The other day, I was listening to my favorite podcast, hosted by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. The topic of this particular episode was about down and feathers -- as in your down coat, your down comforter, pillows, feather boa, even your seemingly innocuous feather duster. It's an area of animal exploitation that is rarely discussed, and after this podcast, I understood why.
Let's first be clear about what animals we're talking about when we discuss down and feathers. Both come from ducks and geese. Feathers or "vaned feathers" cover the exterior of the bird and "down" refers to the softer feathers that grow underneath the exterior feathers. Over 70% of down/feathers used in the US come from China. The second largest exporter is Hungary. Now, I know most of us have this idea that feathers naturally fall off the birds and farmers benignly collect them and that's how your fabulous comforter is born. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Think about it, if you're taking feathers off a bird, there are two ways to do it: you can rip them off while the bird is still alive, or you can rip them off after the bird is dead. The feather industry considers feathers from live birds better quality, hence they're more valuable. So geese and ducks get "live-plucked" 3 to 4 times a year. This happens from the time they are 10 weeks until they're 4 years old. Then they're sent to slaughter for their flesh. Ducks and geese in the wild have a lifespan of 12-15 years.
The "ripping" (as the industry calls it) of feathers causes the animals immense pain and stress. A website called AgroWeb Hungary points out that "plucking should be done in relaxing conditions, because the stress and fear in the animals could make the plucking of the feathers more difficult." You think? And "relaxing conditions"... as if getting your feathers ripped out is just like a day at the spa. To make matters worse, many of the geese used for their down/feathers in Hungary are also used to make foie gras. Yeah, you heard me, foie torture gras. The production of which has been deemed so cruel that California will become the first state to outlaw its sale and "manufacture" effective 2012.
This year, a Swedish investigative television series went undercover inside a geese farm in Hungary. Their footage revealed screaming birds bound so they could not bite or scratch, birds who'd suffered big sores from the brutal handling who were just sown back together with needle and thread without any anesthetic, birds laying on the ground after plucking who were completely numb from terror and pain. Upon watching the undercover video, Swedish vet Dr. Johan Beck Friis, said: "geese feel pain just like all other animals/people, and this is nothing less than qualified torture." It takes the feathers of 75 geese to make just one down comforter.
In addition to ducks and geese, ostriches are also bred for their feathers. Remember that feather duster I mentioned? Yeah, that would be ostrich. Ostriches are also "live-plucked" and slaughtered for their flesh. In the wild, ostriches have a 75-year lifespan, but on farms they're killed at 12-14 months old. If you've ever seen or worn ostrich leather, you've noticed the round markings in the skin. That comes from the scarring that occurs from feathers being ripped out while the animal was still alive. Isn't that glamorous?
So the next time you buy a new comforter or a warm jacket or a sleeping bag or some throw pillows, think first. There's a plethora of amazing alternatives to down. In fact, so many people are actually allergic to feathers that manufacturers now have a huge selection of down-like products that are labeled hypoallergenic. They're easy to find and many are made from sustainable materials like kapok and bamboo. Additionally, companies like Patagonia now make toasty winter jackets from recycled plastic. Let's stay warm this winter without supporting needless cruelty.
Follow Ari Solomon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VeganAri