Angora Wool: Is It Cruel?
Is the farming of angora rabbits for wool a cruel process?
A few weeks ago animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released a video exposing cruelty towards Angora rabbits. As a result of the release a number of fashion retailers, including H&M, Esprit and New Look, have suspended angora production – despite the fact that they all believe their angora fibre is responsibly sourced, they are checking to make sure.
Knitters have long adored angora wool for its snuggly insulation, beautiful softness and airy lightness. Now they, too, are asking themselves: can I still support this product?
Naturally, at Loveknitting we are determined that all our products be responsibly sourced. This story is personally important to me too, as a former vet student and rabbit owner. So we decided to investigate.
How should angora wool be harvested?
To complicate matters: the right method for harvesting the fleece depends on the rabbit!
English and French: Combing and plucking
The English and French Angora breeds shed their coat regularly, and the fibre is harvested by gently combing or pulling the wool out as the new coat grows in. This process is quite time-consuming: it is best done over several days, as different areas of the bunny shed at different times. However, it does produce the best fibres: clipping or shearing a French or English Angora will lead to short, flyaway fibres from the new coat being included, forming a prickly, shed-prone yarn.
Samson, my own Lionhead rabbit (related to the Angora), shed his coat in this way, and when he needed grooming I could gently pull away huge chunks of his wool – there would be a fresh coat of fur underneath, like the picture above. Far from hurting the bunny, most pet owners believe their rabbits are much more comfortable once the old, dead wool has been removed.
There is a number of delightful videos showing groomers spinning the wool straight off the rabbit: have you ever seen a happier, more contented bunny than the one below?
German, Giant and Chinese: Clipping or shearing
However: 90% of the world’s angora fibre comes from China, and most of the rabbits farmed there are German, or Giant Angoras. These rabbits do not moult in the same way as the English and French Angoras, and their fur must be shorn or clipped with scissors or clippers. I would favour clippers as the safer option: as any owner of a long-haired rabbit will tell you, it is frighteningly easy to nick their delicate skin by accident.
The Shearing Shed angora farm in Waitomo, New Zealand holds shearing demonstrations, using a procedure that is regularly inspected and approved by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), a widely respected animal welfare organisation. Some people are concerned by this process, particularly the restraints used on the rabbit, so it’s worth bearing the following points in mind:
- The rabbit in the video below is 4 years old, and has been shorn several times a year throughout her life. That means this is about her 15th shearing. In fact, when the video starts she has already been partially shorn, probably earlier that day. Bunnies are not stupid; she knows what’s coming. At the beginning of the video she is free to move around, sniffing and investigating her surroundings. Believe me – as a former rabbit owner – they move pretty fast when they want to! If this process hurt or upset her, she wouldn’t still be on the shearing table.
- At no point in this video is the rabbit showing signs of distress. Her ears are not flat against her back indicating fear, but upright or slightly back, in the relaxed position. Nor is her breathing fast. Rabbits are pretty fearful generally (any of mine would have freaked out just at the electric clipper noise); if she was suffering, or even worried, you would definitely expect fearful body language.
- From the way the demonstrator acts around and talks about her rabbits, it’s clear they are raised, kept and bred with love and care. Young bunnies even bring a parent with them for their first shearing! How many farmers show such consideration for the animals in their care?
The angora yarns sold through Loveknitting are produced humanely
Rowan has produced information on the humane production of its wonderful Angora Haze knitting yarn, which is grown on very small farms where each rabbit can receive individual attention, and only ever harvested by combing and safe shearing.
We also have written confirmation from Debbie Bliss that the angora in Donegal Tweed is only obtained using these methods.
LoveKnitting commits never to purchase any angora unless we are satisfied that it is humanely produced.
So what about this PETA video then?
The video is very distressing to watch: the most shocking part shows a rabbit squealing as its fur is ripped out by farm staff. This method of harvesting is totally different to the gentle combing or pulling of dead hairs from an English or French Angora rabbit during its natural moult: German or Giant rabbits should never have their wool harvested in this way, and no animal should ever have its hair ripped out from the root. PETA claims that angora farmers in China routinely harvest the wool this way because it produces the best fibre.
Another claim is that even if shorn rather than plucked, the rabbits are regularly injured by restraints used, by cuts from shearing equipment, or by their own struggles to escape. Rather than the gentle but firm restraints of the Waitomo video above, one scene shows a rabbit suspended on a rope by its front legs, as it struggles violently.
Further, the video claims that the rabbits live in “filthy cages, surrounded by their own waste”.
Boycott all angora?
One ethical conclusion is unavoidable: the practices PETA describes are appalling and must not be supported under any circumstances. But what is the right response?
PETA’s call to action is to boycott all angora fibre. This makes sense given PETA’s ideological position: unlike the SPCA (and Loveknitting), who believe passionately in animal welfare, PETA describes itself as an animal rights advocate. The distinction is not immediately obvious, but it is important.
Animal welfare advocates, such as myself, believe that animals have the right to be treated with respect and courtesy, spared from pain and suffering, and allowed to exercise their natural instincts. We campaign against cruel farming practices, and work towards proper living conditions for all animals, be they farmed, used for medicine, or kept as pets.
