Inside the Wool Industry
Without human interference, sheep grow just enough wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes. The fleece provides effective insulation against both cold and heat. Wool was once obtained by plucking it from sheep during their molting seasons. Breeding for continuous fleece growth began after the invention of shears.(1)
Shearing Plus Mulesing Equals Sheep Abuse
With approximately 80 million sheep, Australia produces 25 percent of the world’s wool.(2) Flocks usually consist of thousands of sheep, making it impossible to give attention to an individual sheep’s needs. For instance, it is considered normal in the Australian wool industry for at least 4 percent of young lambs to die every spring, primarily because of poor nutrition.(3) Because there is so much death and disease in the wool industry, the rational solution is to reduce the number of sheep who are used for their wool in order to maintain them properly. Instead, sheep are bred to bear more lambs in order to offset the deaths.
In Australia, the most commonly raised sheep are merinos, who are specifically bred to have wrinkled skin, which means more wool per animal. This unnatural overload of wool causes animals to die of heat exhaustion during hot months, and the wrinkles also collect urine and moisture. Attracted to the moisture, flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive. In order to prevent this condition, called “flystrike,” Australian ranchers perform a barbaric operation called “mulesing,” in which workers carve huge strips of skin and flesh off the backs of lambs’ legs and the areas around their tails. This is done to produce smooth, scarred skin that won’t harbor fly eggs, yet the bloody wounds often get flystrike before they heal. Studies have shown that the procedure causes stress levels similar to those of castration and shearing, and the effects—pain, discomfort, and weight loss—can last for two to 14 days.(4) One farmer (who successfully protects his sheep from flystrike by using a combination of fly traps, chemical sprays, breed selection, and grazing management) attributes the industry’s resistance to giving up mulesing to “a bit of old-boys’-club arrogance in a once-grand industry that is now struggling a bit.”(5)
Sheep are sheared each spring, after lambing, just before some breeds would naturally shed their winter coats. Timing is considered critical: Shearing too late means wool loss. In the rush, many sheep die from exposure after premature shearing.
Shearers are usually paid by volume, not by the hour, which encourages fast work without regard for the sheep’s welfare. Experienced shearers clip more than 350 sheep in one day, and that pace is maintained for up to four weeks.(6,7)
Old or unneeded sheep are sold for slaughter. Millions of live sheep are shipped to the Middle East and North Africa every year. In 2006, in conjunction with Animals Australia, PETA conducted an undercover investigation to expose the handling and slaughter conditions endured by sheep who are exported to these destinations from Australia.
Despite the Australian government’s and the live-export industry’s claims that animals are treated humanely, the investigators found that sheep and cows were dragged off trucks by their ears and legs and left to die in barren feedlots. They were bound and thrown into the trunks of cars and then slaughtered in prolonged and cruel ways that are illegal in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.
Other Kinds of Wool
It may be called wool, mohair, pashmina, shahtoosh, or cashmere. But no matter what it’s called, any kind of wool means suffering for animals.
Contrary to what many consumers think, “shearling” is not sheared wool. A shearling is a yearling sheep who has been shorn once. A shearling garment is made from the skin and coat of a sheep or a lamb who was shorn shortly before slaughter; the skin is tanned with the wool still on it.
Cashmere is made from the coats of cashmere goats, who are kept by the millions in China and Mongolia, which dominate the market for this “luxury” material.(8,9)
Angora rabbits may be strapped to a board for shearing and kick powerfully in protest as clippers or scissors inevitably bite into their flesh. Angora rabbits have very delicate foot pads, so they often develop excruciatingly painful foot ulcers when they are forced to spend their lives standing on the floors of wire cages. Female rabbits produce more wool than do males, so on larger farms, male rabbits who are not destined to be breeders are killed at birth.(10) At angora farms in China, a PETA Asia investigator found workers violently ripping the fur out of rabbits’ skin as the animals screamed in pain, a process they endured every three months for two to five years. For more information about the angora wool industry, please visit PETA.org.
Shahtoosh is made from the coat of the endangered chiru, or Tibetan antelope. Because chirus cannot be domesticated, they must be killed before their wool can be obtained. Although it has been illegal to sell or possess shahtoosh products since 1976, thousands of chirus are killed every year for shawls that are sold on the black market.(11)
The alpaca-wool industry exploded in the 1980s, when South American alpacas and llamas were marketed worldwide to entrepreneurs. Most of the world’s alpacas currently live in Peru, but the demand for alpaca wool has increased so much that more than 150,000 alpacas are now registered in the U.S., with the largest herds in Ohio and Washington state.(12,13)
What You Can Do
Use alternatives to wool, including cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece, synthetic shearling, and other cruelty-free fibers, as people with wool allergies have been doing for years. One relatively new cruelty-free wool substitute is Tencel, which is breathable, durable, and biodegradable. Polartec Wind Pro, which is made primarily from recycled plastic soda bottles, is a high-density fleece with four times the wind resistance of wool, and it also wicks away moisture.(14)
Buy clothing from retailers that have pledged not to sell Australian merino wool products as long as mulesing and live export continue. H&M, Perry Ellis, Hugo Boss, and many other companies have stopped selling or have pledged to phase out wool from mulesed lambs.
1) Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts, “Scandinavian Sheep,” Knitters Magazine 2000.
2) Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Year Book Australia, 2009–10,” 6 Apr. 2010.
3) A.J.D. Campbell, A.L. Vizard, and J.W.A. Larsen, “Risk Factors for Post-Weaning Mortality of Merino Sheep in Southeastern Australia,” Australian Veterinary Journal 87 (2009): 305–12.
4) C. Lee and A.D. Fisher, “Welfare Consequences of Mulesing of Sheep,” Australian Veterinary Journal 85 (2007): 89–93.
5) Richard Yallop, “Farmers Strike a Blowie for Long-Suffering Sheep,” Australian 20 Dec. 2004.
6) “Shearing Alternatives Under the Spotlight,” Country-Wide Northern 1 Nov. 2004.
7) K.A. Abbott and W.M.C. Maxwell, Sheep Health & Production, Veterinary Education and Information Network, 2002.
8) Allison Jackson, “China Sees Growing Demand for ‘Soft Gold’ Cashmere,” Agence France-Presse, 3 May 2011.
9) Michael Kohn, “Mongolians Develop a Taste for Luxury,” Agence France-Presse, 14 May 2011.
10) F. Lebas et al., The Rabbit—Husbandry, Health, and Production, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1997.
11) Peter Foster, “Police in India Seize Illegal ‘Shahtoosh’ Shawls,” The Telegraph 23 Aug. 2007.
12) Tina L. Saitone and Richard J. Sexton, “Alpaca Lies? Speculative Bubbles in Agriculture: Why They Happen and How to Recognize Them,” Review of Agricultural Economics 29 (2007): 286–305.
13) Lisa Rathke, “High on Fiber: U.S. Alpaca Herds Grow as Breeders Get Tax Write-Off,” Associated Press, 25 Jan. 2011.
14) Sal Ruibal, “Edge of Winter: Beauty, Danger,” USA Today 23 Nov. 2001.