January 5, 2010

Wool is Cruel.

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.

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