goggles and masks, and were accompanied by police.

Campaigners for Geronimo had been camping out at the farm in a bid to prevent officials from taking the alpaca, and some could be seen talking to police when they arrived.

The scene was streamed via an online live feed of the farm.

One woman sprayed officers with a water pistol and she was briefly arrested before being let go.

The vehicle with the trailer left the farm under a police escort, as a number of protesters looked on.

MacDonald said: “I am absolutely disgusted by this government. These are barbaric actions.”

A Defra spokesperson said that a postmortem examination and a study of the tissue samples would be carried out by veterinary pathologists from the Animal and Plant Health Agency. They added that this process could take up to three months.

MacDonald has called upon Defra to allow an independent witness to attend the examination.

More than 140,000 people had signed a petition to save Geronimo’s life, but there was nothing that could be done to prevent the euthanasia order from going ahead

MacDonald said: “Boris [Johnson] is apparently sympathetic, well I don’t need his sympathy.

“I needed him to stop this in its tracks when he had the opportunity and look what’s happened.”

Why were people campaigning for Geronimo?

Geronimo the alpaca was earmarked for slaughter after testing positive for bovine TB in 2017 - however, Macdonald claimed that Defra was “relying doggedly on flawed science”.

The farmer maintained that Geronimo was free from the disease, and that he had been “primed” for a false positive by being injected with bovine tuberculin.

Macdonald said: “They’ve known since 2016 that those tests produce false positives if you give an alpaca more than two shots of tuberculin within a 12-month period.

“If George Eustice or the chief vet aren’t willing to look at the evidence and accept that the drug can produce an immune response that can produce a false positive then they need to take a look at their positions.”

Geronimo came from a New Zealand farm where herds have been free from the disease for more than 20 years. He had four skin tests before he was exported from New Zealand, all of which were negative. The animal then had two blood tests and a skin test in the UK which were all positive.

The alpacas who travelled with Geronimo from New Zealand were also all tested and returned negative results. Geronimo had been living with five other alpacas, but Defra refused to test them.

Protesters were demanding a different type of test be used to prove Geronimo’s disease status before his death - however, Downing Street insisted that all the evidence on the alpaca’s condition has been “looked at very carefully”.

Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson, joined the campaign to save Geronimo, and said that the alpaca should be given “a stay of execution”.

He said: “As far as I’m concerned it is absolutely possible and necessary for the secretary of state George Eustice to have a stay of execution.

“Why? Because when this animal was tested when he came to England, yes there might have been a positive result, and the owner thinks it was a false positive, but that is several years ago.

“An animal that is diseased would not have survived five years, that’s for sure.

What did the Government say?

A Defra spokesperson 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 TB causes devastation and distress for farmers and rural communities and that is why we need to do everything we can to reduce the risk of the disease spreading.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We know how distressing losing animals to TB is for anyone. That is why the Environment Secretary has looked at this extremely carefully and interrogated all the evidence.

“The fact remains that Geronimo has sadly tested positive twice using a highly specific and reliable and validated test.

“This is something the Environment Secretary has looked at very carefully.”

The outcry over Geronimo’s fate prompted Eustice, who comes from a farming background, to write an article in the Mail on Sunday about his own experiences with bovine TB.

“Each week on average, we have to remove more than 500 cattle from herds due to infection in England alone. Behind every one of those cases is a farmer who has suffered loss and tragedy,” he said.

“Farmers understand that infected animals are a risk to the remainder of their herd, so, while the loss of individual animals is always a tragedy, the farming communities have worked with our Government vets in this arduous but necessary endeavour.”

What did vets say?

Leading vets also lent their voices to the campaign to save Geronimo, stating that he should be studied for science instead of being killed.

In a letter signed by 13 vets, including a former senior government official, they expressed their “grave reservations” regarding the two positive tests for bovine TB that the alpaca returned in 2017.

The vets said that the diagnosis was “unsafe” and that he ought to be “compassionately studied” instead of being slaughtered.

The letter states: “We could learn a great deal from Geronimo were he to be compassionately studied, but very little from his death.

“We believe Geronimo’s case shines a light on the shortcomings of the current [bovine TB] testing policy, and gives an opportunity for a comprehensive review of the bovine TB testing and control policy, based on science and for the health and wellbeing of farmers, cattle, alpacas, badgers, the environment and the public.”

What is bovine tuberculosis?

Bovine TB is, mostly, a respiratory disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis), which is closely related to the bacterium behind human and avian TB.

All mammals, including humans, are susceptible to bovine TB, and transmission can occur through nose to nose contact and also through contact with saliva, urine, faeces and milk.

It can be difficult to spot bovine TB as the symptoms that are presented are similar to that of other diseases, and tend to only develop in the advanced stages of infection.

Some signs of bovine TB include cattle that keep getting thinner, have a recurring fever and are weak, with a reduced appetite.

The Government website states that if bovine TB is confirmed, then some animals “may have to be killed”.

What did Geronimo’s post-mortem reveal?

While supporters of Macdonald claim the initial findings of the post-mortem show Geronimo didn’t have Bovine Tuberculosis, a government vet refutes the claims.

Ms Macdonald received a letter from Government lawyers containing the initial findings of the post-mortem examination, which were then reviewed by veterinary surgeons supporting her.

In a statement, Ms Macdonald’s lawyers said: “As reviewed by Dr Iain McGill and Dr Bob Broadbent, the preliminary gross post-mortem findings are negative for visible lesions typical of bovine tuberculosis.

“For clarity there are no white or cream caseous, enlarged abscesses typical for bTB in alpacas, whether in the lungs, bronchial, mediastinal or retropharyngeal lymph nodes.”

They said that Ms Macdonald had requested the full findings of the post-mortem report and results of additional tests.

In a statement, Dr Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, said: “We have completed the initial post-mortem examination of Geronimo.

“A number of TB-like lesions were found and in line with standard practice these are now undergoing further investigation.

“These tests include the developing of bacteriological cultures from tissue samples which usually takes several months – we would expect to complete the full post-mortem and culture process by the end of the year.”

What happens now?

As the initial findings of the post-mortem examination were released, Ms Macdonald and her supporters were holding a protest outside Defra headquarters in Westminster.

Speaking at the rally, Ms Macdonald renewed her calls for Environment Secretary George Eustice to resign over the post-mortem examination findings.

“We urge the Government to act with compassion and co-operation, which to date has been severely lacking, creating deep and unnecessary distress to Geronimo,” she said.

“We call on the secretary of state to tender his resignation immediately.”

She vowed to fight for animal rights in “honour” of Geronimo.

“Geronimo was a blessing in my life. He touched the world. He was loved and precious to very many people and he lives on,” she said.

“I miss him. But I will do him the honour of fighting for him and making sure his legacy lives on for all animals.”