Wool Boycott Targets Australia Sheep Farmers

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News
August 16, 2005
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of sheep, has been pushed in the faces of consumers by animal rights activists who claim the procedure is inhumane and outdated.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.

"Necessary Evil"

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.

The trade group is also waging a legal battle to stop PETA's publicity campaign.

"The court case is simply an opportunity for woolgrowers to assert their legal rights to stop PETA attempting to choke their markets by intimidating retailers," AWI's chairperson, Ian McLachlan, said.

But the court case is not supported by the Australian Wool Growers' Association (AWGA), which represents the country's sheep-wool farmers. The association argues that it is better to negotiate an agreement with PETA than pursue expensive legal action.

"One has to ask at what cost to the industry [does it continue] this expensive action and what is the end result, when in reality the industry has progressed considerably towards meeting world expectation," said Chick Olsson, AWGA chairperson.

Olsson says the industry is already trying to meet the claims of animal activists. He points to a commitment to phase out mulesing by 2010, as well as investments in researching post-mulesing pain relief.

Wool Over Their Eyes?

PETA signaled a potential end to its media campaign when it signed a statement of principle last week with AWGA.

If PETA stops campaigning, the association agreed that its members should use pain killers on sheep before and after mulesing, among other steps, until the practice is phased out by 2010.

If the wool industry joins sheep farmers in supporting the agreement, PETA says it will stop its mulesing campaign and not undertake future action against the industry's animal husbandry practices for the next ten years.

In addition, "PETA will encourage retailers to give purchasing preference to wool that is branded by AWGA," the agreement stated.

But the association must now unite the whole wool industry behind the plan in order for PETA to drop its campaign permanently.

Chick Olsson, AWGA chairperson, said the agreement offers a "wonderful opportunity" for wool growers to market themselves as animal friendly.

"This presents [itself] as a marketing dream to the modern moral and impressionable consumer-driven market place," Olsson said.

"The boycott crisis … has to be brought to a sensible economic conclusion. Legally antagonizing large animal-rights groups does not make any commercial sense," he added. "What modern Australian businessman or woman would want such a boycott to continue?"

But Australian Wool Innovation, the wool industry trade group, remains skeptical and said it will continue with its court action later this week.

AWI chairperson Ian McLachlan says the organization will not negotiate with PETA and is confident the court will rule the campaign must stop. "PETA has no role in determining animal welfare standards and practices in Australia," he said.

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