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Is There Such a Thing as Humane Wool?

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By Brian Barth

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal rights organization, has a reputation for employing the oldest marketing trick in the book: selling their message with sex.

The latest example? Their campaign to raise awareness of animal abuse in the wool industry, which features a poster of Alicia Silverstone walking naked into a meadow, her head turned over her shoulder, looking back at you with seductive, pleading eyes. The caption reads, "I'd rather go naked than wear wool."

Pamela Anderson, the singer Pink and a handful of other celebrities have also bared all for the cause.

The PETA creed is that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way." In other words, keeping livestock for purposes of human consumption, whether in a factory-farming setting or a small organic farm, is ethically reprehensible. PETA is well known for popularizing veganism and exposing animal rights abuses around the world. But livestock farmers, unsurprisingly, have long despised their shock and awe tactics, which have a tendency to paint all farmers as evil animal abusers.

PETA's current sheep campaign—typically broadcast with the tagline, "there is no such thing as humane wool"—was launched in 2014 after the organization released footage of sheep being cut, manhandled and mangled at wool-shearing operations in the U.S. and Australia. The effort got major press coverage around the world and led to the prosecution of several of the Australian shearers who were depicted in the footage on animal abuse charges. Now that Alicia Silverstone has put her skin in the game (pun intended), PETA's wool campaign is back in the media once again.

Wool producers, along with a number of large agriculture organizations, have fought back. In Australia, the Victoria Farming Federation filed a formal complaint when a locally popular vegan musician was featured in PETA ads holding a bloodied lamb carcass with the caption, "here's the rest of your wool coat." It turned out the carcass was made of Styrofoam. PETA admitted to using a prop, but maintains that it was a realistic illustration of the horrors of shearing.

Animal abuse is far too common an occurrence with pets kept by demented individuals everywhere. And as PETA's undercover sheep investigation clearly shows, along with many others that have preceded it, some abusive individuals (unfortunately) make their living handling livestock on farms throughout the world. The question is, is abuse the norm? Are examples of abuse at a few sheep ranches enough to indict an entire industry?

We thought it would be worth asking a wool producer who claims to raise their sheep in a sustainable, humane manner how their practices differ from what PETA ascribes to all wool producers. Becky Weed, owner of Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company in southwestern Montana, was a little reluctant to take the call from Modern Farmer, as she's been caught in the crosshairs of the animal cruelty debate before and has better things to do than argue with activists about whether or not raising sheep is inherently evil.

"I am wary of PETA," said Weed, right off the bat. "I don't think it's a particularly rational organization … I think animal welfare is important, but I don't believe that raising sheep is by definition cruel."

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