The PETA propaganda
We've all seen the Save the Sheep website with its horrific videos of bloody, screaming animals being mulesed. The issue of factory farming and veganism in fiber arts has come up in knitting many times, with varying levels of constructive and non-constructive debate occurring each and every time. To avoid rehashing the same unsteady ground, here are the essentials of the debate.
(Disclaimer: the author of this piece is not vegan. She knits with wool, she eats meat, she keeps cats. She is strongly averse to animal cruelty, and takes humanity's shepherding of the earth pretty seriously. She does not understand veganism, really, but does respect that people hold those beliefs seriously and legitimately, and that the knitting community is very diverse and that diversity needs to be celebrated.)
The practice depicted in the Save the Sheep videos is called mulesing. Mulesing is the practice of surgically removing the folds of skin directly below the anal opening in a merino sheep, to avoid a slow, painful, and certain death from a condition called flystrike. Flystrike happens when fecal material collects in those folds, flies lay their eggs in the fecal material, and then the fly larvae eat the sheep alive. It is only a critical problem in Australia. The use of the word "surgical" is a bit of a misnomer, since it calls up images of operating rooms and anesthetic. Mulesing is field surgery, performed in the field, without anesthetic. It is always somewhat bloody and painful for the sheep, although the area is not particularly high in nerve endings. If it's done poorly, the practice is EXTREMELY traumatic for the animal. The mulesing shown on Save the Sheep is very, very poorly done. Australian shepherds defend the practice as a lesser evil to avoid a greater one, and are in the process of breeding a sheep with a smooth, hairless backside that does not need to be mulesed.
Factory farming is a much broader issue than the just mulesing, though. Factory farms are profit driven, and the comfort and safety of the animals is not typically given very great concern. Factory farms are not usually all that fantastic for the Earth OR the animals on them, and sometimes not even for the people who work there. And yes, some of the wool you find on yarn shop shelves comes from factory-farmed sheep. However, not all of it, not by any means; probably not even the majority. Possibly not even a large minority. When a sheep is traumatized or underfed, its fleece develops a "break," or brittle spot. Fleece with breaks in it is a poor choice for processing into the thicker, lofty yarn we knit with, and will usually be rejected by the processing mill. A lot of knitting wool comes from developing nations, and for good reason; in those areas, human labor is much cheaper than antibiotics and other factory farming mainstays. The animals are therefore often treated much better than their cousins on factory farms. If you really want to be certain that your fiber animals are being treated well, you can always hunt down a small, local fiber farm, where the shepherds coddle their flock and treat them as well as possible, and you can meet the animals themselves. It will take some looking, and you may have to settle for a smaller range of available products, but they are in every state in the Union, and many will sell online.
The broadest issue of all, of course, is whether it is moral or ethical for humans to use any kind of animal product or labor. This essentially boils down to a religious belief; either you feel that way, or you don't. All fiber arts affect the earth and the environment to one extent or another; cotton uses huge amounts of water and pesticides, and synthetics are petroleum based, profited from by huge global corporations, and nonbiodegradeable. As the result of millenia of human breeding and animal husbandry, most farm animals and livestock depend on human care to survive in any kind of comfort. The vegan point of view, as I understand it, is that we owe those animals care and help, but that we also owe it to them not to profit from them further, and to help retire domestic strains of animals. This is a perfectly reasonable position, whether you agree with it or not. It's certainly true that sheep don't particularly enjoy being sheared, no matter how much they benefit from it and how little it may actually hurt them. Silk doesn't get off the hook either; processing the cocoons kills the developing silkworm larva, and even if it doesn't, the silk producer's environment can't sustain as many moths as two adult moths can eventually create. The extras are either starved to death or killed outright.
Even when everyone has access to all the same facts, people can and will reasonably come to different conclusions. Even if two people come to the same conclusions, they may act on them differently. Judging other people's conclusions or actions is fruitless; nobody ever decided to start eating meat after being told that veganism was stupid hippie crap, and nobody ever reacted well to being told that their careful choice of small-supplier fiber was cruel and based on ignorance. Educate people respectfully, if they have questions about why you do something a certain way, and please try to respect the fabulous diversity of thoughts and actions that we have within the knitting community.