Wool is Cruel.

Via Gary Smith
on Jan 4, 2010
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Pulling the Wool over our Eyes.

Fur is bad news, we know. But so, apparently, is wool.

Wool may be natural. It’s also almost 100% Cruel.

Most of us think of wool as a cruelty-free product (this article was born when elephant’s editor-in-chief replied with surprise to a comment of mine that wool was cruel, too).

When it comes to wool, we conjure up images of idyllic surroundings and happy sheep who naturally shed their coats or need haircuts to keep cool during the hot summer months, and live out this peaceful life until they take their last breath.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Wool is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Like most animal agriculture enterprises, the welfare of animals is barely part of the picture. Sheep are commodities, pure and simple, and their only value is how much money they bring to the enterprise.

The majority of the world’s wool comes from Australia. In fact, Australia is now home to more than a hundred million sheep. Nearly all are Merino sheep, who are loved by the industry because they produce heavy fleece that makes a fine wool. Merino sheep are not found in the wild and are not native to Australia, so they do not do well in the heat of Australia. They have been specifically bred to have as much skin as possible — wrinkled skin. Wrinkled skin means more wool. Wrinkled skin also means flystrike.

Flystrike is caused by moisture getting into the wrinkles in the sheep’s skin. When this occurs, a foul odor is emitted, which attracts flies. Flies lay eggs and maggots are born. The maggots literally eat away the sheep’s skin.

The least expensive method to deal with flystrike (remember that sheep are commodities to the industry) is to cut off large chunks of skin around the tail so moisture does not collect in the folds. This practice is known as mulesing. Farmers throw lambs onto their backs and restrain their legs between metal bars. They use gardening shears to carve out flesh from their rumps. This is done without anesthesia or painkillers – spending money on anesthesia would cut into their profits. The skin is scarred and becomes smooth, which prevents flies from nesting and hatching eggs.

The good news is that because of pressure from PETA, ranchers have agreed to phase out mulesing by 2010. The bad news is that what will replace mulesing isn’t much better. Instead, ranchers apply clamps to lamb’s rumps to cut off circulation. This causes the flesh to eventually fall off.

Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it?

Other procedures performed without anesthesia include punching a hole in the ear of the lambs several weeks after birth, docking their tails and castrating the males. The castration of male lambs happens between two and eight weeks old, with the use of a rubber ring to cut off their blood supply.

Then comes the shearing process. Sheep are shorn in spring, just before they naturally shed their winter coats. Shearing too late would mean a loss of wool. Most sheep are sheared while it is still too cold. An estimated one million sheep die each year of exposure after premature shearing. Shearers are paid by volume, not hourly, so they must work quickly. Some sheer up to 350 sheep a day. The welfare of the sheep does not play a role in their shearing. Nicks, cuts and infections are not treated. Again, this would cut into profits.

So, what happens to the sheep once the ranchers have decided that the wool output is not as profitable as it was? They sell them off to slaughter, most at around age three to four (their natural lifespan is 15 to 20 years). They are typically shipped to the Middle East and North Africa. They are crammed onto filthy, disease-ridden ships, up to 100,000 of them at a time, and the voyage can take three weeks to a month. Two million sheep die during these voyages per year. The ships have open decks, exposing the animals to the elements. During the journey, they are taken off their natural feed and fed pellets. Most do not eat the pellets because they don’t understand that it’s food — up to 47 percent die from starvation en route.

On top of the terrible ship experience, animal welfare laws are non-existent in these parts of the world. The sheep are dragged off the ships to unregulated slaughterhouses. The sheep are not stunned before slaughter and are conscious when their throats are slit. In fact, some animals are still alive while their legs are being sawed off and their skin removed. Unfortunately, I have seen the videos.

