Inside the Wool Industry

It may come from a sheep, goat, or Tibetan antelope. It may be called wool, mohair, pashmina, shahtoosh, or cashmere. But no matter what it’s called, any kind of wool causes harm to the animals from whom it is taken.

Many people believe that shearing sheep helps animals who might otherwise be burdened with too much wool. But without human interference, sheep grow just enough wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes. The fleece provides effective insulation against both cold and heat. Wool was once obtained by plucking it from the sheep during molting seasons. Breeding for continuous fleece growth began after the invention of shears.1

Wool-Producing Countries Abuse Sheep
With more than 100 million sheep, Australia produces 30 percent of all wool used worldwide.2 Flocks usually consist of thousands of sheep, making individual attention to their needs impossible.

Within weeks of birth, lambs’ ears are hole-punched, their tails are chopped off, and the males are castrated without anesthetics. Male lambs are castrated when between 2 and 8 weeks old, with a rubber ring used to cut off blood supply—one of the most painful methods of castration possible.4 Every year, hundreds of lambs die before the age of 8 weeks from exposure or starvation, and mature sheep die every year from disease, lack of shelter, and neglect.5 Faced with so much death and disease, the rational solution would be to reduce the number of sheep so as to maintain them decently. Instead, sheep are bred to bear more lambs to offset the deaths.

Shearing Is Painful
Sheep are sheared each spring, after lambing, just before they would naturally shed their winter coats. Timing is considered critical: Shearing too late means loss of wool. 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 welfare of the sheep. Says one eyewitness: “[T]he shearing shed must be one of the worst places in the world for cruelty to animals … I have seen shearers punch sheep with their shears or their fists until the sheep’s nose bled. I have seen sheep with half their faces shorn off …”6

Live Exports
When sheep age and their wool production declines, they are sold for slaughter. This results in the cruel live export of 6.5 million sheep every year from Australia to the Middle East and North Africa, and nearly 800,000 sheep are exported from the U.K. for slaughter abroad.7,8

In Europe, tightly packed animals are subjected to long-distance trips, sometimes 50 hours long, without food or water. Their final destination is frequently a country with minimal slaughter regulations, where the animals often regain consciousness while being dismembered.9 In 2001, activists persuaded the European Parliament to adopt a report calling for journeys of a maximum of eight hours in livestock export, the first step toward creating a law.10

In Australia, sheep travel vast distances over land until they reach the feedlots where they are held before being loaded onto ships. Many sheep, stressed, ill, or wounded from the journey and faced with intensive crowding, disease, and strange food, die in the holding pens.

The surviving sheep are packed tightly into ships. Younger animals or babies born en route are often trampled to death. Shipboard mortality ranges up to 10 percent, and for every sheep who dies, many others become ill or are injured. For example, 14,500 sheep reportedly died from heat stress while in transit to the Middle East in 2002. Their carcasses were thrown overboard.11

In the Muslim nations of North Africa and the Middle East, ritual slaughter is exempt from humane slaughter regulations. Some sheep are slaughtered en masse in lots, others are taken home, often in the trunks of cars, and slaughtered by the purchasers.

Shahtoosh and Other Kinds of Wool
Shahtoosh, used to make “fashionable” shawls, is made from the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru. Chiru cannot be domesticated and must be killed in order to obtain their wool. Illegal to sell or possess since 1975, shahtoosh shawls did a brisk business on the black market throughout the 1990s, selling for as much as $15,000 apiece as the Tibetan antelope’s population plummeted to less than 75,000.12,13

A raid of a 1994 charity event in New York by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in subpoenas issued to supermodels and socialites who purchased the shawls and the first criminal prosecutions for the sale of the “fabric.”14 In April 2000, British authorities prosecuted a London trading company for illegal possession of 138 shawls—representing 1,000 antelope pelts.15 Despite the ban on shahtoosh in India, a thriving black market still caters to customers in London, New York, and Los Angeles, who will pay as much as $17,000 for a shawl.16 As many as 20,000 chiru are killed every year for their wool, a rate that will wipe out the species by 2011 if left unchecked.17

Cashmere is made from cashmere goats. Those with “defects” in their coats are typically killed before 2 years of age.18 Industry experts advise farmers to expect to kill 50 to 80 percent of young goats whose coats do not meet standards.19

Contrary to what many consumers think, “shearling” is not sheared wool; the term refers to the sheep. A shearling is a yearling sheep who has been shorn once. A shearling garment is made from a sheep or lamb shorn shortly before slaughter; the skin is tanned with the wool still on it.

