What is Mulesing?

The misleading word ‘mulesing’ has nothing to do with mules, donkeys, or any other type of equine. But for those of us trying to live (not just eat) vegan, mulesing is a term we can’t afford not to know about…

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about wool. “What’s really wrong with it?” he asked. “Sheep just naturally produce wool, don’t they?”

Not exactly.

The sheep used for commercial wool production, such as the popular merino variety, are far from “natural.” Instead, selective breeding has forced their bodies to do things that nature would never allow. Unlike wild sheep, who never need shearing (meaning the cutting off of their wool), domestic sheep have been bred to grow excess wool, and lots of it. So much, in fact, that domestic sheep can scarcely walk if they go unsheared for too long.

(Do you see the circular reasoning here? Humans take a perfectly fine animal, turn it into a wool-making machine, and then argue that the sheep needs to be sheared “for its own good.” If that’s not twisted logic, what is?)

But I digress.

Another important fact about the wool industry is that the sheep haven’t been bred simply to produce more wool. They’ve also been bred to produce more skin. Why? Well, just think about it. Wool grows out of the sheep’s skin; ergo the more skin a sheep has, the more wool it has.

It’s a simple matter of physics. Try to recall what your high school science teacher explained about “surface area.” Something that’s folded or wrinkly has more surface area than something of the same size that’s smooth. This is why our brains are deeply furrowed rather than smooth like an inflated balloon. Most of the “thinking” our brains do occurs in the cortex, the brain’s outer layer, so the brain’s wrinkles exist to provide the cortex with greater surface area. (Surface area also explains why my favorite type of ice cubes—the kind with the hole through the middle—make drinks colder more quickly than regular ice cubes do.)

The bottom line is, under all that excess wool, merino sheep have excessively wrinkled skin. And this causes another problem. All those wool-covered wrinkles around the sheep’s perineal area get soiled every time the sheep urinates or defecates. This unhygienic situation becomes potentially deadly when flies are added to the equation. In sheep ranching parlance, “fly-strike” occurs when female flies, attracted to the damp, soiled backsides of sheep, decide to lay their eggs there. The eggs hatch out into hungry maggots, which begin feeding on the flesh of the sheep. These infestations can quickly spread and, if left untreated, can kill the sheep in just a few days.

One way to avoid fly-strike is to keep the sheep’s rear end clean, which can be done by clipping away the matted, feces-encrusted area around the hindquarters (a specific form of shearing known as “crutching”). But there’s a problem with this: the wool grows back. This means the sheep would need to be crutched several times during their lifetime, an effort that requires both time and money. (And therefore cuts into the rancher’s profits.)

So, sheep ranchers have concocted a better solution. And this is where “mulesing” comes into the picture.

“Mulesing”—named for the man (J.W.H. Mules) who stumbled onto the idea—refers to the practice of cutting off the skin around a young sheep’s backside. Yeah, you read it right. Mulesing means not just cutting away the wool, but cutting off the actual skin of the animal. Lambs who undergo mulesing are literally being flayed alive. The underlying tissue, red and dripping with blood, is exposed. Oh, and it’s all done without anesthetics or painkillers. (Because, hey, that would take time and money wouldn’t it, mate?)

What happens to the sheep is the same thing that would happen to you if someone ripped off chunks of your skin—scar tissue would grow in its place. And why do sheep ranchers want their sheep’s backsides to be covered with scar tissue instead of skin? Because wool can’t grow out of tight, smooth scar tissue, which means there’s no wool to become soiled by urine and feces, which means sheep ranchers no longer have to worry about fly-strike. Perfectly logical, isn’t it?

When ranchers and other apologists describe the process of mulesing, they make it sound so simple and sweet. Here’s their version: In order to protect the darling little lambs from the evil flies, we need to perform an operation. It’s really no big deal. We just put the lambs into a cradle—yes, they actually call it a “cradle”—where they can feel safe and secure. Then we remove a teensy bit of that nasty wrinkled skin that the lamb doesn’t need anyway. And when it’s all over, the lamb goes happily trotting back to its mommy.

The difference between this fairy-tale distortion and the grotesque reality of mulesing is the difference between night and day. But don’t take my word for it. Just do a Google Images search for mulesing and, in about a third of a second, you can see the photos of the actual process for yourself.

You’ll see that the so-called “cradle” is more like a torture device, a contraption that chains the lambs to a fence, upside down and completely immobilized, to make it convenient for the cutter to get at the animals’ most sensitive area. You’ll see blood-oozing open flesh wounds that look like a scene out of Saw VII.

If pain and suffering like this were inflicted on pet dogs or cats, the perpetrators would be vilified and charged with animal abuse. And we wouldn’t call such people “ranchers,” we would call them psychopaths and serial killers-to-be. Yet, this cruelty known as mulesing happens to sheep every day, and all in the name of wool.

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