for National Geographic News
Not many people are familiar with the condition of sheep's bottoms. Even in Australia, where lamb is a favorite red meat and wool is a source of economic pride, people prefer to concentrate on the whole animal.
But a practice known as mulesing, which targets the nether regions of sheep, has been pushed in the faces of consumers by animal rights activists who claim the procedure is inhumane and outdated.
Mulesing involves cutting folds of skin from around the anus of a lamb to create an area of smooth, tough skin. The practice aims to prevent flystrike, an often fatal condition caused by blowflies laying their eggs near the sheep's wrinkled tailpipe. The eggs hatch into maggots, which eat into the sheep.
The wool industry had already agreed to phase out the procedure by 2010, but animal activists want it stopped now.
Until late last year few people outside the sheep industry had heard of mulesing. But the Australian public had a crash course in how to keep a sheep neat and tidy: The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) threatened several clothing chains with a media campaign about mulesing unless the retailers stopped using Australian wool.
PETA president Ingrid E. Newkirk equates the practice to "mutilating lambs."
"Mulesing is a cheap, crude attempt to create smooth, scarred skin that is resistant to blowfly maggots, which can eat sheep alive," she said. "However the enormous, bloody wounds can attract the very flies the procedure is supposed to repel. And lambs sometimes get flystrike before they even heal from the traumatic ordeal."
PETA argues that there are alternatives to mulesing, including controlling flies and breeding out the folds of skin that attract blowflies.
But the Australian wool industry, which generates about 1.9 billion dollars (U.S.) a year in exports, says the practice is a necessary evil. Representatives say any momentary suffering endured by the sheep is far better than a long and agonizing death from flystrike.
To further complicate matters, the wool industry is split over the best way to handle the situation.
The industry's representative body, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), is funding research into a protein injection that would remove the wool and skin folds from around the sheep's anus.
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