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Wool is not always black or white—it’s a thousand shades of grey.
Let’s cut to the wool and have an open and honest talk about sheep, their fleece, and the ethics therein.
When my daughter and I moved to Portland sight unseen and not knowing one single soul, we took the advice of all great sages and came with the intention to love our neighbor and see what happened.
At our first Thanksgiving away from our family, we chatted with our new neighbor Stacey, and she told us about the superpowers of wool. Wool is antimicrobial, hyper-absorbent, fire retardant, hypoallergenic, biodegradable, and wicks moisture. Superpowers indeed.
We began discussing ideas for homemade Christmas gifts for my family, when Stacey first told me about dryer balls; I had never heard of them. The next day she brought over scraps of wool, and we made our first “WoolyBalls” for my mom.
When we went back to Colorado for Christmas, we used them over and over, and they really worked! My favorite memory as a child is warm laundry poured over me while my mom folded and I watched cartoons. I can only imagine how much more fun it would have been with WoolyBalls mixed in.
We were having family dinner before heading home to Portland when the idea for our business was born.
“Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty.” ~ Plato
After three years in the wool business, it has come to my attention that animal rights organizations will do and say just about anything to get attention for their cause.
Having been inundated with false information throughout my life, I have become sensitive to untrue details imparted by any person or organization that doesn’t place honesty and integrity over attention and falsified public relations.
False information and sensational stories geared toward disabling people and their industries is now a staple character within our privileged, first world society.
In the Elephant Journal article, “Wool is Cruel,” it appears People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) hired a professional publicist to convince people that sheep are often hurt and maimed in the process of wool production. It’s pretty clear the author’s intention is to elicit emotion, mostly anger and disgust, toward the wool industry. There is no mind paid to those who work ethically within the industry, nor are there proposed solutions.
I am aware of the damage factory and industrial farming is causing the environment. I stopped eating meat and dairy for this reason.
That said, life is not black and white; there are always shades of grey. When accepting that harvesting wool should be lumped into the unethical treatment of animals, we fall prey to ignorance.
It’s important to clarify that the subject of this article is wool, not sheep pelts or meat.
In order for me to ethically continue in my business, I needed to know the truth about the moral and environmental nature of wool production. Here is what I have learned.
Shrek and Shrek 2, Australian and New Zealand merino sheep, were both lost from their flock and found years later. Both sheep individually had over 60 pounds of fleece when they were found.
To put this in perspective, each sheep carried enough wool to produce 1,600 dryer balls or five queen-size merino blankets.
Sheep have an average weight of 160 pounds; their normal body temperature is 103 degrees. On average, one merino sheep produces 8 to 10 pounds of wool a year. Neither Shrek or Shrek 2 would have made it much longer. The fleece they carried would eventually keep them from walking and therefore eating, and they would have died.
So if sheep must be shorn, why don’t ethical vegans condone wool?
Dan Gutzman, a tenured global wool buyer responded to “Wool is Cruel,” saying, “this article describes antiquated growing and shearing processes, even prior to the publish date. The author sensationalized one or two instances of human error over the history of industry growth. What industry doesn’t make mistakes?”
Dan clarifies: “Flystrike is an action of fly larvae eating their way into the sheep and is an act of nature that is specific to Australia. Mulesing is the act of removing the top two layers of skin on the back of the legs near the sheep’s rear so to preserve the sheep and their wool.”
When this process is done, it cuts the sheep; this is the process PETA and vegans rightfully oppose. Mulesing has been outlawed in New Zealand; however, Australia still employs mulesing practices. It is important to clarify that there is no other country in the world using mulesing practices, as Australia and New Zealand are the only places in the world with that particular fly.
Animal rights organizations lead us to believe this process happens to all sheep, in all regions of the world.
The Save Movement, an animal rights organization with 530 chapters worldwide, pays witness to livestock before and during the slaughter process. During a visit to their booth at Northwest Vegan Festival, one of their head activists told us,“wool is an unnecessary commodity, and sheep overall do not need to be shorn.”
According to the American Sheep Industry (ASI), only three to five percent of all domesticated sheep worldwide don’t need to be shorn. There are roughly 60 million sheep in the United States and one billion worldwide. The sheep that do not need shearing are called Dorper and have hair instead of fleece.
Domesticated sheep have been a part of the human culture since 11,000 to 9,000 B.C. Mesopotamia, and were the second tamed animal after dogs. Sheep have been bred for thousands of years, their wool perfected over the ages.
Furthermore, the Berry Amendment (USC, Title 10, Section 2533a) requires the United States Department of Defense procure all their wool from domestic sources before any wool is procured overseas. As it turns out, wool is one of the most important commodities for the United States Government, as it’s used in military uniforms and bedding.
As far as I can see, there is no ethical difference between a purebred dog and a purebred sheep. Currently, there are more than 1,000 distinct breeds of sheep in the world and 350 breeds of dogs. It is easy to attribute the large difference between dogs and sheep to the financial value of fleece.
