Show your friends the true cost of wool with this quick mission!
Without human interference, sheep grow just enough wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes. The fleece provides effective insulation against both the 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 and Mulesing Equal Sheep Abuse
With approximately 100 million sheep, Australia produces 25 percent of the world’s wool.(2) Flocks usually consist of thousands of sheep, making it impossible to give individual attention to their needs; it is considered normal in the Australian wool industry for as many as 6 million sheep to die each season.(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 decently. 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—mulesing—by carving huge strips of skin and flesh off the backs of unanesthetized lambs’ legs and around their tails. This is done to cause smooth, scarred skin that won’t harbor fly eggs, yet the bloody wounds often get flystrike before they heal. Under the threat of an international boycott of Australian wool products, wool-industry officials have said that they will find an alternative to mulesing and will phase out the practice by 2010.(4) One farmer—who successfully protects his sheep from flystrike by using a combination of fly traps, chemical sprays, breed selection, and grazing management—attributed 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)
When sheep age and their wool production declines, they are sold for slaughter. This results in the cruel live export of millions of sheep every year to the Middle East and North Africa. In January 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.
Contrary to claims made by the Australian government and live-export industry that animals are treated humanely, 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 they were slaughtered in prolonged and cruel ways that are illegal in the United States, Europe, and Australia. Live exports to Egypt have since been temporarily suspended.
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 is 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) Industry experts advise that farmers should expect to kill 50 to 80 percent of young goats because their coats do not meet standards.(9)
Angora rabbits may be strapped to a board for shearing, kicking powerfully in protest as clippers or scissors inevitably bite into their flesh. Angora rabbits have very delicate foot pads, which means that 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 males do, so on larger farms, male rabbits who are not destined to be breeders are killed at birth.(10)
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 1975, thousands of chirus are killed every year for shawls that are sold on the black market for as much as $15,000 apiece. It takes up to five dead antelopes to make one shawl.(11)
The alpaca-wool industry exploded in the 1980s, when South American alpacas and llamas were marketed worldwide to entrepreneurs. The demand for alpaca wool has increased, so much so that herds numbering in the tens of thousands are now raised in the United States and Australia. Most of the world’s alpacas live in Peru, but government officials there believe that Australia could take over the industry within two decades.(12)
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. Tencel—which is breathable, durable, and biodegradable—is one of the newest cruelty-free wool substitutes. 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.(13)
Buy clothing from retailers that have pledged not to sell Australian merino wool products until mulesing and live exports have ended, such as American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, Timberland, Aéropostale, and Limited Brands.