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February 2005
What Did Your Coat Cost? Staying Warm Without the Skins
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews


Okay, okay. New York winters are pretty harsh, I admit it. Nasty snow removal services can have a hard time doing their jobs in a timely manner. People get frustrated, then cause accidents, which slows down the plows even more. Yet, worse than driving is walking; even a trip to the bodega across the street to pick up that much-needed cat litter can be a brutal experience. But gosh darn it, there are reasons people live here and brave our cold winters. Right? Besides, if you think New York City winters are bad, try Buffalo, or anywhere in the northern Midwest.

All ranting aside, we fortunately live in a time where we can stand up to Old Man Winter by bundling ourselves in revolutionary fabrics like Gore-tex, Polarguard, Polartec, or Patagonia’s recycled polyester fleeces. The barely mobile, outerwear puffs we become after donning the billowy and Neanderthal-like furry, feathered, and wooly coats of skin can now be a thing of the past. So why is it people are still opting to wear skins instead of comfortable and stylish weather protection fabrics? Are they simply unaware?

The Look of Leather
Hot. Sexy. Expensive. The look of leather is synonymous with rough-edged motorcycle jackets, rock star pants and designer bags. But sadly missing from the equation are the words cruelty, death and profit.

At most, people are misguided into thinking leather is a slaughterhouse byproduct when in all actuality it is a flourishing industry. The powerhouse for the cattle industry, leather actually accounts for two-thirds of the value of the slaughtered cattle, according to PETA. Even the skins of veal calves are made into high-priced calfskin. The fact is, most of the millions of animals slaughtered for their skin endure the horrors of factory farming. The economic success of slaughterhouses and factory farms is unequivocally linked to the retailing of leather wares. Moreover, the U.S. is the largest producer of hides and skins with an annual production of more than 1.1 million tons.

It is not uncommon to think of leather as coming from cows, pigs, goats, and sheep, but exotic animals like alligators, ostriches, and kangaroos—even dogs and cats, who are slaughtered for their meat and skins in China and exported around the world—are commonly used. And there is also no way to detect if imported “exotic” leather products are made from the skin of endangered, illegally poached wildlife. Since leather is normally labeled with little more than “Genuine Leather,” you never really know what animal it came from.

Leather is also no friend of the environment since it shares all the environmental destruction of the meat industry, in addition to the toxins used in tanning. And in terms of animal welfare, each of these unfortunate “food and hide” animals lives in misery—cruelly confined on factory farms with inadequate food, water, or sunshine, they must also endure days of thirst, hunger, and cramped conditions during the harsh journey to the slaughterhouse where untold numbers die en route. The actual killing process is itself cruel, as many are skinned and gutted alive in plain view of other terrified animals.

Consumers must realize leather is part of a barbaric cycle of cruelty and death from industries that are financially interdependent and reliant on each other.

It may come from a sheep, goat, or Tibetan antelope. It may be called wool, mohair, cashmere, or angora. No matter what you call it, it almost certainly means suffering for the animal it came from.

For sure, we’d like to believe that gathering wool causes little or no discomfort to the animal, that the wool is simply shaved from the outside of the animal, much like a haircut, leaving the critter cool and comfortable for the summer months. Well, shearing is nothing of the kind.

Just weeks after birth, lambs’ ears are punched, their tails are chopped off, and the males are castrated, all without anesthetics. To prevent “flystrike” (a maggot infestation caused by wrinkly skin, which is bred into the sheep so that they will have more wool), some ranchers perform an operation called “mulesing,” which involves carving huge strips of flesh off the backs of unanesthetized lambs’ legs.

Just like sheep’s wool, cashmere (or Tibetan pashmina) is taken from goats. Those with “defects” in their coats are typically killed before two years of age. Even industry experts advise farmers to expect to kill 50 to 80 percent of young goats whose coats do not meet standards. Soft underbelly hair is considered particularly valuable and may be clipped or combed from living animals. ‘Pulled’ cashmere, however, is obtained from the slaughterhouse.

The record of the sheep and goat industry is brutal: animals unsuited to the climate have been introduced and bred in vast numbers, with minimal care. Mutilations and early deaths are common, with millions of survivors eventually sent to slaughter.

Like other animals “farmed” for their wool, rabbits—who are extremely clean by nature—are kept in tiny, filthy cages, surrounded by their own waste. They spend their entire lives standing on thin cage wires, never having a chance to dig, jump or play. Angoras have very delicate footpads, making life on a wire cage floor excruciating and ulcerated feet a common condition. Because male angoras have only 75 to 80 percent of the wool yield of females, they are often routinely killed at birth.

When animals are ready to be sheared, they are thrown on their backs and restrained with tight clamps on their faces while a razor is run over their bodies. Whether sheared manually or mechanically, cuts in the skin are also very common. Careless shearing can injure teats, genetalia, other appendages, and ligaments. Naked to the world, they are put back out to pasture or into their cages where they can suffer severe sunburn or freeze as the heat is drawn from their bodies.

Death can also occur when the shearer is rough and twists the animal into an organ-damaging position, when the health of the sheep is already poor, or when being stripped of hair is a shock to their system.

