About Me

My photo
My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Wool, Our Eyes, and "Truth"

Full disclosure up front: I am not as pure as the driven snow.

Nor did I ever claim to be.

I got myself into a heap o' trouble the day before yesterday by responding to a friend's facebook status line about WorldWide Vegan Day (it was Nov 1). She had used a Simon R quote about vegans' pledge not to eat or use animals, including wool. (There was more to the quote than that, but that's what's relevant here.)

I responded that "I still think the no-wool thing is misguided, but I am otherwise with you." SO naive of me to think that was a non-confrontational response.

A flurry of responses ensued about podcasts exposing the cruelties in the wool industry, about websites and books claiming the same, etc. The not-so-thinly-veiled message was that a) I can't claim to be vegan if I use or wear wool (technically, that's true, I hadn't fully realized that), b) I need to read more, and c) I'm selfish.

HOLY. CRAP. I responded, off and on, to the responses, making the following points.

ONE, from what I've read sheep NEED to be sheared; not doing so is actually harmful (more on that in a minute).

TWO, it is possible to do this without harming them.

THREE, there is a difference between the INDUSTRY -- which I have no doubt has some major problems, as ALL big businesses do, particularly those that use animals -- and the PRACTICE of sheep shearing and the practice of raising them to use their wool. I could have added, though I didn't:

FOUR, wool is a sustainable resource (at least in theory). It WILL disintegrate in a landfill, whereas many manmade fibers will not. I would rather wear something biodegradable than something that will be here forever.

I also made the point (and later tried to amend it) that I'm probably not the only vegan (diet-wise) who also uses some wool, but I may be one of the few who will admit to it. I was fileted on the internet; in my humble opinion, far more than I deserved to have been.

This post could take one of two directions: complaining in detail about what was said to me and what I said back or detailing what I think I know about both "sides" of the wool debate. I'm choosing the latter. The first, while it would be somewhat satisfying personally, wouldn't accomplish much.

While this debate was raging (and the originator of the debate participating and putting out another status line claiming she *loved* the debate and that her "vegan girls" were great "warriors" who showed a lot of "love"), I asked my own Facebook friends (meaning people who actually KNOW me and/or who I know were raised on sheep farms) to tell me what they know about sheep, shearing, and wool. I truly wanted to hear the "other side" and I, truthfully, wasn't feeling a lot of love from those supposedly loving vegans.

Not surprisingly, my friends' (all non-vegans) responded in ways very distinct from the other post I was currently involved in. Their responses ranged from "I would rather argue about child abuse than this," to "I oppose the personification of animals and the ethics of considering animals and people as similar for treatment," to "to each their own, but I won't criticize you and expect you not to criticize me." No doubt the vegans would have a field day with those responses, particularly the last two, but I'm not going there.

The friends who put the most thought into this issue said the following (they are quoted here verbatim):

"I'm sure there are mistreated animals in that area as well, but I think of wool as a renewable resource....We don't wear much wool, however, because of the scratch-factor..."

"It's an interesting dilemma. Products which the animal has to die to produce (i.e., meat, leather, etc.) are obvious. Products which it is possible to harvest from the animal without killing or even harming them (e.g., eggs, dairy, honey, wool) are a whole other category....I would say that if you know for sure that the sheep are raised in a cruelty-free environment that you are within your ethical guidelines to use their wool....Of course some people will say that any form of animal husbandry is a form of slavery and thus cannot be ethical no matter how kindly the animals are treated."

"I really don't know much about animal cruelty and the rules that govern this area of modern-day living. But one question that pops into my mind is that in the future, will we start questioning why we harvest our crops? Perhaps it's painful for the plants to be cut. Anyhow, according to Islamic teachings, the animals have been created to serve the purpose of human life but at the same time, animals should not be mistreated. This is my two-cents worth."

"OF COURSE IT'S ETHICAL. The sheep need their hair cut or they will not be able to move around. You ever see one of those babies without a hair cut? We're not killing them for clothing like we do with leather....I guess the dilemma comes if you are a vegan. If you don't eat food that comes from aminals, should you wear it? I'd like to hear what they have to say."

The two most in-depth responses were from two friends who have had, relative to me and to my other friends, direct and extensive experience with sheep and shearing.

