SHEARING IS CARING
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released undercover video recently and NBC News posted a story online July 9, of alleged animal abuse by sheep shearers.
The undercover video was taken during the spring of 2014 on ranches in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. According to the NBC story, the “investigator” who was employed by the shearing crew, traveled with them to more than a dozen sheep operations between March and May of 2014.
According to PETA’s website, they have asked state and local law-enforcement agencies to investigate and file criminal charges against the workers, as appropriate, for what PETA believes are violations of cruelty-to-animals laws.
Following an “Act today” link on the website leads to a petition urging U.S. wool-consuming companies j. Crew and Ralph Lauren to “drop wool immediately in favor of animal-friendly materials that are free of cruelty.”
Shearing contractor Loren Opstedahl, Piedmont, S.D., said his crew shears around 65,000 head of sheep annually, mostly in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Opstedahl, who has competed at world shearing contests and has employed national champion shearers on the professional levels as well as intermediate, beginner and others, said even at shearing contests, humane handling is required and severe penalties would be inflicted for roughness.
The industry does a good job of policing itself, he adds. A rancher will likely not hire back an abusive shearer or crew. Opstedahl himself hires shearers who treat animals humanely and he said he doesn’t allow his shearing crew to mishandle animals. “Unfortunately there are a few shearers out there who are not good shearers,” he said, but that doesn’t mean that shearing as a whole is a problematic practice, and in fact is necessary for the overall health and well-being of sheep.
“It falls back on guys like me that are the contractors. The contractor needs to tell those guys to clean up their act or send them down the road.”
If one of his crew members mistreated sheep, the livestock owner or Opstedahl himself would put a quick stop to the activity. “You can just imagine what a rancher (who owns the sheep) would do. Shut that guy’s machine off and tell him ‘you’re done.’ That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Opstedahl said that when a rancher, shearer or anyone else is working with livestock there will always be a degree of “unknown” where mistakes happen, and in the shearing business an animal gets nicked by the clippers once in a while.
While unexpected events happen when dealing with livestock, Opstedahl wishes PETA would make note of many of the positive events that happen on farms and ranches. “If the PETA people would come to the farm, there are a lot of good things they’d see happening.”
Opstedahl recalls a curious phone call he received several months ago from a Missouri man looking for a job bagging wool. “I remember it because it was so odd, I’d never had that happen before, never from someone that far away.” He now wonders if he was the target of a PETA undercover effort.
Putting a halt to the “necessary practice” of shearing sheep would cause more harm than good said president of the South Dakota Sheepgrowers Association, Max Matthews, Bison, S.D. The benefits are as much for the welfare of the animal as anything, and in fact in recent years wool prices have at times been low enough that there was little or no profit margin left after the shearing crew was paid, but producers continued to hire shearing crews to take the wool off every year, to maintain the health of their flocks.
“Shearing allows the sheep to thermo-regulate, which means it helps keep them from getting too hot,” he said. Matthews also said shearing helps prevent parasites like maggots that can cause extreme pain and damage to the flesh, especially in moist areas like around the tail head. Sheep that are left with the wool on can soak up a lot of water, such as during rainstorms, and can become so heavy that they lay down, get on their sides, and are unable to roll back to their feet to stand up.
“Basically shearing is for the comfort and well-being of the sheep,” says the sheep producer, who spent many years working on a shearing crew.
Another reason for shearing is that unshorn ewes that are lambed in a shed or confined area can often lay on or smother lambs, and lambs can have difficulty finding the teat when trying to nurse.
Like Opstedahl, Matthews said responsible, safe and careful shearing is the responsibility of the crew boss as well as the sheep owner and most will not allow abusive practices. “Ninety eight percent of the producers, if they saw the mishandling of livestock, would put a stop to it pretty fast. The well-being of the sheep is for the benefit of the producer. A good crew boss would say ‘hey knock it off.’”
The American Sheep Industry, a national organization representing sheep producers said in a prepared statement, “The American Sheep Industry Association (ASI), along with its member farmers and ranchers, promote and encourage the training of proper sheep handling and shearing. ASI provides its members with the Sheep Care Guide, an educational document for proper care, handling and management of sheep as an industry standard for sheep care. ASI also sponsors training for sheep shearers and provides educational material on proper shearing techniques.”
More information on proper sheep care can be found at http://www.sheepusa.org/IssuesPrograms_AnimalHealth_HealthWelfare.