DOMINIC LAWSON: Why Britain fell for Geronimo
We are a nation divided by a camelid. Or, to be absolutely specific, by the fate of an eight-year-old alpaca named Geronimo, which the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is determined to put down as it has twice tested positive for the disease bovine tuberculosis (bTB).
I say ‘which’, but for those passionately committed to Geronimo’s escape from the fatal euthanising needle of the state, this creature is very much a ‘who’, with all the individual moral status entailed.
Their number includes the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson. Last week he delivered an extraordinary tirade, referring to Defra’s imminent action — which could take place as soon as today — as ‘an absurd murderous errand’.
Well, it’s not absurd if Geronimo truly is a carrier of bTB, given how lethal that disease is within our national herds of domestic livestock, mainly cattle.
We are a nation divided by a camelid. Or, to be absolutely specific, by the fate of an eight-year-old alpaca named Geronimo (pictured with owner Helen Macdonald), which the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is determined to put down as it has twice tested positive for the disease bovine tuberculosis (bTB)
And if despatching this alpaca counts as ‘murder’, then all of us who eat meat are no better than cannibals, every abattoir as damnable as the Nazis’ extermination camps, with your friendly butchers and supermarkets accessories to a form of Holocaust.
There are many people who do think like that — you might call them militant vegans. Occasionally I see them demonstrating outside the local farm where we buy our meat, since it has an abattoir.
But Stanley Johnson was brought up on a farm (as was his son Boris, on the same one) so he presumably doesn’t really think his family have been involved in ‘murder’ down the generations. If he does, then he should come out with his hands up.
Last week the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, delivered an extraordinary tirade, referring to Defra’s imminent action — which could take place as soon as today — as ‘an absurd murderous errand’
It’s true that alpacas are not destined for the oven: they are bred for their luxuriant fleeces. But just because sheep — which the Johnsons farmed — are also valued for their meat, there is still no objective moral distinction to be drawn between killing Geronimo, and one of those white woolly things.
And we do our sheep-killing when the baa-baas are young, because lamb is much more tender than mutton. This whole business caused ructions when our children were little. We have a field, and used sheep to graze on it.
Many years ago, over lunch, I stupidly confessed to my elder daughter that the delicious lamb we were eating was one of those that had frolicked in our field. Horrified, she put down her knife and fork. She is now an adult — and a vegetarian. I may be responsible for that.
The thing is, she had given names to all the (few) sheep in our field, and helped wean them, even bottle-feeding three. To her, they had become individuals — which did not apply to any meat we would have had from the butcher. Something similar, though less intimate, has happened with Geronimo and the British public.
After all, quite a lot of alpacas are put down every year by Defra, when they have been identified as a potential cause of spreading bovine TB: indeed, the Government has developed a test specifically for camelids.
But none of the alpacas despatched previously has become a ‘personality’ known to millions through a live webcam. Geronimo is now a sort of celebrity camelid, as its owner Helen Macdonald has fought valiantly for years to save her admittedly cute critter.
It was in 2017 that this Gloucestershire veterinary nurse imported Geronimo all the way from New Zealand, submitted him to the official UK TB test — and to her horror received the dreaded positive result.
A second test had the same outcome, and, you would think, Geronimo’s fate was now sealed. But Ms Macdonald was not giving up: she spent £30,000 on a judicial review, based on the claim that these tests had both delivered ‘false positives’.
Alas, this month the courts decided that the Government’s process and decision was legally and medically sound: which is when Helen Macdonald turned to the public, media, and politicians for support.
In fact, she said, ‘I would expect the Prime Minister to step in’. Unfortunately for her (and Geronimo) she had to make do with the PM’s dad.
Initially, it seemed she might gain the support of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.
The Labour shadow cabinet member Wes Streeting, when asked if he agreed with the ‘death sentence for Geronimo’ replied that ‘it feels really callous to say ‘yes’,’ and that the Defra secretary of state, George Eustice, was ‘facing some pretty serious allegations from Geronimo’s vet’ (who has argued that the government tests are flawed and that if the alpaca were truly infected with TB, it would have died some time ago).
However, days later, Labour’s leader Sir Keir Starmer dashed Helen Macdonald’s hopes when he backed the Government, saying there was ‘no alternative’ to putting down Geronimo: ‘Of course it’s sad — it’s sad for farmers as well when they lose their animals, but we have to keep TB under control.’
Labour’s leader Sir Keir Starmer dashed Helen Macdonald’s hopes when he backed the Government, saying there was ‘no alternative’ to putting down Geronimo: ‘Of course it’s sad — it’s sad for farmers as well when they lose their animals, but we have to keep TB under control’
For what it’s worth, my opinion is that it would be sensible for Defra to agree to Helen Macdonald’s plea that Geronimo, exceptionally, be tested a third time. Otherwise suspicion might linger that it does not have the confidence in the earlier tests, which it claims.
But, if that, too (or indeed any alternative form of test) showed that this particular camelid does harbour the disease which has caused such devastation in the past — less than a century ago tens of thousands of actual humans were dying each year from bovine TB — then, sorry, it’s time to go, Geronimo.
Besides, this is not Helen Macdonald’s only beloved alpaca. She has a herd of 80, so there will still be 79 left (and these, unlike Geronimo, can have the pleasure of company, since, having not tested positive for TB, they are not similarly required to be isolated in a one-camelid pen).
If Geronimo does have any feelings about his situation, it will not be stress at the thought of being put down, as the creature is incapable of knowing that and therefore oblivious. No, Geronimo’s misfortune is that he is being deprived of the company of Ms Macdonald’s female alpacas, and doing what comes naturally.
Clearly, though, she is suffering continuous high anxiety about the situation: ‘I’m in a horrible limbo waiting for them to arrive and kill him. I feel like I’m being punished. They want him dead and off their desk.’
As the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein declared: ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’
In a sense, the public sympathy only appears to be for Geronimo: I suspect that for many of the 42 per cent of the public who when polled, said the alpaca should not be put down, their sympathy is largely based on feelings for their fellow human (Ms Macdonald) combined with a strong urge to support the individual Briton battling against the mighty and faceless state.
In this way, it is not about animal rights, but human ones. That, I do understand. I am much less sympathetic to the Stanley Johnson-esque view of creatures as moral equivalents to humans. At the risk of trivialising a deep debate, I do regard it as significant than animals don’t have a sense of humour. They don’t cry, either.
In short, as the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein declared: ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ — he meant that creatures are so radically different from humans that their thoughts are not even theoretically translatable into ours.
The same goes for Geronimo. Although because he has big round eyes like a human baby’s, with which he looks at his owner (note: owner) at a roughly equal height, it is all too easy to impute a human sentiment behind them.
This is a delusional form of empathy, however powerful. And I fear it is because modern Britain is so far removed from the reality of nature in the raw, that we are especially vulnerable to this delusion.
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