Still, I am perplexed by the inaccurate information presented by PETA and The Save Movement, as they claim to support the ethical and kind treatment of animals. From what I have learned, it actually calls for a reprimand in the category of fake news.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
Truth: sheep must be shorn, both for their health and their happiness.
Wool production in Oregon is world-renowned; all of the wool my company uses in our products is grown in the U.S. and has high-ranking certifications in environmental and agricultural safety.
In October 2017, PETA placed a billboard in downtown Portland, Oregon; it displayed a picture of a nude Alicia Silverstone, stating she would rather go naked than wear wool. The advertisement was a clear shot at the Oregon wool industry.
Although the advertisement is beautiful, it is also unethical, sensational propaganda. The truth of the United States wool industry is far from what PETA presented with this billboard.
Most countries across the globe have made extensive adjustments in policies to ensure their wool is procured ethically. If PETA wants to take on the unethical treatment of sheep, they should set their sights on the countries that don’t employ regulations, such as Australia and China.
China is the most prominent wool buyer in the world, and they purchase 74 percent of Australia’s supply.
In response to the PETA billboard, Jacob Valentine of Darkside Shearing, a fifth generation sheepshearer from Crabtree, Oregon, published a series of nude photos of his own. His is an important voice in the conversation about the ethical nature of wool.
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The intention of Jacob’s nude shearing was to bring attention to the shearer’s required demeanor when shearing. In order for Jacob to shear a 160-pound sheep, naked, all parts exposed, he would most certainly need to know what he is doing and give a great deal of care for the sheep to save himself from any physical harm.
It is important to understand that shearers do not get paid if they cut or hurt the sheep. In the United States, shearers are known to increase their prices if the sheep they are shearing are not properly cared for by the farmer.
According to Kirsten Holbo, the owner of Iron Water Ranch in Corvallis, Oregon, “the fleece that sells has no breaks in the fibres, and when a sheep is harmed or cut in the shearing process, the fleece produced becomes less valuable and both sheep and wool tainted. Quite frankly, it pays for the farmer to have shearers that care.”
When I met Jacob at a sheepshearing and fibre sale, the shearing process happened in roughly four minutes, and, although Jacob was fully clothed during my visit, I could see how the process could be dangerous for both the sheep and the shearer. According to Jacob, sheepshearing is the second most difficult job in the world, next to Bolivian tin mining.
“If wool shrinks when you wash it, why don’t sheep get smaller when it rains?” ~ Ron Bracklin
Wool is a superpower. It has become clear: sheep not only need to share their wool, but they want to.
It was remarkable to watch the ease and grace of Jacob and Wendy, the sheep he worked with. It brought to mind a Vogue article that highlighted women shearers, called “Women of Wool,” in which shearing is likened to a “beautiful dance—fluid and clean.”
Truthfully, the shearing with Jacob went smoother and was much quicker than my dog Bernice’s grooming appointments. There was no whining, only one small kick, and no struggle. Clearly, sheep submit—Wendy easily submitted. My high-maintenance princess dog, Bernice, fights more when she gets her nails done than Wendy did when she was shorn.
“Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.” ~ William Shakespeare
It seems on the matter of wool, PETA’s position is demonstrated by rebellious acts of emotionalism; gaining attention is their mission, ruffling feathers their power.
As a glass half full type of person, I would like to suggest PETA reinforce the true mission of wool and begin to support kind and conscious shearing practices.
According to Maria Rooney, a lifelong nomadic Shepherd from Silverton, Oregon, “Sheep are docile creatures and are dependent on their caretakers; it’s a truly symbiotic relationship between sheep and farmer.” A sheep’s need for a shepherd is not an idiom.
Maria also described the shearing process like “a mama cat picking her baby by the tuft. As soon as the shearer positions the sheep, the sheep relax fully and the shearing process is seamless.”
I wish Bernice would do that.
Additionally, it is not just spiritual and religious wisdom that teaches humans to be the natural stewards of the earth; it is a biological fact. Tending and caring for sheep, including the ethical practice of shearing, is not just phenomenal, it’s an organic necessity.
Since sheep must be shorn, we are responsible for shearing them, with care.
The best way to support the ethical care of sheep is to buy wool from places and businesses that use wool from countries with good wool practices.
This is a clear call for an elevated level of transparent integrity; fabricated news and sensational stories must be abandoned. The truth must be told and shown.
There is an obvious discrepancy in the vegan argument against wool. This is a conversation that must be started if vegans are to become a respected voice and actually affect the change we need to see in the world.
Sheep and their wool are a gift to humanity; their care is in our hands. Wool is not a black or white decision, it is 1,000 shades of grey, wrapping us in warmth and guardianship, protecting us from the harsh elements of life. As the wool protects us, so must we protect the sheep, the source of our wool. It is as simple as being an aware human.
Love sheep and love their wool: this is what nature intended.
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