Talking about this one always gets me a little misty-eyed, because who doesn’t go “AWWW!” at the sight of a fluffy lil’ lamb or sheep?
Sure, of course we should respect non-cute animals as well, but dangit, these critters are so darn cute!! I’ve seen a lot of sheep in my day, but 2017 was my first spring seeing newborn lambs, and I can promise that it’s not a Photoshop situation — they’re legitimately that cute.
And, let’s face it: in terms of inflicting harm, humans do typically take it easier on the cute creatures. So I do believe that the vast majority of people who wear wool truly believe that no harm is befalling these fluffy friends. Kinda like with milk: sheep produce wool, anyway — right? — so aren't we doing them a favor by giving them a haircut, and our sweaters are just a byproduct of that assistance?
Unfortunately, no. :(
Sheep don’t “naturally” need to be sheared
Humans have long engaged in selective breeding in order to steer animals’ biology toward better suiting our needs. Whether it was creating a long-bodied dachshund that could fit into burrows to hunt badgers, or engineering chickens to lay 30 times as many eggs as they would naturally, we’ve had a hand in drastically changing many of the animals around us, including sheep.
Wild sheep, and even some types of sheep who are raised for meat, are fine if left to their own fuzzy devices. They don’t need to be sheared — they just shed their coat like other wild animals do. And this makes sense; if all sheep were inherently unable to survive without human intervention, then there probably wouldn’t be many sheep around!
Rather, domesticated breeds like merino sheep have been specifically engineered to overproduce wool, and they need to be sheared to survive. Take the case of Shrek, a merino sheep who evaded shearing for six years. By the time he was caught, he was such a blob of wool that heat stress and mobility issues would’ve posed serious threats to his continued existence had he not been sheared.
Ok, so humans created these walking wool factories. But why is that a problem, as long as we treat them well?
You might be wondering why Shrek would want to stay hidden in a cave year after year, becoming more and more engulfed in his own wool, rather than submit to shearing.
Depending on the individual sheep, some of this could be completely innocent. Even the most careful shearing experience can be somewhat unpleasant (it’s loud, you’re getting yanked around), and so a sheep wanting to avoid a shearing may just be akin to a human wanting to avoid the dentist. (And I doubt many people would accuse dentists of committing willful cruelty.)
However, there’s one big, dangerous factor working against a sheep’s well-being: the profit motive. Whenever an animal is seen primarily as a source of money, rather than as a companion or friend, that animal is at risk of substandard treatment — and sheep are no exception.
Some of the suffering that sheep face is a direct result of humans’ selective breeding of them over time. In order to increase wool yield per sheep, and thereby maximize profits, sheep have been bred to have really saggy, wrinkly skin that falls in large folds all over their bodies. This way the wool will grow over a larger skin surface area, resulting in more pounds of wool per sheep. However, this uber-foldy skin causes sheep tons of health problems. This becomes particularly problematic in a farm environment, where a sheep’s profitability is important, and expensive veterinary care and slow, careful shearing are not the norm, since these will eat into a wool business’s margins.
A particularly gruesome ordeal for merino sheep is blowfly. Attracted by moisture and feces that become trapped in the sheep’s excessive skin folds, blowflies will come and lay eggs in the skin folds, which then hatch into maggots that painfully burrow into the sheep’s skin and muscle. This condition can easily become fatal, but it’s typically not cost-effective for farmers to treat sheep afflicted by blowflies. Instead, they’ll cut their losses by selling the sheep off for meat.
And sometimes the cure can seem worse than the disease… to avoid losing sheep to blowflies, it’s pretty standard for farms to resort to “mulesing” their sheep. Mulesing is a process by which un-anesthetized lambs will have large flaps of skin sliced off their upper thighs and tail area. (The goal is to leave this area of the sheep scarred, hairless, and foldless, since this is the area where blowflies would typically lay their eggs.) The baby lambs will also have their ears tagged, tails docked off, and be castrated without any pain meds. Good veterinary care can prevent blowflies without having to resort to mulesing, but individualized care is too expensive to be ‘worth it’ for wool producers — mulesing is easier and cheaper. (More info on all of this here.)
Even after lambs survive painful procedures like mulesing and castration during their youth, they run the risk of sustaining additional injuries each time they are sheared. The vast majority of wool comes from large flocks, whose shearers are paid by the sheep, so they are incentivized to move as quickly as possible, which means the sheep often sustain bloody cuts, and can even have protruding body parts like nipples and penises accidentally sheared off, or suffer other injuries from being forcibly subdued. (More info here, but beware that there’s some graphic footage.)
Yikes. But still — doesn’t something need to be done with these sheep’s wool?
This touches on an issue that I mentioned in the leather alternatives section, discussing why some vegans are reluctant to wear secondhand leather (or realistic faux leather) items. Most farm sanctuaries I know of do not sell the wool that they shear from their sheep, even though these sheep are sheared with the utmost care and receive excellent medical attention. While this is a personal decision for each sheep rescuer, selling this wool is often seen as a potentially dangerous perpetuation of the commodification of sheep lives. After all, if somebody sees me in my sanctuary-wool hat, they may think it looks cool and go out and buy themselves a non-sanctuary-wool hat.
Rather, most sheep rescuers find other beneficial uses for their sheep’s wool. One of my favorite ideas is what Farm Sanctuary does: they leave the wool out in their field, and local songbirds will come collect the wool to use for nest building. With many songbird populations struggling, it’s a great way to help support them. They’ve found some other helpful uses for the wool as well, such as donating wool to help clean up an oil spill.
Importantly, farm sanctuaries take extreme care to make sure that the sheep are comfortable, not frightened, and have any special medical needs addressed during the shearing process. This is in stark contrast to profit-driven wool businesses, where shearers typically only spend 2-3 minutes per sheep and may shear over 200 sheep per day, which can easily result in the kinds of injuries and rough treatment discussed above. I think these gentle creatures, who are smart enough to recognize Jake Gyllenhaal and Obama, deserve better.
As discussed in the leather alternatives section, some alternatives to animal products can be ethically or environmentally problematic as well, such as petroleum-based acrylic yarns that can have a negative impact on the environment and the people who make them. Because of this, some of the most effective things we can do to reduce the harmfulness of our clothing choices include avoiding over-consumption, taking good care of the things we already have, and buying secondhand when possible.
For knitters out there, luckily there are lots of animal-free yarn options that are very eco-, sheep-, and human-friendly, including ones that are made from recycled materials and support artisans in impoverished communities.