*Warning: contains graphic descriptions of animal cruelty*
Everyone knows leather and fur are cruel, even the people who wear them. They either don’t care or are kidding themselves. It’s obvious that it’s cruel because the animal has to die. But what about wool? They shear the sheep then send it on its way, back to the field to live out its lovely, sheepy life, right? Wrong. The wool industry can be just as cruel as meat, leather and fur. The sheep are often confined to small areas and sometimes even starved so they are less able to put up a struggle when it comes to shearing.
One problem with the industry is that shearers are often paid by volume (per sheep), not per hour. Therefore, the work is hurried, with no time to care about the welfare of the sheep or being gentle. This leads to injuries, wounds which are often stitched up by hand with no pain relief and skin or even body parts like ears being torn off during shearing. Lambs have their ears hole-punched (tagged), tails cut off and males are castrated, all without pain relief and as young as two weeks old.
According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), sheep don’t even need shearing. If they weren’t genetically manipulated they would simply grow the correct amount of wool to keep them insulated, both in heat and cold.
They conducted a study of over 30 wool sheds in Australia (where much of the world’s wool comes from, 50% of merino alone) and the US, discovering that not only were sheep being harmed during the shearing process, but that employees were found to be kicking and punching the animals and standing on their limbs. A worker was seen beating a lamb with a hammer and another repeatedly twisting a sheep’s neck, breaking it. There is also a common process called ‘mulesing’ which basically involves cutting out lumps of flesh from an animal’s rear end, in order to ‘combat’ flystrike, a condition where flies lay eggs in their damp wool.
Unwanted sheep are often shipped to places like the Middle East where animal welfare provisions are low or non-existent. They travel, sometimes for weeks, poorly fed and in cramped spaces. They are then dragged into slaughterhouses by limbs or ears and killed. Unwanted sheep from the meat industry are often used for their wool instead. Even the fleece from sheep that are killed for meat is used for wool.The best that can be said about that is at least nothing is going to waste.
So, if you want to avoid contributing to this cruel industry, ethical wool is out there, mostly online. Smaller companies who have the time to do it properly are your best bet. Unfortunately, they are often more expensive. Etsy is always a good start and for general information on which materials are safe to check out cruelty-free fabric guide. If you are part of the hipster knitting revival, don’t forget wool doesn’t just mean jumpers – always look for cruelty-free yarns. As far as the high street and mass production goes, it will be a real challenge. M&S are reported not to buy wool from sheep who have been mulesed, but that may not mean the rest of the process is humane. Clearly, leather and fur can never be cruelty-free, but wool can. It is totally unnecessary for it to be this way. The working and pay conditions need to change as well as the attitude towards the welfare of the animals. Sadly, those cosy (Christmas?!) jumpers we’ll all be enjoying as the weather gets colder have a very sinister past.