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By Jennifer Greenbaum
Their tails are docked; they are impregnated or castrated; sheared, prodded, packed, shipped and slaughtered.
Woven into socks, sweaters, and blankets, wool fiber has all the strength, warmth, and softness that once grew on a sheep. So pleasant are the associations we have with wool that it is rarely thought of as anything other than store-bought comfort, or something “borrowed” from a sheep through a friendly haircut. But a closer look at the shearing to shipping experience reveals an unpleasant reality.
Centuries of Breeding
Long a part of human history, the domesticated sheep has endured centuries of careful breeding for optimum wool production, quality of carcass, hardiness in harsh weather, and prolificacy in ewes. And the cost has been the animals’ health.
Merinos, bred in Australia, are a particularly egregious example of the problems that selective breeding has caused.
To provide more surface area for wool, meaning more wool for greater profits, Merinos were bred for excess skin wrinkles, but extra skin meant new health problems. Merinos are extremely difficult to shear without cutting the skin. They may suffer blowfly maggot infestations within the moist folds of their skin; the extra wool covering their eyes often makes them “wool blind”; and the extra wool they carry can bring on heat exhaustion.
In the United States, because lamb meat and mutton are more profitable, wool is a by-product. The slaughter-bound sheep who produce wool are treated the same as any other commercial farm animal. Their tails are docked; they are impregnated, castrated, sheared, prodded, packed, shipped and slaughtered. Adult sheep are kept alive to produce wool and lambs, year after year, until they are too old to be cost-effective and are sent off to slaughter.
Every year, ewes experience the labor of lambing, the love of mothering, and the loss of their frightened babies when they are taken away and sold to the local butcher or nearest slaughterhouse. And every year the ewes are impregnated all over again. Every year, lambs experience harsh weather, body mutilations, separation from their mothers, and slaughter. To buy wool is to support the slaughter of lambs and sheep, and to contribute to the meat industry by purchasing a by-product of its main harvest.
Not Much Like a Haircut
We’d like to believe that wool harvesting causes little or no discomfort, that the wool is shaved from the outside of the sheep, much like a haircut, leaving the animal cool and comfortable for the summer. After all, wild sheep have the ability to shed their own wool during the warm months and retain it during the winter. But shearing is nothing like shedding. The sheep are thrown on their backs and restrained while a razor is run over their bodies.
Whether sheared manually or mechanically, cuts in the skin are very common. Careless shearing can injure teats, pizzles, other appendages, and ligaments. Sheep are held in restraints with tight clamps on their faces when they’re mechanically sheared. Naked to the world, sheep are put back out to pasture where they can suffer severe sunburn or freeze as the heat is drawn from their bodies.
Death can occur when the shearer is rough and twists the sheep into an organ-damaging position, when the health of the sheep is already poor, or when being stripped of wool is a shock to the sheep’s system.
The losses in sheep production are mostly through lamb mortality. Some lambs, born on the range, are vulnerable to lethal hypothermia. Another common cause for lamb death is diarrhea, often caused in U.S. lambs by the e. coli bacteria, a bacteria that thrives in filth. Cold, damp lambing quarters and improper or erratic feeding of ewes usually play a part in the outbreaks.
Before the male lambs even leave the barn or pasture, when they are usually just a few days old, their tails are docked and they are castrated. Removal of the tail is a routine procedure on sheep farms that serves to maintain the quality of the wool around the back end of the sheep. Rich feeds give the sheep loose stools that soil the wool. Instead of solving the feed problem, the tail is cut off to help prevent messes and fly problems. The rubber ring method, a common practice, involves fastening a thick adhesive band at the base of the lamb’s tail. After days of painful circulation-loss, the tail dies and falls off. This method of docking is usually accompanied by rubber ring castration, a similar procedure involving the scrotum.
Docking and castration leave lambs with open wounds that are common sites for bacterial infections. If sickness is not prevented on the farm with vaccinations or treated immediately upon discovering the sick sheep (which is difficult when thousands are present), the animal is likely to die within a few days. Tetanus is one common disease that occurs in lambs after castration and docking, especially when the rubber ring method is used.
Lambs who survive long enough with their mothers are soon taken away by the farmer to be weaned early and fattened. The lambs are moved into feedlots and “finished” on forages and cereals that increase their growth rate. Some ewe lambs are retained to be used as replacement ewes. They are fed highly nutritional feed to push them into puberty at seven to eight months of age, and are not even fully grown before they are mated.
Most of the sheep in the United States reside in Western ranges in flocks of 2,000 to 15,000. These range-fed sheep are constantly moving, grazing on new grasses and vegetation every day. They are not brought in for shelter, except when a ewe is lambing. Sheep are left outside to stand through the worst weather conditions, from scorching heat to pouring rain to blowing snow. They are especially sensitive to changes in temperature after shearing.
In the cold winter months, sheep are usually left standing in their pasture during a storm, since it is too difficult to bring the animals inside. To keep the freezing snow from stinging their faces, sheep turn their backs to the wind and often head away from it altogether. When they come to a barrier or fence and cannot go any further to escape the wind, the sheep pile up on one another, and are eventually buried by the snow. In this “sheep pile,” the buried animals at the bottom die from suffocation or freeze in the snow.
Although sheep suffer for consumer demand, that can change. All products derived from sheep can be avoided, such as wool, lamb, mutton, lanolin (an oil extracted from wool), or products made from sheep’s milk such as Romano cheese. The use of wool for textiles has declined dramatically in the past few decades and is almost entirely due to the increasing supply of natural and synthetic fibers.
Animals produce their coats not for the benefit of humans, but for their own survival. Removal of their hair, feathers, fur, leather and wool is often hazardous, painful, and deadly. Sheep, ducks, and geese need insulation, silk worms need to fulfill their life cycles, and cows would obviously need their own skins if they were not slaughtered for their flesh. If you wish to leave cruelty to animals out of your lifestyle, then leave wool, down, silk, and leather behind in the stores. Leave what rightfully belongs to animals on the animals and in so doing, you help eliminate their suffering.
Originally published by The Animal Protection Institute http://www.api4animals.org.
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