(photo by Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a look of shock and confusion when telling people I don’t wear wool. I’ve become so familiar with this look that I’m pretty sure I’ve finally interpreted the train of thought that creates it: “Wait, wool is a fabric…oh but it comes from sheep…and she’s vegan and sheep are animals so I guess that’s why she thinks it’s bad…but she must know that shearing sheep isn’t painful, right? It’s like a haircut….ugh, vegans are so radical and extreme…” Most people, not wanting to argue or appear uninformed, follow this look with a reply along the lines of “oh, um, okay.”
I do understand the confusion, as for many years I was equally uninformed. I even needed to do some research to put together this post (it’s difficult to keep detailed track of every way humans have discovered to exploit and abuse animals; sometimes I need a quick refresher course). So, for those of you who are trying to avoid harming animals but are unsure about wool, and for those of you just trying to understand what wool opponents could possibly have to complain about, this post is for you!
- It’s not vegan. Now, I realize this isn’t the most useful answer, which is why I get into the specifics below. However, if you’ve chosen to live your life without participating in a system of animal exploitation- that is, keeping animals captive and using their bodies or things that come out of their bodies for profit- wool is off limits. Whenever animals are viewed as commodities rather than sentient beings, corners will be cut- especially as demand rises. As I always say, animals are not fabric. Their skin, hair, fur, horns, etc. belong to them. Though this answer is the simplest, I realize it’s not satisfactory for most inquiring minds, hence the following points.
- Mulesing. The majority of the world’s wool (approximately 80%) comes from Australia, where the majority of sheep producing it are known as merino sheep. These sheep were selectively bred centuries ago in Spain, so they are not native to Australia. Merino sheep were carefully designed by humans to have especially wrinkled skin. Wrinkled skin = more skin surface area = more wool = more money. Unfortunately, these wrinkles collect moisture as well as urine and feces (in the posterior region), which attracts flies. These flies lay eggs in the skin folds (a phenomenon known as “flystrike”), and when they hatch, maggots literally start eating the sheep alive. When untreated, this can cause a long, agonizing death. To prevent this horror, farmers use a pretty bizarre process referred to as “mulesing,” in which they restrain the sheep upside down and literally slice off a giant chunk of their skin. This leaves behind a scarred, hairless surface that flies can’t hide eggs in. Whenever my dog gets fleas, they tend to congregate below his tail, where it’s dark and protected. I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to just slice off that part of his body; problem solved! The most abhorrent part of mulesing is that painkillers/anesthesia are not required under Australian law.
(photos via Animals Australia)
- Systematic Abuse, Mutilation, and Neglect. As is common in many animal agriculture industries, babies (in this case, lambs) are castrated, have their tails docked, and have holes punched through their ears. This isn’t unique to the wool industry, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Shearing, though it conjures up images of a loving farmer sitting in a field, taking his sweet time to carefully trim his beloved sheep’s hair, is often a very painful process. Most shearers aren’t paid by the hour, but rather by the volume of wool they collect, so sheep are handled roughly and without regard for their comfort. Speed shearing is so revered that multiple shearing contests occur worldwide every year. Check out this video from such a contest in Australia. You won’t see blood and injuries (the shearers know they’re on camera), but you will see complete disregard for the sheep’s comfort: http://vimeo.com/26055679. Additionally, because we’ve completely disregarded any semblance of a natural life for these animals, farmers sheer when they want to, not when preparing sheep for summer weather. An estimated one million sheep die every year from exposure within 30 days of shearing. Seems pretty unfair that we steal their wool to keep us warm and then leave them naked to freeze to death.
(Judging by the shearers’ apparel, I’m guessing it isn’t summer…)
- Live Export. Arguably the worst part of the wool industry. Once sheep are “spent” (having produced an adequate amount of wool for one lifetime), millions are put onto jam packed ships and transported to the Middle East, where they are slaughtered in accordance with the laws (or lack thereof) of the country that receives them. For most sheep, this means they are killed by having their throats cut while still fully conscious. Sadly, those sheep are the lucky ones. Every year, tens of thousands die slow, painful deaths due to neglect and overcrowding on board the ships. Sheep that do survive the trip are typically exhausted and undernourished, and often have to be dragged onshore by their legs or ears. Numerous investigations have been carried out to reveal what happens next to these sheep, and you can find these (and a lot more info) at: http://www.banliveexport.com/investigations
(image of sheep exported to Egypt via Animals Australia)
(aftermath of Pakistani Live Export Disaster, image via Animals Australia)
- Environmental Destruction. If you don’t care about animal welfare, you might still be interested to know that wool production is unsurprisingly destructive to the environment in terms of land erosion, reduced biodiversity, and pollution. Patagonia, Argentina used to be second to Australia in terms of wool production, but it no longer holds this title due to the catastrophic consequences of raising massive quantities of sheep. One province in the vicinity has lost more than 50 million acres of land that was irreversibly damaged by sheep overgrazing. Additionally, wool treatment and processing requires massive amounts of chemicals; a common processing method known as “carbonization” involves bathing the material in hydrochloric acid. Mmm, cozy.
So there you have it. That’s why this girl abstains from wool products. Fortunately, there are SO many cruelty-free options, and more are coming to market every day! I’m planning to finish up my vegan fall fashion post, which will highlight many of these options, within the week, so stay tuned!