Q. Why is wool a vegan no-no?
A. Much like the production of meat today, the production of wool is mythologized in our society as a benign activity where kindly old Farmer MacDonald gently shears the sheep on his family farm, with a baa baa here and a baa baa there. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality.
But, you may ask, don’t sheep need to be sheared? Yes and no. Natural sheep do not need to be sheared. They shed, as most mammals do, on a yearly cycle. They grow enough wool to keep warm in the winter, and shed in the warmth of spring to stay cool in the summer. However, certain types of sheep have been manipulated through breeding to produce more wool, and these sheep are no longer capable of shedding. So these unnatural breeds do need to be sheared. Of course, if there were no demand for their wool, these altered animals would no longer be bred and would no longer live with the side effects of what has been done to them.
Merino sheep, the most common sheep used in the production of wool today, have been bred to have extremely wrinkly skin, providing more surface area for wool to grow. Unfortunately, this tinkering has caused problems. The wrinkles in their skin collect moisture, which attracts flies. The flies lay eggs on the sheep and the hatched maggots will literally eat the sheep alive. To decrease the risk of this condition, sheep farmers practice “mulesing” - cutting off large strips of flesh from the sheep’s hindquarters without any anesthetic.
But this isn’t the only cruelty farmed sheep endure. Lambs have their tails docked, holes punched in their ears, and male lambs are castrated -- all with no anesthetic. Increasingly, sheep are kept confined indoors to produce the more highly prized “super fine” merino -- a softer grade of wool that results from a lack of exposure to the elements, but which prohibits sheep from having anything resembling a natural life.
The shearing itself is far from the caring image of Old MacDonald with his sheep. Shearers, paid by volume instead of an hourly wage, are in a rush to shear as many sheep as possible. The sheep are handled roughly, the shearing done with little care for their well-being. Sheep are frequently injured and develop infections from cuts and abrasions caused during the shearing process. Also harmful, the shearing is done before the time the animals would naturally shed. Many sheep, sheared too early, die of exposure each year.
Those that survive injury, infection, and exposure don’t have a happy retirement. Eventually, a sheep’s wool production declines and it’s sold for meat. This means being crammed into overcrowded pens in feedlots awaiting slaughter, or transported by truck or by boat, often for weeks at a time. Many animals die in transport, from illness, starvation or stress.
We must also consider the environmental impact. Just like other forms of factory farming, sheep farming involves clearing large areas of land, killing competing wildlife and disposal of massive quantities of animal waste. Australia, which produces the largest percentage of wool of any country globally, sees an estimated 5 million kangaroos killed each year as a result of wool farming. And the country’s yellow-footed rock wallaby has become endangered due to sheep farming, because the sheep have devoured its food supply.
Today, there are many humane alternatives to wool for keeping warm and cozy during the winter months. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester fleece, nylon, acrylic and cotton flannel cost less, wash easily and don’t contribute to cruelty.
Photo credit: Kasey