Wool is a cruel and bloody industry that doesn’t at all resemble the image of happy sheep on green pastures. Deciding to boycott Australian wool is not enough. China, a country with a terrible reputation for animal cruelty, is second in wool production. While there may be sheep farmers who adhere to more humane practices, the inseparability of the wool and meat industries means even comparatively well treated sheep are destined for pain, suffering and a terribly sad end. Like dogs, cats, dolphins, horses, and all other animals, sheep are sentient beings who deserve to have a life free from suffering.

Today, when there are so many natural and synthetic fabrics that are cruelty-free, there’s no reason to choose fabrics taken off the back of an animal.

Informative Resources:

1. Alternative Outfitters

2. Humanitaire

3. Earthlings [documentary film]


Gary Smith is co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in health and wellness, spirituality, animal protection, natural foods, documentary films, non-profits and socially beneficial companies. Gary and his wife adhere to a vegan lifestyle and live with their cat Chloe, in Sherman Oaks, CA.


About Gary Smith

Gary Smith is co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in nonprofits, documentary films, animal advocacy campaigns, health/wellness, natural foods and socially beneficial companies. Gary blogs at The Thinking Vegan and writes for elephant journal, Jewish Journal, Mother Nature Network and other publications. Gary and his wife are ethical vegans and live in Sherman Oaks, CA with their cat Chloe and two beagles rescued from an animal testing laboratory, Frederick and Douglass.


78 Responses to “Wool is Cruel.”

  1. Becky says:

    I'm wondering the same. I've seen organic wool advertised…is that any better?

  2. Jackie says:

    Thank you for exposing the wool industry for what it is. Very informative article!

  3. I'd love to know myself. Obviously vintage fashion is a good option.

    Gary? Organic? Or lines that are cruelty-free?

  4. Thanks for this article, Gary. I think most people have absolutely no idea how something as seemingly benign as wool production is actually incredibly cruel. And to Beth and Becky–organic production has absolutely nothing to do with humane or better treatment. Most organic farms are factory farms and treatment of animals is every bit as bad as on other factory farms. And in the end, the animals all go to the same slaughterhouses. There are so many great alternatives to wool. I knit and am having a lot of fun with fibers from bamboo, soy, organic cotton and hemp. Much more interesting–and compassionate–than wool!

  5. It's not all that way. My sheep live happy lives, out on pasture, happy as can be. There are many small family farms raising sheep humanely.


  6. Suasoria says:

    Lisa, do you supply to the clothing industry?

    Because of the interrelationship between wool and meat/sheep slaughter I imagine it would be hard to point to a volume supplier that's cruelty free.

  7. Beth says:

    Can you (or other readers) recommend wool clothing makers that use cruelty free suppliers?

  8. Jeannnie Harvey says:

    I cannot read all or view the videos…IS THERE NOTHING SACRED ANYMORE ! DOES THERE HAVE TO BE SOOOOO MUCH CRUELTY… The more I get to know mankind the more I love my Dog…God Bless you for those who feeel animals do not feel! No more stated is needed. Wake up Humans !!!
    Jeannie Harvey….

  9. Aamma says:

    and i'm a knitter.

    i intend that people rise in consciousness & treat all beings with love & respect. until then, i'll have to only buy ethical yarn.

  10. Matt Johnston says:

    Ibex is a Merino Wool Company out of VT that uses New Zealand Wool. New Zealand wool is is 100% Mulesing free and Ibex is 90% made in the USA. Check them out

  11. Kelsi says:

    This is such a bummer. I've always been such a wool superfan.
    Does anyone have any (nonsynthetic) fiber suggestions that are good at keeping you warm and dry in cold weather?

  12. Elizabeth says:

    Cotton farming is terrible for the earth, and polyester is a nice word for plastic. I'd rather knit with wool from a farm I know is cruelty-free.