PETA believes we should not use any animal at all for any purpose, ever. That means, naturally, no eating meat. It also means no dairy or eggs – not even from the happy chickens pottering around your back garden, or honey from bees. It means no use of animals for medicine, fibre or transport – no matter how well they are treated (there has been some controversy around this, as the Vice-President of PETA uses insulin, justifying this use by the fact that it allows her to continue campaigning for medicines like insulin not to be developed…). PETA would prefer to see a world in which we do not keep animals as pets. Interestingly, it has no problem with euthanasia: while most animal shelters today strive towards a no-kill policy for healthy animals, PETA destroys an average of 2,000 a year at its Virginia shelter – between 2006 and 2012, less than 1% of the animals received were adopted.
PETA believes meat farming is morally equivalent to the Holocaust.
This is to clarify PETA’s starting position, not to undermine it: the organisation campaigns hard against a number of abuses against animals, especially in the US where there are many widely-used practices that would be unacceptable or outright illegal in the UK (like de-clawing cats, cropping dogs’ ears, or keeping a dog permanently chained in a yard). And if you agree with all or some of PETA’s beliefs, then no matter what conditions Angora rabbits are kept in, you would argue that they should not be farmed for their wool at all. Simple.
At Loveknitting, we respect PETA’s ideology without agreeing with it – if we did, we would not sell any wool from any animal on our site.
As someone who believes it is acceptable to make use of animals, as long as it is done humanely – I eat meat; I eat dairy, eggs and honey; I wear animal fibres and even leather; my diabetic husband’s survival depends on a drug that was originally derived from pigs – I don’t believe boycotting all angora is the most appropriate response. Around the world, there are farmers producing angora fibre humanely, and these may well be the vast majority. (It’s very difficult to find out how wide-spread rabbit-plucking is: PETA claims to have found 5 ‘guilty’ farms.)
Isn’t it better to reward the humane farmers and create a market in which the cruel ones cannot survive? The cruelty PETA describes just doesn’t makes sense. Most of the alleged practices could actually lose a farm money:
- Any stress or ill-health affects the quality of wool. Even sheep are normally shorn prior to lambing, as the stresses of pregnancy, birth and nursing weaken the fibres of the wool. Keeping fibre-producing animals happy and healthy isn’t just good ethics, it’s the only way to get top-quality product. (If a rabbit is moulting its coat, then gentle combing or pulling does obtain the best fibre – because the new coat is growing in underneath, and you don’t want that in your product. But that process does not hurt the rabbit. In fact, ripping out the new coat along with the old would give a worse quality of fibre.)
- Plucking the wool is no faster than shearing. If anything, it’s probably slower! If a practice doesn’t save any money in labour, and doesn’t produce a better product, why would you do it?
- Plucking a rabbit’s whole coat out by the roots will leave the animal vulnerable, as will careless, injury-inflicting clipping. Cold, sore, stressed animals with open wounds are susceptible to disease. One farmer is quoted by PETA as saying that 60% of plucked rabbits die within one or two years. This level of fatalities would cost a farmer money: the rabbit in the Waitomo video is four and still has years of productive wool-growing life ahead of her.
- Suspending a rabbit by a rope tied around its front legs is extremely stupid. This is why pet rabbit-owners support the rump when picking them up: rabbits can break their backs struggling like the one seen in the video. Allowing your animals to inflict fatal injuries on themselves just doesn’t make sense.
- As for filthy cages: this would have a severely detrimental effect on the fibre produced. Angora wool is incredibly adept at picking up dirt: any filth in the cage is guaranteed to end up in the coat. Why spend hours combing urine and droppings out of the fleece, when you could spend much less time keeping the animals’ surroundings clean?
- One criticism is that the rabbits are kept in wire cages. In fact, a wire floor is often recommended even for pet Angoras, for the reason above: wire floors allow droppings and urine through, and are the easiest way of keeping an Angora rabbit clean. Angora wool is so thick the rabbits can comfortably lie down on the mesh, and don’t need any extra bedding (which would only end up tangled in their fur anyway). Rabbits also have a thick pad of fur on their feet – a bit like the pads on dogs’ and cats’ feet, but made of fur not flesh – which will protect them from the wire.
So what can you do?
It certainly feels like more information is needed, on how the majority of angora fibre is produced.
In the meantime, every brand and shop using angora wool should be challenged on where it comes from and how it is farmed. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, boycott that product, even that brand or outlet. But boycotting all angora because of some unethical producers (who may be rogues) would be like refusing to eat eggs because some of them are produced on battery farms – which is what PETA would do: they even oppose keeping a few hens in your back garden.
After years of campaigning, battery egg production is in the process of being phased out in the UK, because there is a more humane alternative available. Had the tactic been to destroy egg production, rather than make the production more humane, our shelves would almost certainly still be packed with battery eggs. Rather than a blanket boycott, our practice at Loveknitting is to insist on accountability and ethical sourcing of our angora products: in this way, together with other retailers, ethical producers and you, our responsible customers, we hope to build a world in which all fibre-producing animals are looked after properly.
Last updated: June 22nd, 2015.