Wool is Cruel.

Via Gary Smith
on Jan 4, 2010
get elephant's newsletter


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. […] 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: […]

  2. Abolitionist says:

    Tim, right on.

    Animals don't want to be used. They want to live, hang out with their families and friends and be happy. I highly doubt that they find happiness in being a money making machine. I certainly don't think you would either. Obviously, the people who cry foul are the ones who are benefitting from such a subservient relationship.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.


  5. 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

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. 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.

  9. guest says:

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

  10. Wool says:

    […] […]

  11. […] 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 […]

  12. Gil Pazik says:

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

  13. Cheyenne says:

    Beth, additionally to the above information, we humans also do not have a right to exploit sentient beings. The wool belongs to the sheep it is theirs (just as your hair belongs to you). We do not have the right to turn animals into commodities, things (which they unfortunately are thanks to Rene Descartes who classified animals as things that cannot feel pain (he nailed cats alive to boards and then cut them up while fully conscious, he compared their screams to that of badly oiled clockwork, it is called the cartesian paradigm which is under which we live today). Cheyenne

  14. Cheyenne says:

    It is still exploitation of sentient beings and treatment of them as commodities which is unethical. They are not things to be used by us but sentient breathing feeling beings.

  15. Cheyenne says:

    yes it is fair to boycott the entire wool industry – it is fair to boycott all forms of animl exploitation. I am vegan and an animal rights activist who respects the animals' right to autonomy and life. We human animals have a choice, the animals don't because we keep them in slavery. Because we humans have a choice, we can choose to make our living without exploiting animals and without using animals as commodities.We need to get over our selfishness.

  16. […] 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 […]

  17. […] 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 […]

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

  19. elephantjournal says:

    Send an article in, if you wish, with sources and links, we'll feature it: http://www.elephantjournal.com/submit

  20. elephantjournal says:

    Send an article in, if you wish, with sources and links, we'll feature it: http://www.elephantjournal.com/submit

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

  22. Leah says:

    I think the brand "smartwool" is a better option. They also have paid New Zealand Merino wool farmers a premium to end their mulesing practices. Correct me if I'm wrong but I think they do better job at protecting the animals from cruelty in the wool trade — and their product is great. As far as I've heard so far their business is pretty ethical. If I am wrong though someone please inform me, because I love their product and don't want to keep supporting someone that's not environmentally friendly

  23. Michael says:

    I beg you to consider, Tim, that there are species besides humans who use other species for their benefit. It's usually called a symbiotic relationship. The root of the problem is that the greed of large suppliers takes this relationship out of the context of mutual benefit and into the realm of treating living things as factory products. People have developed mutually beneficial relationships with other animals since our beginnings. It's why we have so many "domesticated" species whose ancestors go back to the first farmers. It's why we have so many diverse species of dogs. And the animals that are compatible with humans generally benefit from it. They're protected from predators and provided with ample food, water, and shelter. Another big problem we have, though, is that many species of animals that don't even make good partners for the human species are caught up in human industrial operations. Actually, THE root of the problem is that most instances in which humans are interacting with an animal in a way that creates economic profit, we are not developing a relationship with the animal. If we were, we would feel empathy for the animal and never seek to do it harm.

  24. Mark Droppert says:

    As a shearer who’s been in the industry I would like to point out a number of mistakes in this article.

    Wrinkles are being bred out of sheep to prevent fly strike and make management easier.

    Some properties do use pain relief when mulsing

    Only dorper sheep loose there wool… All other sheep, including Merino sheep MUST be shorn as they do not loose there wool. If it is not shorn and then it does kill the sheep by heat stroke, paralysed ext.

    Farmers must take care of there sheep to ensure good profits. If sheep are in poor condition they produce poor wool which makes low profit.

    Shearers do sow cuts up that are deep and other nicks not treatment is necessary as sheep very rarely get infections.

    Killing sheep by cutting there throat IS proven to be humane because the brain is immediately deprived of oxygen, therefore the sheep cannot feel any pain.

    And I doubt they would ship sheep overseas at all of half of them dies before reaching there destination, as that would certainly not be profitable.

    I highly recommend people go out to a sheep station and see how and why things are done, before deciding not to invest in our wool and meat industry.

  25. 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?

  26. 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.

  27. elephantjournal says:

    Hi Anne, thanks for your comment. Having grown up on a working farm, I must say I agree with you when it comes to smaller scale farmers who are caring for their animals. It sounds like you speak with some expertise. Would you consider writing a counter to offer an alternative point of view? We welcome differing viewpoints at elephant. http://www.elephantjournal.com/submit/ ~ Khara

  28. @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.

Leave a Reply