  13. Via Twitter, a suggestion:
    @elephantjournal If not wool? => Fleece made from recycled PET plastic is cruelty-free :-) Several mfrs make garments of this material

  14. […] The following Facebook conversation was prompted by our recent post on elephantjournal.com: Wool may be Natural, but it’s Cruel. […]

  15. Megan says:

    Actually bamboo yarn is still more eco friendly, and far more sustainable than animal agriculture (remember, wool has the same problem meat does, the animals need to be fed so its very resource intensive, not to mention thats a lot of poop!)

    But nothing beats reducing and recycling. You can get yarns that are make from recylced materials, or you can DIY. Unthread old sweaters, and make your own yarn out of plastic bags, old t-shirts, newspapers, whatever you can!

  16. […] we advocate solely for veganism? Another personally riveting conversation came out of our recent Wool may be Natural—but it’s Cruel post over on […]

  17. Timmy Mac says:

    I'm an avid backpacker. Can anyone recommend a fabric or fiber that I can use to stay dry and warm other than wool? Seems like the choices are animal cruelty or earth-raping petroleum derivatives. What should I replace my wool socks with to fight off hypothermia?

  18. My sense is that as a human culture, it's time to look at the underlying roots of all the unconsciousness/greed/cruelty in the world – whether that be in the name of consumerism, land, beliefs…

    …because it's overwhelming to think of all the ways in which we have to personally be conscious and vigilant (though I know we all are doing our best in every way – eating and buying local, organic, fair-trade, humane – not to mention making and growing our own!… 😉

    So of course we keep walking the talk, coming down to earth in our everyday, seeing thru the glamourous illusion of the world and its fear-driven need to fill some empty hole…

    But above all, perhaps we can approach our human follies with a bit of compassion… And curiosity.

    Love, Ariana

  19. Laurie says:

    Who ever wrote this article has no clue as to raising sheep! Sheep DO NOT naturally shed their winter wool. It has to be shorn off or they will become infested with bugs which will make them very sick and eventually die. There are so many cruel free farms out there that do sell wool it would surprise you. Myself, I have 54 sheep and it is NOT cruel to shear them. It is actually opposite-it is cruel NOT TO SHEAR them.

  20. Lynn says:

    We are wool processors- working hand in hand with shepherds of sheep and alpaca , among other animals. These animals supply such a wonderful fiber and to boycott natural fibers is crazy. Find yourself people who are small animal raisers and support their efforts to continue to supply us with yarns and fibers to make felt with. The animals grown this wool and need to be sheared every spring or they will die! We have many shepherd friends- all you need to do is look at the coats of these animals every spring to know- they NEED a haircut!!! Please get facts right before posting – and please do not go off on tangents that are based on emotion and not fact!

  21. Tim says:

    @Lynn and @Laurie: The root of the problem is that you have no right to keep animals to create profit. They are on this earth for their own purposes, not to serve you and put money in your pocket.

  22. Russ Martin says:

    It doesn't seem fair to boycott the entire wool industry because some large scale producers are inflicting pain on animals. There are many small family owned farms and wool producers who treat their animals humanely. I suggest that the boycotts be targeted toward those producers who are treating their animals in inhumane ways.

  23. Laurie says:

    Let me tell you something mister! I loose money on my animals every year so where is the profit? I spend more money feeding my animal than I do my own family! We won't even mention that they eat before I do! I think you better get your facts straight before you start shooting your mouth off!!!!! MOST SHEEP DO NOT SHED!!! SHEARING IS NOT CRUEL!

  24. Jared says:

    Anyway, since we are on the animal cruelty bandwagon here, lets have a look at this: http://www.petakillsanimals.com/ Turns out in 2008, in Virginia alone PETA personally killed well over 2000 cats and dogs. Oh, and found homes for less than 10. Theres a great thread on this site that covers an animal cruelty trial of a couple of PETA employees, for killing and dumping bodies. Homes for less than 10…

  25. Laurie, if you'd like to publish something representing middle path—being kind and working in harmony with your sheep friends—I'll be honored to post and share. This is not a black and white situation, clearly. I think Gary's post, above, is mainly directed toward "conventional" wool—unfortunately 99% of the supply, that 99% of us don't know is cruel.