Friend #1:

"Having grown up raising sheep, I have a bias(ed) perspective. I find no problems, ethical, spiritual, logical, etc., sheering sheep for wool production or animal husbandry. I have shorn sheep and have, like many sheep shearers, even accidentally cut an animal while sheering. Cuts during sheering can occur when the skin is not drawn tightly against the body - several wool breeds have large skin folds, (skin folds were initially a natural defense to predation that has been exploited through selective breeding yielding greater surface area for wool) or cuts to the animal can occur if the sheep is not properly restrained and moves unexpectedly during sheering. Having sheered my fair share of sheep, if I cut the animal, I care for the wound that I inflicted.

Also, many domestic sheep breeds will develop "wool tags" if not regularly shorn. A wool tag is an area where feces has adhered to the wool. If a sheep has diarrhea, which can naturally occur if animals graze around fruit, they just love apples, or are sick, their feces will gather on the wool growing around the haunches or rump and if left unattended will form firm balls of poo that pull the skin. More serious are bot and blow flies that can lay eggs in wool soiled with manure. If untreated a disease called flystrike can occur. Flies will lay their eggs into warm manure and fly larvae, maggots, burrow their way into the skin. Untreated animals will die from flystrike. I have never met a sheep farmer that does not want the sheerer to remove wool tags.

Many farmers will "crotch" their ewes, that is sheer the wool from their haunches, before lambing season to ensure that flystrike does not occur after giving birth. I did this as a kid, and found that most ewes had an easier time licking themselves clean after giving birth. Occasionally, wool will grow around the utter. We always removed these small bits of wool so lambs had an easier time suckling, though I never knew of a lamb that couldn't find the teet.

Other wool diseases result from insects. Sheep keds and lice do tremendous damage to skin. I have read about sheep that have gone unshorn develop the most horrible skin lesions and scabbing as a result of mites and lice repeatedly biting the animals. Wool parasites can cause awful damage.

Lastly, wool is like hair in that it always keeps growing. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a vegetarian. I eat lamb and wear wool."

And from friend #2:

"I hesitated to comment...but then I thought of this: We humans get our hair cut. Are we being cruel to ourselves? And, secondly, I lived on a farm for five years and we had sheep. OK, it wasn't a commercial sheep farm but we had sheep and we sheared them. They did not cry out in pain and, in fact, they used to jump around and stuff after being sheared -- like they felt light and free. I also saw what happens when you DON'T shear them. It involves maggots and it's not pretty -- it can also be deadly to the sheep. Cruelty comes in many forms. I'm just sayin'"

What these last two friends said above is virtually identical to what vegans say, too, about reasons to shear sheep (most see that it NEEDS to be done). However, vegans feel that you shouldn't use the wool because the sheep didn't "grow it for us." (See farmsanctuary.com "Shearing Rescued Sheep".) Some naively claim that sheep, left to their own devices, will naturally shed what they don't need (See vegsoc.org/info/sheep and veganpeace.com/animal_cruelty/wool).

I've read conflicting sources -- some saying this is true FOR SOME BREEDS and others saying that it is NOT true. For instance, you can consult the UMass Amherst Outreach on the web; their first line in their piece on sheep shearing is "Nearly all sheep require shearing." Similarly, a blog called farmjournal.blogspot.com -- about a family who took in sheep out of the goodness of their hearts and not for meat -- says that they shear sheep because "Sheep have been domesticated and are not able to be turned loose and not have basic care. Feet, shearing and FEED are critically important. Shearing is NOT cruel; it is a short, painless process that protects the sheep from parasites and the heat of the summer." They, of course, say more than that, but their opinion (and mine as well) is that sheep LIKE ALL DOMESTICATED ANIMALS require HUMAN care, and in the case of sheep, this involves shearing them. Since we shear them, it's not illogical to use their wool.

The (usually vegan) position that we can't use the wool because "the sheep didn't grow it for us" is a bit nutty, though I think other practices in sheep raising (crowding, mulesing, tail cropping) are at the very least debatable, and probably HIGHLY unethical and cruel.

Of course, the problem is, at least from the vegan perspective: most sheep are not raised purely for their wool, and mulesing (removing wool-growing skin parts near the butt so that flystrike is less likely to occur) and tail cropping are commonplace. IF you are against these practices, and particularly if you are against sheep being raised for meat, then you will be, by definition, against sheep being raised for wool (eventually, sheep who aren't wool-producers end up as meat...).

