Tall Tales Down Under

Australia's Wool Industry gets Sheepish in the Face of Animal-rights Demagoguery. Originally published at National Review

Demagoguery comes easy to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The most recent example comes out of Australia, where PETA is mounting an international boycott against that nation’s wool industry over the admittedly unpleasant — but necessary — Australian sheep-ranching practice known as “mulesing” (described below). Yet the defensive response of the Australian wool industry after being attacked unfairly, demonstrates why PETA so often gets the upper hand.

The Truth About Mulesing

In its “Save the Sheep” protest, PETA claims hyperbolically that “Australian wool represents massive suffering for sheep, millions of whom are mutilated each year by being trussed upside-down and having huge chunks of flesh carved from their rumps without any pain relief.” Sounds awful and gratuitously cruel, doesn’t it? But wait: There is far more to this story then the seeming gratuitous sadism of Aussie sheep ranchers depicted by PETA.

Australia is home to a nasty species of fly (the blowfly) that reproduces by laying eggs in wet wool, particularly around wounds or in healthy but damp areas soiled by feces and urine. When the eggs hatch, the maggots literally eat into the flesh of the sheep and feed for several days — a condition known as “flystrike” — before falling off onto the ground to pupate and become mature insects, starting the cycle anew. This parasitic maggot infestation — which partially eats the infected animal alive — is not only agonizing, but releases toxins causing afflicted sheep to die lingering and terrible deaths.

Mulesing protects tens of millions of Australian sheep for their entire lives from suffering flystrike. During the procedure, woolbearing skin (not “huge chunks of flesh”) is snipped and removed from young lambs around the rump. When the wound heals, the area has no wool, and thus wet waste is less likely to stick to the animals and attract blowflies. Moreover, the skin around the anus tightens and becomes smooth so that even if flies do land, they do not lay eggs.

No eggs means no maggots. No maggots means no flystrike. No flystrike means no torturous parasitic affliction and death. Thus, rather than being cruel, mulesing is actually a necessary preventative that protects sheep against far worse suffering than the transitorily pain the procedure causes. Indeed, without it, up to three million sheep would die agonizing deaths during a bad flystrike year.

When PETA mentions flystrike at all, it claims that mulesing isn’t necessary to prevent it. For example, PETA suggests that sheep ranchers continually sheer the wool off of the rumps of each of the 100 million sheep in Australia. But that wouldn’t work, because the flies lay eggs in healthy sheep in the wrinkly skin around a sheep’s anus. It takes both the tightening of the skin and the removing of wool to prevent flystrike in healthy, uninjured sheep. (Ironically, PETA’s website contends that sheep-shearing is itself a form of animal abuse.)

Insecticides and flytraps could also reduce the flies, we are told. But such actions are already in use. Moreover, Australia is a truly huge and open land. Imagine the environmental cost of pouring enough poison on billions and billions of acres to have any chance of significantly reducing flystrike.

PETA also suggests that ranchers change breeds to those without so many wrinkles. But according to Sarah Llewellyn-Evans, a spokeswoman for the Australian wool industry, wrinkled merino sheep “produce the finest and of the highest quality wool in the world. Changing to a different breed of sheep would not allow us to produce the wool that the market demands.” Thus changing sheep breeds would destroy the Australian wool industry and severely impact the livelihoods of all Aussies who work in it — which, of course, would be PETA’s dream come true.

Any objective and informed view must thus conclude that mulesing is an unfortunate but necessary and appropriate animal-management practice, which is why it is accepted by the Australian chief veterinary officer and the Australian Veterinary Association. Even the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), which deeply dislikes the practice, “considers mulesing a necessary means of eliminating or minimizing the pain and suffering caused by flystrike” in those areas where “there is a high risk” and “no acceptable alternative.”

Industries and the PR Wars

None of this matters to PETA, of course. In its zest to destroy Australian wool producers, it announced an international boycott (“Did Your Sweater Cause a Bloody Butt? Boycott Australian Wool!”) accompanied by vivid color (and, it should be mentioned, out-of-date) photographs of restrained lambs that have just undergone mulesing, in order to convince people who have never heard of flystrike that Aussie sheep ranchers are monstrous, sadistic animal abusers.

This propaganda tactic is par for PETA’s course, according to David Martosko, director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to combating the threat of animal rights/liberation to the food and clothing industries. “PETA has always presented inaccurate and sensationalized stories to a willing media. But the lion’s share of animal production for food and fiber is perfectly humane. PETA never shows this because it wants modern livestock farms eliminated, not improved.” And this is precisely why PETA will never disseminate nauseating pictures of flystruck sheep dripping blood and maggots on its website or billboards. Doing so would demonstrate that the Australian wool producers are merely protecting their sheep.

PETA’s next step was to threaten retailers that might sell clothes containing Australian wool. First stop, Abercrombie & Fitch. Confronted with the potential of mass picketing and a PETA-driven boycott against it as well, the retailer quickly stated that it would not sell clothes made with Australian wool. PETA will, no doubt, soon pressure other clothiers to join the unjust boycott.

After the Abercrombie and Fitch announcement, the Australian wool producers vowed to phase out mulesing by 2010, thus appearing to cave into PETA’s demands. But the reality is very different. Long before PETA entered the picture, the industry had invested millions of dollars in searching for effective alternatives. It has paid university researchers, for example, to study the genome of the blowfly to learn whether genetic science can be applied to eradicate the threat. In another promising approach, which appears close to becoming usable, researchers developed a protein that would be applied non-invasively to lambs’ rumps preventing all growth of wool and constricting the skin to smooth out posterior wrinkles. If the protein experiments pan out, mulesing will be phased out, perhaps well before the 2010 target date.

Indeed, mulesing should be phased out as soon as an equivalently effective and less painful prophylactic against flystrike is found. Where the Australian wool producers went wrong was to permit PETA to appear to have won a major victory by seeming to get the wool industry to do what it had planned all along. And that strengthened its enemy’s hand, which isn’t good for medical researchers, food companies, clothing industries, zoos, cattle ranchers, or fishing fleets. For the stronger PETA becomes, the more media attention it receives, the more donations that pour in to support its radical agenda, and the more likely animal industries and their ancillaries will face public demonization, threats, intimidation, and potentially economic ruin.

—Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is the author most recently of Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World..

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.