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Down and Silk: Birds and Insects Exploited for Feathers and Fabric

Each year, the down and silk industries exploit millions of geese, ducks, silkworms, spiders, and other animals, causing unnecessary pain and suffering to these feeling beings.

Geese and Ducks Suffer for Down
Down is the soft layer of feathers closest to birds’ skin, primarily in the chest region. These feathers are highly valued because they do not have quills. Most products labeled “down” contain a combination of these underfeathers and other feathers or fillers.

Most down comes from birds who are victims of the meat and foie gras industries. Ducks and geese often have their throats cut and are then scalded in hot water to remove large feathers.1 Sometimes, the birds are still conscious when they are dumped into the tanks of hot water.

In addition to obtaining down from slaughtered birds, a large amount of down is torn from the bodies of birds who are still alive. PETA obtained undercover video footage of workers in Hungary (one of the world’s largest producers of down) pulling handfuls of feathers from geese so violently that the birds’ skin ripped open, leaving them with gaping wounds that the workers crudely sewed back together without using any anesthetics. One worker was photographed sitting on a goose’s neck to prevent her from escaping during the procedure. Up to 5 ounces of feathers and down are pulled from each bird every six weeks from the time they are 10 weeks old until they are up to 4 years old.2 Plucking birds causes them considerable pain and distress. One study of chickens’ heart rates and behavior determined that “feather removal is likely to be painful to the bird(s),” and another study found that the blood glucose level of some geese nearly doubled (a symptom of severe stress) during plucking.3,4

Buying down also supports foie gras production, in which ducks and geese have tubes forced down their throats and grain and fat pumped into their stomachs until their livers become diseased and enlarged. The birds are slaughtered, and their livers are sold as a “delicacy.” Many foie gras producers supplement their income by selling the birds’ feathers. Please read our factsheet on the foie gras industry for more information.

Silk Production Causes Painful Death for Insects
The so-called “silkworm” is actually a domesticated insect who, in nature, goes through the same stages of metamorphosis—egg, larva, pupa, and adult—that all moths do.5 Silk is derived from the cocoons of larvae, so most of the insects raised by the industry don’t live past the pupa stage, as they are steamed or gassed alive in their cocoons.6 Approximately 3,000 silkworms are killed to make every pound of silk.7

Pharmaceutical companies have taken an interest in these insects, too, because they are perceived as inexpensive and easy to raise and can be genetically engineered to produce silk that contains human collagen.8 Silkworms have also been transgenically modified to spin fluorescent-colored silk.9

The military and medical communities have been testing on spiders, hoping to harness the strength and flexibility of spider silk for suture thread and to create a fabric that could replace Kevlar.10 If they are kept together in captivity, however, spiders succumb to stress-induced cannibalism. Approximately 1,400 spiders are needed to spin 1 ounce of silk, so farming spiders has not been a profitable venture.11 Instead, scientists have experimented on goats by inserting spider-silk genes into their cells, causing the goats to produce milk that contains silk proteins.12 The military continues to fund this research, even though it has yet to produce a product that is commercially viable (it takes 600 gallons of milk to produce a single bulletproof vest).13

What You Can Do
Don’t buy silk or down items. Apart from the cruelty involved in its production, down is expensive and becomes useless when wet—unlike cruelty-free synthetic fillers such as PrimaLoft® and Thinsulate™, which retain their insulating capabilities in all weather.14

Warm, cruelty-free bedding and winter clothing are widely available at stores such as JCPenney, Target, and The Company Store.

Humane alternatives to silk include nylon, polyester, Tencel, milkweed seed-pod fibers, silk-cotton tree filaments, and rayon.

1Food and Safety Inspection Service, “Duck and Goose From Farm to Table,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 26 Apr. 2006.
2Andrzej Rosinski, “Goose Production in Poland and Eastern Europe,” Department of Poultry Science, Agricultural University of Poznan, 1999.
3M.J. Gentle and L.N. Hunter, “Physiological and Behavioural Responses Associated With Feather Removal in Gallus Gallus Var Domesticus,” Research in Veterinary Science 50 (1991): 95-101.
4J. Janan et al., “Effect of Feather Plucking in Geese’s Blood Glucose Level,” Hungarian Veterinary Journal Jun. 2001.
5Kate Dalke, “Silkworms Spin Medicinal Gold,” Genome News Network, 10 Jan. 2003.
6Ron Cherry, “Sericulture,” Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America 35 (1993): 83-4.
7University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, “Silkworm (Bombyx Mori),” Insects and People 6 Jan. 2006.
8Helen Pearson, “Silkworm Spins Skin,” Nature 16 Dec. 2002.
9Sonia Roberts, “Canada: Silkworm Research Spins New Yarn Developments,”, 23 Oct. 2003.
10“Man-Made Spiders’ Silk,” Materials World 10 (2002): 26-8.
11Hadley Leggett, “1 Million Spiders Make Golden Silk for Rare Cloth,” Wired 23 Sept. 2009.
12David Pogue, “What’s Stronger Than Steel? Spider Silk,” CBS News, 16 Jan. 2011.
13University of Wyoming, “University of Wyoming Scientist to Examine Spider Silk Use for Sutures,” news release, 27 Jun. 2006.
14Mike Waters, “Out Cold/Today’s High-Tech Clothing and Gear Make It Easier to Stay Warm and Dry When Camping During the Winter,” The Post-Standard 9 Jan. 2002.