- An alpaca called Geronimo that tested positive for bovine TB was killed on Tuesday, the BBC reported.
- The front pages of several newspapers on Wednesday focused on the sick animal’s death.
- The obsession with Geronimo is “very British” and says a lot about the national mentality, experts say.
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Geronimo the alpaca, who was finally killed on Tuesday, became the most famous animal in the United Kingdom.
But why the British people were so obsessed with the fate of this furry creature says quite a lot about the national psyche, experts say.
What’s the deal with Geronimo?
Geronimo was at the center of a fierce political debate: should he be euthanized, or should the Government change tack and spare his life?
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had ordered him to be put down, and a High Court judge rejected his owner’s final appeal to keep him alive, consequently starting the timer on a 30-day “kill window.”
Defra said Geronimo had to die because he had twice tested positive for bovine tuberculosis -an infectious disease that leads to the slaughter of thousands of cattle every year, and that humans are susceptible to too.
His owner, Helen Macdonald, who cared for Geronimo on her smallholding in Gloucestershire, insisted that his results returned false positives because he was primed with a tuberculin vaccine beforehand.
Macdonald also claimed that results from an advanced phage PCR blood test, which Geronimo reportedly had before arriving in the UK from New Zealand, proved that the alpaca didn’t have bovine TB.
But Defra, which has not yet approved the widespread use of these tests, had rejected her request to test Geronimo again.
This led to backlash from high-profile animal rights activists, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own father.
Demonstrators (and alpacas) marched on Defra’s headquarters to protest Geronimo’s death sentence, over 140,000 people signed a Change.org petition to keep the animal alive, and British newspapers eagerly followed every development.
British media whipped up a frenzy, playing into the hysteria and outrage expressed by pro-Geronimo and anti-Geronimo activists. By doing this, they transformed the alpaca into a household name.
Following the alpaca’s death on Tuesday – the tragic end to a long legal battle – most tabloids put the story on their front pages.
-dominic dyer (@domdyer70) September 1, 2021
According to Alex Lockwood, a researcher in human-animal relations at the University of Sunderland’s Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, this national obsession with the plight of a farm animal is unique to the UK.
“There’s something about it that’s very, very British,” he told Insider.
-Charlene White (@CharleneWhite) August 31, 2021
‘A nation of animal lovers’
One of the reasons the Geronimo story became a staple of the British media landscape is because of the “myth of ourselves as a nation of animal lovers,” Lockwood told Insider.
“We have a very dominant narrative that we have the highest welfare standards in the world, that we are a nation of pet lovers, and that we have a great respect for nature,” he continued. “These are all narratives and stories that are part of the national imagination in the UK and they tell us who we are as a nation, a country, and as a community.”
There are about as many pets in the UK as there are people – an estimated 65 million – and a 2020 survey by Agria Pet Insurance across six European countries found that the UK is the most pet-loving nation in Europe.
“So because we consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers and because we have these relationships with our companion animals who are part of our families, stories like Geronimo really break out and speak to us,” Lockwood said. “There’s something that’s very comfortable and familiar and emotive for us because we can identify to the story.”
There is a wealth of animal stories in the press, but Lockwood said this one stands out because it features a central character.
“People love stories of animals when they break out of the numberless masses,” he said. “Whether it’s a couple of pigs that make a jump for freedom or whether it’s the octopus that predicts the World Cup football scores, we love an animal that we can identify with, who has a name, and who has a personality.”
August is ‘silly season’
Tom Harwood, a correspondent for GB News, said that he agrees, in part, with the animal lovers’ narrative.
“The UK always sees itself as a nation of animal lovers and I think, to some extent, it does target those heartstrings of the nation,” he said. “But it’s also quite a funny story; the idea that one alpaca is potentially putting hundreds or thousands of cows at risk is unusual and it’s exactly the kind of story that flies at this time of year.”
Harwood put the obsession down to timing.
August is the so-called “silly season” in Britain – when frivolous stories typically emerge in the press because of Parliament being on recess. “There’s an absolute vacuum in the news,” he said. “This is a fun hobby horse story that people can jokingly get on one side or the other of and turn it into a much more forced battle than it actually is.”
-Tom Harwood (@tomhfh) August 10, 2021
Harwood, who wrote an article for MailOnline calling for Geronimo’s immediate death, said: “It’s an open and shut case. This alpaca very clearly has bovine TB, the government has a 25-year eradication strategy for bovine TB, and no exception should be made to that strategy.”
But Dominic Dyer, a wildlife advocate for the Born Free organization and a prominent voice in the campaign to save Geronimo, disagrees with the notion that this is a frivolous story. “Some people might think it’s a fluffy story,” he said. “But it’s far more than that.”
‘It has a massive impact on taxpayers’
Dyer said that he believes Geronimo captured the imagination of the UK because it is an inspiring “David and Goliath story” of one woman and her alpaca taking on the British government.
Both the prime minister and Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, refused to save Geronimo from being put down. “What is driving public anger is that two of the most powerful men in Britain are ganging up on this woman, Helen Macdonald, who just basically wants to get a proper test to her animal to prove it’s not diseased,” he said.
The wildlife advocate said that the story also speaks to a wider issue – the Government’s “failed” bovine tuberculosis policy – which, he added, directly affects British taxpayers.
“Helen Macdonald has brought public and political attention at a critical time a significant failing in bovine TB controls,” Dyer told Insider. “It has a massive impact on taxpayers because it costs hundreds of millions of pounds and has a huge social-economic impact on farmers because they’re losing capital through not controlling this disease,” he said.
It has cost an estimated £500 million to control the disease in England in the last 10 years, according to TB Free England.
It has also been estimated that the costs of bovine TB control could top £1 billion over the next decade, a 2014 Defra report said.
While Dyer said that, for these reasons, the Geronimo story is “quite a serious story,” he appreciates that the alpaca’s cuteness might have contributed to the recent media obsession.
“When Helen goes on television, she’s really good and she’s with the alpaca, who makes nice, little noises and looks really cute,” he said. “You know, it’s a PR person’s dream.”
The British public seemingly couldn’t get enough of Geronimo, so much so that some tuned into a 24/7 live stream of the alpaca going about his final days.
Even the alpaca’s last moments, according to social media users, were quaintly British.
-Jenni Frazer (@Jennifrazer) August 31, 2021
-Simon Alvey (@salvey1) August 31, 2021
For Dyer, who fought tirelessly to save Geronimo, this public battle has ended in a disappointing defeat. And the tragic end to this truly British story, he told his Twitter followers, has made him “ashamed of this nation.”