I did a lot of reading on this after my run-ins with the vegans. Here's a brief summary of what I found: ALL vegan websites and animal-rights websites claim that the wool industry is cruel and that people shouldn't wear or use wool (this means rugs, yarns, etc.). This is what you would expect them to say, given their worldviews. Similarly, every other website I found (except for the blog mentioned above)-- by googling "sheep shearing," "wool," or "raising sheep" -- were websites with industry connections. Those websites, not surprisingly, emphasize the nature of wool (water-resistant and warm, for instance), and have mind-bogging amounts of information on laws and data on sheep farming. What they hope to convince you is that farmers go to tremendous lengths to take care of their sheep, to shear them without harming them, and to deliver a quality product. Of course, one of their products is also meat (often shipped to countries with higher lamb consumption than ours).

I also found several websites (this time, on both "sides" of the issue) explaining that the US relies heavily on imports of Australian wool to satisfy our demand. Australian wools are mixed with US wools, for instance, in most yarns. (I tried to find a wool yarn that was 100% American, and though I found 100% American-made, I found no yarn that could tell me that ALL of its YARN comes from the US -- I am waiting, however, on a few companies to answer my emails.)

The point of bringing this up is that a few years back, PETA investigators found that Australian farmers were dragging sheep and cows off trucks by their ears and legs and leaving them to die in "...barren feedlots. They were bound and thrown into trunks of cars, and they were slaughtered in prolonged and cruel ways that are illegal in the United States, Europe, and Australia" (PETA, "Inside the Wool Industry"). While I cannot, personally, vouch for the veracity of this claim, it is obvious to me that if you believe that (I see no reason not to) boycotting Australian merino wool would be a logical action.

Problem? The US only produces about a quarter of the wool it uses and imports a LOT of wool from Australia. So, boycotting Australian wool would basically mean boycotting ALL wool. If you think, as I do, that it is POSSIBLE to raise sheep ethically, then you SHOULD boycott a product where there is ugly evidence that some producers care so little about their animals.

Though I think that factory farming of ALL KINDS is, ultimately, unsustainable (one of the reasons I am attracted to a vegan diet in the first place), I still maintain that it may be possible AND IMPERATIVE to raise domesticated animals in small-scale farms for such things as wool, milk and eggs. (I no longer consume dairy for health reasons, though it is logically possible to raise a cow and milk her without hurting her; in fact, if you read my blog on cows and goats, you know that certain breeds will suffer horribly if we DO NOT milk them.)

I TOTALLY agree with my friend that "animal husbandry" that involves the death of an animal is arguably unethical, but that "use" of animals where it is possible not only to allow them to live, but to live WELL, is arguably, ethical.

This last reason is why I will continue, even with a vegan DIET, to wear and use some wool. Conveniently, I now live in a warmer climate than I used to; it is hardly a huge sacrifice for me to use LESS wool, which I think would be a good starting place for anybody who cares about animal welfare. At the same time, I'll continue to learn more about raising sheep and about pressures that consumers can exert on the wool industry to clean up its act.

Finally, I have learned, hopefully once and for all, that it's safer to decide what YOU believe and give it your own label than to adopt one that somebody else promotes. So, I'm not a vegan. I wear some wool. I occasionally knit with it (three pairs of mittens last year). Sometimes I use honey. I still care about animals, the environment, and health. I still eat a vegan DIET. But I am not a vegan.

And I don't think the sheep care.


  1. I have known a few vegans, and some of them can be totally off the wall and uninformed. Wool is definitely a renewable resource and sheep are not ordinarily harmed in the shearing. Sheeesh!

  2. I've never aspired to be a vegan but now I know without a single solitary doubt that I'd never ever never even want to think about the possibility of even considering the remote chance that I would possibly ever even try. :-) The wool debate is less interesting than "Great taste" or "Less filling."

  3. wow elaine! thanks for the depth and detail you covered here! whew! great post. i saw a cat today who'd had the most ridiculous haircut, but i don't think it was hurt in the process. for me, it all boils down to treating all living beings with kindness. it ought to be the number one mandate for any industry or corporation. it's almost impossible to avoid consuming something that hasn't hurt an animal. even synthetic fabrics, somewhere in their manufacturing process, have polluted a river and killed birds, and the teflon industry has ruined entire towns and given people cancer (used in clothing to weatherproof). you're making a well-informed choice. most of us don't take the time to learn about what we're debating, we're happy enough just to pick a side and start the battle. thank you so much for digging deep.

  4. Can't thank you enough for this post. Great research and I love the way you put it all together. So logical and informative. I am right there with you 100%. And, perhaps I need to come to the same conclusion as you and say I follow a vegan diet - because I continue to use wool in my knitting and wear wool and alpaca often.

    Thanks again - I am new to your blog, and wow, this was a great post to initiate me :)


Politeness is always appreciated.