Angora rabbits are strapped to a board for shearing, kicking powerfully in protest. The clippers inevitably bite into their flesh, with bloody results. Angoras have very delicate foot pads, making life on a wire cage floor excruciating and ulcerated feet a common condition. Because male angoras have only 75 to 80 percent of the wool yield of females, on many farms they are killed at birth.20

The market for alpaca exploded in the 1980s, when South American alpacas and llamas were marketed worldwide to entrepreneurs who bought into the vision of ground-floor investment in a luxury fiber market. The craze subsided but breeding continues, and unwanted animals are now routinely put up for auction. Llama sanctuaries and rescue operations have sprung up in the wake of the breeding craze to handle the growing number of abused, neglected animals.

Other Animals Are Affected
The wool industry also inflicts “collateral damage” on wildlife. The Australian government permits the slaughter of more than 6 million kangaroos a year.21 While there are laws governing the killing of kangaroos, there are still serious problems with “weekend hunters,” unlicensed shooters who often view kangaroos as “pests” and have no regard for their suffering. On their own property, landowners can do whatever they want to kangaroos without fear of repercussions. The preferred method of killing joeys whose mothers have been slaughtered is, according to government code, decapitation or a “blow to destroy the brain.”22

In the U.S., coyotes are vilified for eating sheep and other livestock, and as a result, millions are slaughtered every year by ranchers and the federal government.

There Are Alternatives
Sheep’s wool has been in steady decline since 1990, both in price and demand, with Australia’s former near-total dominance of the world market falling by about 35 percent in a decade.23 The U.S. government continues to try to shore up the American wool industry with millions of dollars in federal subsidies and loans.24

Many people who are allergic to wool already use alternatives to wool clothes and blankets, including cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece, synthetic shearling, and other cruelty-free fibers. Tencel—breathable, durable, and biodegradable—is one of the newest cruelty-free wool substitutes. Polartec Wind Pro—made primarily from recycled plastic soda bottles—is a high-density fleece with four times the wind resistance of wool that also wicks away moisture.25


1 Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts, “Scandinavian Sheep,” Knitters Magazine, 2000.
2 “Agriculture: The Wool Industry,” Australian Bureau of Statistics, 22 Jan. 2002.
3 The Vegan Society, Ltd., “Wool,” Oxford, England, 1999.
4 Christine Townend, Pulling the Wool: A New Look at the Australian Wool Industry (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger Pty. Limited, 1985) 23.
5 Justin Read, “The Effect of Ewe Iodine Supplementation on Perinatal Lamb Mortality,” Meat New Zealand, 18 Dec. 1998.
6 The Vegan Society.
7 “Australia Investigates Live Sheep Export Deaths,” Reuters, 3 Sep. 2002.
8 “Long Distance Transport of Live Farm Animals,” Compassion in World Farming, Jul. 2002.
9 Ibid.
10 Albert Jan Maat, Commission Report, Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, 3 Sep. 2001.
11 Reuters, op. cit.
12 Susan Saulny, “Shawls Sold at Charity Event: So Soft and So Illegal,” The New York Times, 3 Jan. 2001.
13 Lucy Chubb, “Shahtoosh Seizures Shed Light on Plight of Tibet Antelope,” Environmental News Network, 17 Apr. 2000.
14 Saulny.
15 Chubb.
16 “Fabled Kashmiri ‘Shatoosh’ Shawls Survive Ban,” Kashmir Media Service, 13 Jan. 2003.
17 Ehtashamuddin Khan, “230 Kgs. Of Shahtoosh Seized in Delhi,” Indo-Asian News Service, 23 Oct. 2001.
18 Breezy Meadow Cashmere Farm.
19 “Cashmere Characteristics,” Cashmere Producers of America, 2002.
20 “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit,” Turning Point, Jan.-Mar. 1991.
21 “Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Quotas—2003,” Environment Australia, 2003.
22 Department for Environment and Heritage, “The Macropod Conservation and Management Plan for South Australia,” Conservation and Management of Common Kangaroos, Nov. 2002: 49.
23 Australian Bureau of Statistics.
24 Philip Brasher, “President Signs, Praises Farm Bill,” Associated Press, 13 May 2002.
25 Sal Ruibal, “Edge of Winter: Beauty, Danger; Layering Clothes Essential for Sudden Temperature Shifts,” USA Today, 23 Nov. 2001, p. 8C.

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