Why I don't wear wool: Take a hard look at how sheep are treated down under
by Amy Elizabeth
March 21, 2006

Watch - What's wrong with Wool?

As I write this, I'm warding off the winter chill with a cotton turtleneck, a polyester fleece pullover, polyester long underwear, cotton corduroys and acrylic socks. But not so much as a stitch of wool. Why not? Because I don't buy wool. For ethical reasons.

Most people look at you funny when you say you don't wear wool. "Oh, you're allergic, right?" Nope. "Hate the dry-cleaning?" Yes, but that's not the only reason. "It's too heavy? Smells funny? Takes too long to dry?" Yes, yes and yes, but still no cigar.

When you confess that your primary reason for forgoing fleece is for the benefit of the sheep, foreheads start to pucker. Most people envision a sheep farm to be something like Farmer Hoggett's in the movie "Babe," sans the talking pig, of course. You know, rolling hills, perky sheep dogs, cozy barns, that sort of thing. While bucolic, blissful farms like this may still exist somewhere in James Herriot's Yorkshire, that's not where most of the wool we buy comes from.

Chances are, no matter where you live, your wool comes from the land down under. With 120 million sheep, Australia is the world's largest producer of Merino wool (the kind used for most clothing). Flocks usually consist of thousands of sheep, so it's impossible for farmers to treat them with the tender loving care Farmer Hoggett and his talented pig would provide.

Australian sheep are basically on their own. They get rounded up and tossed into the sheep dip every once in a while, but mostly, it's just them, the kangaroos and the, uh-oh, dingoes.

When the shepherd does "tend" to them, lambs have their tails amputated without anesthetic. Little boy lambs are particularly blue because they are castrated without painkillers. Ouch. Shearing isn't a walk in the park, either, since it is automated and done at lightning speed to accommodate such huge numbers of animals. Protruding sheep parts accidentally get lopped off. Shades of Lorena Bobbitt, if you catch my drift.

The Australians mainly raise Merino sheep because their wrinkly skin produces more wool per animal. Trouble is, the wrinkles collect urine and moisture, which attracts flies, which lay eggs, which hatch into maggots, and ' you get the picture. So the colonists came up with an ingenious (or egregious ' you be the judge) solution: They slice a chunk of skin off the lamb's rear end in order to create a massive scar that pulls the skin tighter, reducing wrinkles. Yes, it's just as gruesome as you're imagining, and the wounds often become infested with flies before they heal. But, hey, if it was good enough for grandpa, it's good enough for me, mate.

The worst is still to come for these fuzzy denizens of the outback. Once sheep become old or unproductive, they are shipped to slaughter. In Australia, this usually means being herded onto trucks and transported huge distances overland to the coast, where they are loaded onto ships bound for the Middle East.

The ships are huge ' up to 14 tiers high ' with up to 125,000 sheep packed like sardines into each one.

The journey can take several weeks; many sheep die of sickness, trampling or starvation when they are unable to reach the food trough.

Why not just kill the sheep in Australia and ship the meat to the Middle East? Because Middle Eastern consumers want flesh that has been butchered ritually, which means no prior stunning. The sheep's throats are slit while they are fully conscious.

So that's why I boycott wool. And you know what? I manage to keep quite warm and toasty without it. No matter what the wool industry may say, nothing keeps you warmer than polyester fleece. It's lightweight and water repellent, two things wool is not.

Throw on a layer of Gore-Tex and you're ready for a kayak trip down the Nantahala in February 'or even just a stroll around the grounds at Biltmore. Your body will stay plenty warm without wool, but warmest of all may be your heart.

Amy Elizabeth has a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Colorado. She lives in Morganton.

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