  26. Via http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal

    This is one of those articles that needs to be circulated ever more widely. I knew in theory that wool was less than humane, but this article clearly and concisely explains the process and cruelty involved – my stomach clenched as I read it.

    so sad…

    I am one of the few naive people who thought shearing sheep was beneficial for them. Now I just feel disgusted.

    Like that you are sharing this!

    Ronnie, me too. I was surprised when Gary told me in a comment on our site, I think it was, and asked him to write up. He did a great, non-sensational job of it.

    i disagree- this article is taking one admittedly very large facet of a commodity and its produciton and treating it as completely representative of the whole.

    this isn't mature journalism, and by not including information about responsible and ethical natural fiber production which is available internationally, you're hurting the solution to the problem. it's irresponsible journalism based on indignation rather than complete information. you can buy artisan handspun wool and roving at the boulder farmer's market from a flock of less that 10 heritage shetland sheep that live less than 20 miles away- the wool is being spun in front of you on a zero emission human-powered antique wood spinning wheel.

    you can support microloan recipents and heavily impoverished communities and women's cooperatives in the andes who hand shear their alpacas and sheep and hand spin their fiber and wouldn't dream of slaughtering an animal when it's productivity dropped a bit, simply b/c they cannot afford a replacement…. See More

    i encourage you to reseach and post a follow-up article that devotes as much time and energy to all of the positive, amazing, and socially-uplifting things that are going on in the natural fiber communities world-wide that your readers can be proud to support and proud to be part of- let us participate in ethical, responsible alternatives that make the worl a better place, rather than just telling us how awful some of it is and representing that as the entire picture.

    please pardon the typographical errors, but frankly, we need to recognize and support the people who are trying to provide ethical and compassionate alternatives to industrialization, commodification, and cruelty to animals. i have 2 friends on facebook who have heritage breed, pasture-raised sheep that they lovingly tend, name, and post pictures of- including the ewes who are over 10 years old. one sells fleeces on his web site and links each fleece to the picture of the ewe or lamb it came from, year after year.

    i just don't feel like sensationalism is a productive way to educate others and improve the world.

    Amen! We'd love to hear from your friends. I said in comments on the post, if you read it, that we were looking for alternatives. Someone suggested IBEX. Leave other good fair-minded non-cruel wool alternatives in Comments on the post. Gary?

    Waylon Lewis
    grrrreat comment on our Page. Thanks for that, I'll contact Gary. If you look at my comments on the Post, I too was asking for fair-minded alternative sources for non-cruel wool.

    Gary I'm sure will be happy to better research or explore non-cruel solutions, he's passionate on the subject. I still think his basic gist—that conventional wool (99% of the supply) is cruel—is news to 99% of us. It was to me.

  27. […] staring at this campaign, instead of being stared at. Be comfortable in your own skin, let animals keep theirs! #gallery-1 { margin: auto; } #gallery-1 .gallery-item { float: left; margin-top: […]

  28. nidhi says:

    hello – i just wanted to thank you for making me aware of this cruel industry. i followed a link posted by the group "that's why we don't eat animals" – i was considering going vegan and this article sealed the deal. thank you!
    also, i wanted to share this illustration i did right after i read the article, i included it on the website link.

  29. integralhack says:

    I agree with you, Jennifer. People . . . THINK. Yes, there are inhumane keepers of sheep and there are people that keep sheep humanely. This doesn't mean that all people who keep and shear sheep are bad. And even in good circumstances, some sheep will suffer just as human beings will suffer.

    I've kept sheep on my property by a humane and kind sheep rancher. Those sheep were well taken care of–I witnessed it every day. Yes, you have to be careful of the climate and where and when you shear. I made a special effort to make sure they had fresh, clean water every day–something that sheep in the wild might have trouble finding.

