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Down is the soft layer of feathers closest to birds’ skin, primarily in the chest area. 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. It takes the feathers of approximately 75 birds to make one down comforter.
Most down comes from birds who are killed for meat and foie gras (fatty liver). At the slaughterhouse, many of these birds are improperly stunned, which means they are still conscious as their throats are cut and when they are dumped into the scalding hot water of defeathering tanks.
In addition to obtaining down from slaughtered birds, some down is “live-plucked”—ripped from the bodies of birds who are still alive. Plucking may begin when the birds are just 10 weeks old and be repeated every six to seven weeks until they are slaughtered at up to age 4, long before they would naturally die at 10 to 20 years old.(2) Plucking birds causes birds 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)
Workers are paid by the goose, so they work as quickly as possible. A group of workers may pull the feathers out of thousands of geese in just a few hours, often leading to rough, careless handling and injuries. 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. Others were photographed restraining and carrying birds by their fragile wings.
Buying down also supports foie gras production, in which ducks and geese have tubes jammed down their throats and several pounds of grain and fat pumped into their stomachs every day until their livers swell to up to 10 times their normal size. The birds’ diseased livers are sold as a “delicacy.” In February 2012, outdoors outfitter The North Face admitted that it was using down from foie gras farms, despite previous claims that none of its down came from geese who were force-fed or live-plucked.(5)
What You Can Do
Pledge to be down-free, and don’t buy down products. 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 keep their insulating capabilities in all weather.(6)
Warm, cruelty-free bedding and winter clothing are widely available at stores such as JCPenney, Target, and The Company Store.
1) Food and Safety Inspection Service, “Duck and Goose From Farm to Table,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 26 Apr. 2006.
2) Andrzej Rosinski, “Goose Production in Poland and Eastern Europe,” Department of Poultry Science, Agricultural University of Poznan, 1999.
3) M.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.
4) J. Janan et al., “Effect of Feather Plucking in Geese’s Blood Glucose Level,” Hungarian Veterinary Journal Jun. 2001.
5) Deborah Arthurs, “North Face Jackets ‘Using Feathers Taken From Force-Fed Geese,” Daily Mail 20 Feb. 2012.
6) Mike 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.