Is the tragic fate of Geronimo the Alpaca going to turn into the Little Brown Dog Affair of the 21st Century?

On Wednesday 8th September, I attended a lively, noisy, but peaceful, protest in front of the Defra building in Smith Square, London. The protest was both decrying the brutal handling, stressful removal, and subsequent slaughter of Geronimo the Alpaca – accused by the authorities of having TB – as well as the ongoing contentious debate about the efficacy of culling badgers to prevent TB in cattle. Another ~60,000 are due to be culled in the near future, to add to the ~140,000 deaths so far.

There were several impassioned and well-informed speakers. Dominic Dyer – well known to us not only for campaigning to save the life of Geronimo, but also the main spokesperson here in the UK on behalf of the NowZad charity and its founder, Pen Farthing. most of you will have come across the ongoing debacle of getting Pen’s vets and nurses (as well as close families), and rescue animals, out of Afghanistan on a private-donations-funded flight – the government U-turned so many times they must have made themselves sick with dizziness. Also speaking was Helen MacDonald, Geronimo’s human companion, tireless defender and seemingly unstoppable force of nature, and then Iain McGill, a vet and campaigner against the slaughter of badgers, among many other animal welfare issues.

At the protest, Helen announced preliminary findings of the post-mortem found that Geronimo – as Helen, Iain, Dom and many others, had contended all along – did not have TB. Defra, of course, contests these findings. They hurriedly put out a statement – while we were still protesting outside their building, in fact – declaring they had found some abnormal lesions that could indicate the presence of TB. But, why, oh why, didn’t they proudly declare this earlier, if they were so sure – this was, after all more than a week after Geronimo was taken, and we can only presume that the post mortem was performed shortly after his death? It would have vindicated their seemingly brutal treatment of the animal and the requirement to euthanise. This row will run and run, I suspect.

Whilst listening to the speakers, the parallels between this case and the story of the little brown dog of Battersea struck me forcefully.

Over one hundred years ago, the public outcry, distress and disturbances that ensued over the perceived abuse, ongoing maltreatment, and public slaughter of one dog by an entitled, elitist, and at the time male-dominated, ‘authority’ is hard to make sense of in a way. Why all the fuss? And over a single creature? Why does it matter? It’s just an animal, after all?

The outcome of the brown dog story was that the memorial to his memory, but more than that, to the memory of the countless animals used and abused in a similar way, ended up being so divisive and problematic for the government of the time, that it led to the local authority surreptitiously stealing it in the dead of night and destroying it.

That one nameless, homeless stray could cause so much controversy and trouble at a national level is hard to comprehend – and I’ve studied the story in a huge amount of depth, but it happened. And I believe the same will be true of Geronimo. The lasting outcome of the Brown Dog affair was a heightened public understanding and conscience about the plight of laboratory animals, and, indirectly, contributed to the revisiting of cruelty to animals’ legislation through the convening of another Royal Commission.

And I believe, after listening to the passion, dedication and conviction of the speakers that day, that the cruel and, as it turns out, more than likely totally unnecessary slaughter of that healthy alpaca, will cause a similar tsunami wave of change within Defra and beyond.

As my fictional heroine Lena says, and I believe whole-heartedly:

“Our humanity will be judged by how we treat and care for other species, not just our own kind.”

Take heed, Defra!

Why I believe we must wean ourselves off using the term ‘pet’

For many years, the use of the word pet has troubled me. I know, I know, the alternative ‘animal companion’ is clunky, and ‘fur baby’ makes me feel a little cringey, but there must be a better term we can use for the hairier members of our family.

This was brought home to me in spades this week, when the (dis) Honourable Member of Parliament for Wyre & Preston North used the term in what can only be described in a purposefully derogatory way to justify his forced U-turn over his previous U-turn when he took away permission for the Nowzad charity’s publicly fundraised plane, to fly into Afghanistan to pick up their founder Pen Farthing, his staff – mostly Afghans, and the cats and dogs they have been caring for.