Those who wear fur trim and fur coats have the skin of minks, raccoons, rabbits, foxes, beavers, dogs, cats and other animals draped on their bodies. Animals on fur farms spend their lives in tiny cages and are commonly killed by anal or genital electrocution, which causes them to have a heart attack; by clubbing, gassing, or a simple neck twist. Many are skinned alive.

In 2003, there were over 300 fur farms in the United States. Utah has the most farms (80), followed by Wisconsin (69), Minnesota (31), Oregon (25) and Idaho (25). In 2004, approximately 35 million animals raised on fur farms around the world, which account for the majority of the world’s fur production, were killed for their pelts. Mink and foxes are naturally wild animals and do not adapt to life in captivity. Wild mink instinctively range a territory of approximately 741 acres in size. In contrast, ranch-raised mink are confined to a 12” by 18” cage. This type of intensive confinement often results in self-mutilation, cannibalism, and high level stress that weakens the immune system and makes animals more susceptible to disease.

In the U.S. alone, more than four million wild animals a year are trapped and killed for profit and “recreation.” Millions more are trapped and killed in predator and “nuisance” wildlife control programs. These figures do not include the millions of non-target animals killed in traps set for other species. Body-gripping traps—which include leghold traps, strangulation neck snares, and conibear kill-traps—are notoriously cruel and indiscriminate. If not killed outright, trapped animals can suffer severe physical injury, psychological trauma, dehydration, exposure to severe weather, and predation by other animals. Most body-gripping traps will capture any animal that triggers them, including threatened and endangered species, birds, domestic dogs and cats—even humans.

Feathers and down are used in jackets, pillows, sleeping bags, quilts and comforters, and other warming winter accessories. Despite the common misconception, down clusters are not immature feathers. They are specialized feathers with an unusual construction. Down is the first plumage on young birds and forms a protective insulating liner under the regular feathers of most birds, especially aquatic birds. This insulation helps them maintain their body temperature in inclement weather. These feathers are highly valued because they do not have quills.

Chicken feathers, duck feathers and duck down are usually obtained from slaughtered birds. As with all commercial poultry, tens of thousands of birds live crammed into a confined area, awaiting a premature death. The birds are killed, put in scalding tanks to loosen the feathers, and the feathers removed by a mechanical picker.

In the wild, geese live long lives in family units, mate for life, and fly long distances. Geese used for feather and down production face all the tortures other poultry face but are often subjected to the additional cruelty of live plucking. Four or five times in their lives they are forcibly restrained while their feathers are ripped from their bodies. The geese struggle to escape and injuries, including fractures, are very common. After the last plucking, the birds have five weeks to grow more feathers before they are sent through a machine that plucks their longest feathers. Then they are then sent to slaughter.

Approximately 3,000 silkworms die to make every pound of silk. The so-called “silkworm” is actually a domesticated insect who, in nature, goes through the same stages of metamorphosis—egg, larva, pupae and adult—that all moths do. These little critters are primarily raised on mulberry leaves on which they spin their silken cocoons. Unfortunately they never get a chance to spread their wings and fly. While still in their pupae stage and inside their cocoons, they are boiled—their boiled bodies are then removed and sold for fertilizer. Enough said.

The Pros and Cons of Alternatives
From acrylic and cotton sweaters, knit caps, polar-fleece sweatshirts, to down-free comforters and faux fur coats, alternatives are more than readily available. Although personally quite biased (no animal skins here), I am still quite handy at playing my own devil’s advocate.

We cannot talk about alternatives without addressing a few of the arguments surrounding them. First, let’s look at which causes less damage to the environment—petroleum-based synthetic leathers or leather? While petroleum-based products cause toxic pollution from manufacturing and its waste, animal skin manufacturers are part of the destructive factory farming industry and reliant on toxins for tanning, dying, and treating. Either alternative leads to some environmental damage, but while you’re supporting the exploitation of animals by purchasing animal skins, choosing alternatives will at least help alleviate actual animal suffering.

Another argument questions weather faux animal skin materials give the impression that leather and fur are socially and ethically acceptable. Why not go with some other materials such as hemp, cotton, obvious synthetic fibers, or recycled rubber when possible? On the other hand it can be argued that by using leather and fur alternatives we can show others a way of wearing clothes with the look they like that doesn’t require the exploitation of animals.

Stylish Thrift Shopping
With all that said, I still feel the need to mention the fact that more than anything, the sheer amount of production is a problem. For example, cotton is the world’s most polluting crop, responsible for 25 percent of all pesticide use in the world each year. And it has been calculated that the Earth cannot produce enough natural fibers to provide for the present-day demand for new clothes. The issues of worker’s rights and remuneration also loom large when deciding on clothing options.

When you buy used, you are not only getting a good deal, you are preventing resources from being discarded. You are helping reduce the number of new items that are created. And if you simply can’t live without that leather coat, by buying used (and then re-selling it when you’re through) you’re doing very little to add to the demand for new wool, leather and down products.

For an extensive list of stores that sell animal-free clothing see


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