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Britain's Badger Beef

Compared to their British counterparts, American Badgers have it relatively easy. Yes, paintbrush manufacturers covet their fur, but few animals pose a threat to these ferocious carnivores. Even rattlesnakes keep their distance. Across the Atlantic, however, the story is very different. That's because the British government is killing badgers by the thousands in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease.

The trouble started thirty years ago when someone found a dead badger on a farm in southwestern England. An outbreak of bovine tuberculosis had occurred there about the same time, and tests revealed that the dead badger also carried the disease. Tests conducted on other badgers showed that many of them were carriers, too. Since then approximately 25,000 badgers have been killed. The first 10,000 were poisoned with cyanide. More recently the animals have been trapped in cages and then shot.

Still, it remains to be seen whether badgers are, in fact, responsible for the spread of bovine TB. Scientists have proven that it is possible for a badger to pass the disease to cattle via contaminants in its urine and feces. And humans can get the disease by drinking unpasteurized milk from a contaminated cow. But advocates for the badgers contend that continued killing of the animals is unfair. They claim that the conditions under which scientists observed badgers spreading the disease were artificial. They also believe that recent increases in the rate of TB in cattle are connected somehow with mad cow disease and not with badgers.

Meanwhile, the so-called badger cull continues. Government officials defend their efforts to learn more about bovine tuberculosis, and animal lovers say the millions being spent to kill badgers should instead be spent developing a cattle vaccine and improving cattle health.

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2007 eNature.com