This is what Ben Wallace MP has been quoted as saying, in increasingly angry, defensive and ever more hysterical interviews and tweets:

“What I am not prepared to do is prioritise pets over people”

“This is a total myth and being peddled around as if this is the reason the pet evacuation hasn’t taken place”

Let’s get a few facts straight:

  • The Nowzad charity was set up by ex-Marine Pen Farthing years ago as a result of Pen seeing the close bond soldiers made with local animals – all waifs and strays and starving. He witnessed for himself the comfort and support the animals brought to the soldiers in the most desperate of times, and determined to do something to care for them when their solider companions had left. The charity is so named after a dog that befriended Pen, a dog made to take part in barbaric dog fights, until Pen rescued him. THEY ARE NOT PETS.
  • Nowzad is devoted to caring for those animals. They are innocent, sentient beings who are as much victims of this senseless conflict as the hundreds of thousands of innocent Aghans caught up in this nightmare. It is Nowzad’s mission to reunite the animals with their soldier carers at some point.
  • The chartered plane – paid for by voluntary donations – is AN EXTRA resource, an extra plane that will fly into Kabul airport and pick up Pen, his staff, many of them women, and some that have been trained up as vets and nurses, their immediate families which total about 60 and a number of the animals. The rest of the capacity of 250 will be filled with other people fleeing the terror. The animals will go in the hold where no humans are ever put!
  • Indeed, there is not enough room for all of Pen’s animals, so he has already had to make some heart-breaking decisions regarding which to take, which to put to sleep and which to let loose. Because, have no doubt, when the Taliban takes control of Nowzad’s compound, they will shoot or torch the cages of any remaining animals.
  • Before you make a defence of dishonourable Mr Wallace, please know that this man, who will not ‘prioritise pets over people’ is perfectly content to prioritise a car over people as the photo below depicts. A car was evacuated and put into the main body of the airplane, thus displacing dozens of human places. He had absolutely no problem with this.

So, to finish, I am even more determined to wipe this term from my vocabulary and call on all animal lovers out there to do the same. They are sentient creatures just like us. They feel pain, terror and distress, just like us. They deserve our compassion as much as the wretched, innocent Afghan people do.

In Little Brown Dog, a fiction based on a true story of senseless cruelty but also deep compassion and bravery, one of my heroines, Lena, states:

“Our humanity will be judged by the way we treat other species, not just our own kind.”

Take heed, Mr Ben Wallace, MP.

Cars before people

The Extraordinary Power of Statues

The Statue of Colston before he was toppled and thrown in the harbour

Have recent news stories given you cause to contemplate the improbable power of statues to incite violence? To ponder how previously unnoticed, ignored even, blocks of metal and stone suddenly become so visible, so divisive? How long-forgotten memorials to long-dead (typically) men can suddenly evoke extreme emotions, rouse such violence, be responsible for civil unrest even? 

Two of the most current examples are that of Edward Colston, the 18th Century Bristol-born merchant whose involvement in the slave-trade gave cause to his statue being toppled and unceremoniously dumped in Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. An informative and balanced documentary about the incident and its aftermath shown on BBC2 entitled Statue Wars: One Summer in Bristol, can be watched HERE.

More recently, in June 2021, the ongoing dispute about the statue of Cecil Rhodes – which stands high above Oriel College in Oxford – continues to make news, with the latest development being a group of over 150 Oxford academics refusing to teach Oriel students until the statue has been removed. You can read more about their protest HERE

Whether these statues should stay in public view and their provenance be explained properly, to put them in their rightful historical context and lay bare their often disreputable origins, or whether they should have no place being on show in a modern, civilised society, you may imagine this outpouring of hostility against inanimate objects to be a relatively modern phenomenon; enacted by under-represented sectors of society enraged, but also empowered, by recent appalling events. But would you be surprised to learn that this action has a prescient echo from the past? An eerily similar drama, played out on the streets of south London, became a national cause célèbre over a century ago. Where some of the students of London’s universities took to the streets in protest of a simple memorial; a statue of a terrier dog. The furore surrounding block of granite and bronze resulted in class warfare, questions raised in parliament, mindless, repeated vandalism and, finally… well, you’ll have to read my book to find out…

This true story, that of a seemingly innocuous memorial to a stray dog, unveiled in an out-of-the-way small patch of greenery in south London, is at the heart of my novel Little Brown Dog. It will be published by independent Welsh women’s publishing press Honno Press on 15 September 2021. The exact same day, one hundred and fifteen years ago, when the original statue was unveiled. Please get in contact HERE if you would like to learn more. Or pre-order your copy at any one of the following book outlets:

Colston as he is today