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Activists are beating wool producers to the punch in selling a story about fibre

Activism: Peta’s anti-wool billboard. Photo/Supplied

Most of us would probably not say, “I’d rather go naked than wear wool”, but that was exactly the message that 18 months ago appeared on US billboards featuring actress Alicia Silverstone in the nude.

The animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) was behind the campaign and Peta’s lead on wool in its corporate affairs department, Laura Shields, told the Listener from Missouri that cruelty to sheep is “the industry norm” in wool production.

Although Peta has not witnessed cruelty in New Zealand specifically, Shields says it has been documented at 99 different shearing operations across four continents and in every case sheep have been kicked, punched and mutilated. “It is the industry norm and it is what we find every time we pull back the veil on the wool industry.”

Federated Farmers meat and wool chairman Miles Anderson says Peta’s claims are nonsense. He says he has seen the group’s videos showing sheep being knocked around – he thinks in Australia – “but it certainly would not be tolerated here. Animal welfare is the No 1 priority of farmers.”

But, Shields says, the British said that too, before Peta went undercover “and exposed the same abuses that we found in every other country”.

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“It leads us to believe that this is a systematic pattern of abuse and is inherent in the way the industry works,” she say. Shearers are paid by volume rather than by the hour, “so it is fast, violent work that can lead to wounds on sheep being stitched up using a large needle and thread, right there on the filthy shearing floor, with no anaesthetic”.

Shields works in campaigns such as “I’d rather go naked than wear wool”, encouraging companies to no longer use wool in their products. There are many cruelty-free vegan alternatives, she says – everything from organic cotton to recycled plastic bottles, soy and hemp. “These materials are luxurious, soft, functional, stylish and environmentally friendly, and they save the lives of countless animals.”

Anderson feels campaigns such as Peta’s are reducing wool demand – just one more challenge to New Zealand wool growers who are facing so many already. He finds it underhand that activists imply that sheep are killed for their wool. The secondary line on the “I’d rather go naked” billboard, for example, says, “Wear your own skin. Let animals keep theirs”. Some uneducated consumers, he says, believe sheep have to die for wool to be taken off them.

He says, such campaigns simply underline the urgency of wool growers telling their own story. Most sheep need to be shorn each year, he says, for animal-welfare reasons. “The shearing industry in New Zealand is very professional – mishandling animals would not be tolerated.”

However, says Shields, the problem with wool goes beyond issues of cruelty. Sheep are ruminant animals so their digestive systems constantly produce methane, a greenhouse gas, “25 times more potent than carbon dioxide”.

She denies that Peta takes funding from the oil industry, which would have an interest in denigrating wool and promoting oil-based synthetics instead. Peta is funded by its members, she says, “and we have 6.5 million”.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.