    Sheep living on their own would have a very Hobbesian existence: nasty, brutish and short. They would be attacked, tormented and killed by any number of animals and insects. On the flip side, many farmers love their animals and want them to be be healthy and happy.

    It is equally naive to think that plastics and other materials have no impact on the environment. Even when processing recycled materials you have an impact on the environment.

    We do have to be vigilant regarding inhumane treatment of animals, but to suggest that we set them all free and play "Born Free" in the background is not only ignorant, it is cruel.


  30. Mark says:

    This is not the norm for the wool industry. I would be happy to expose flaws in your vegan food and clothing producers. Before there was synthetics what would you have used? Where are the synthetics of plastic coming from? Is it not effecting animals directly and if you think that the synthetic textile industry is an efficient no cruelty industry then you need to look harder

  31. […] links on the site. “Due to my posts,” he says, “I was asked by Elephant Journal to write an article on wool. That has turned into a regular gig of being the animal rights blogger for the online magazine. I […]

  32. […] It’s uncomfortable: Gary Smith’s Wool is Cruel article about the horrifically cruel treatment of sheep at the hands of Australia wool trade had […]

  33. sick of crap! says:

    Way to muddle your facts and skip around without sticking to the TRUTH!

    What does the Australian wool industry have to do with the treatment of slaughter sheep once they are shipped overseas to the Middle East- it is VERY irresponsible to write the article in a way that ties the wool industry to the practices of slaughterhouses thousands of miles away in another country.

    Also, having live in Australia for 12 years I would like you to point out to me which of the major sheep farming regions you are talking about when you say it gets so cold that sheep die from exposure to the cold? It doesn't. You have clearly NEVER spent any time in Australia.

  34. guest says:

    smartwool = sustainability and cruelty free… the only brand of wool i trust… you should check them out.

  35. […] inflammatory or unnecessarily graphic. Here is a link to the article if you would like to read it. Wool Is Cruel by Gary Smith. If you have additional information about wool, please […]

  36. Gil Pazik says:

    Thanks very much for posting all of the great content! Looking forward to checking out more blogs!

  37. […] sweaters were not the issue. When I discovered that the process of shearing the sheep can be quite inhumane, it was an easy decision to give my wool sweaters […]

  38. […] away from Uggs. They’re ugly, not fit for most winter climates and are made out of sheep skin. Sheep-skin! Don’t you know how cute sheep are? Don’t think it’s cruel? Watch […]

  39. […] WHAT is Wrong With Wool? ♣ Recipes, Nutrition, & Health […]

  40. This is really good published article. Such a great yet interesting post. Thank you very much for sharing this useful stuff.

  41. Amazing issues here. I am very glad to see your post.
    Thank you a lot and I’m having a look forward to touch you. Will you kindly drop me a mail?

  42. anne says:

    There are so many inaccurate points with this article. First of all shearing sheep IS NOT cruel. It is actually very healthy for the sheep. They suffer if they are not sheared (look up shrek the sheep) Secondly, a main reason sheep are sheared in the spring is because that’s often when they lamb and the wool interferes with birthing. If baby lambs can survive this weather, so can larger ewes and rams. Thirdly, castration and tail docking is very essential and virtually pain free. Tail docking is done at a young age. If this is not done it is a hub for bacteria and allows other sheep to step on them. Leaving many rams uncasterated leaves for violence and unhealthy breeding practices. Lastly, sheep with less than satisfactory wool production are probably NOT sold for slaughter. At 3 to 4 years old sheep carcass meat is well past its prime and undesirable for consumption. This article is very degrading to the hardworking farmers who work hard to care for livestock.

  43. @beastsaver says:

    I am horrified to learn the real truth about the abuse of the sheep and deeply devastated. The fashion industry plays their part in this. To think of all the gorgeous clothes that get tossed because they are out of style, only feeds this diabolical monster.

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