ABC Radio National - Background Briefing: 6 March  2005  - PETA and the Wool

[This is the print version of story]

Program Transcript


Wendy Carlisle: All over the western world there’s a new movement on the go: it’s a march of pigs and cows, monkeys and seals, sheep and poultry, all walking hand-in-hand with their human friends, beating the drum of animal welfare.

Spurred on by the perceived evils of factory farming, they’ve forced reforms across Europe and America, and now they’re in Australia.

And farmers are terrified.

Hello, I’m Wendy Carlisle, and on Background this week, a story about how pictures of a lamb’s sore and bloody butt, and now a boycott, has led to an almighty blue in the wool industry.

In a few days’ time in the Federal Court in Sydney, is the next stage in a battle between the world’s biggest animal rights organisation, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and the industry’s $100-million research group, Australian Wool Innovation.

At issue is the international boycott of Australian wool products launched by PETA. The wool industry says the boycott is illegal, but PETA says it’s all about freedom of speech. And in the last few days, Federal Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, upped the ante when he said he’d try to outlaw PETA.

The attentions of the animal libbers couldn’t have come at a worse time for the wool industry, and many are worried that it will only stir up the beast they call PETA, and invite a closer look at what farmers are up to on the land.


Bea Arthur: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen; I’m Bea Arthur; get ready to rock out at PETA’s millennium concert.

Today the world is going to the dogs, the chickens, the monkeys, because we’re here to speak up for all the animals.

Wendy Carlisle: Five years ago PETA held a millennium concert for all their rich and famous supporters in Hollywood and the rock industry.



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Man: …to make the fight against animal cruelty, the fastest growing movement of the new millennium.

Bea Arthur: And who better to do it with than the B52’s Sarah McLachlan, Chrissie Hynde and Paul McCartney.


Paul McCartney: Hey man, what’re you doin’? How are you doin’? This is great, isn’t it?

Wendy Carlisle: Now that chickens, dogs and monkeys have had their moment in the PETA spotlight, it’s the sheep’s turn.

Click on the PETA website and you can get a feel for what they’re saying about sheep and mulesing in Australia. There’s graphic footage of actual mulesing operations, with this voiceover.

Most sheep in Australia are merino sheep, who are bred to have wrinkly skin, which means more wool per animal. But blowflies lay eggs in these folds of skin, attracted to the moisture that can result in faeces and urine getting into the wrinkles, and the hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive. In a cruel and crude effort to reduce such infestations, Australian farmers perform a procedure called mulesing, which involves throwing live sheep onto their backs, restraining their legs between metal bars and with no pain relief at all, carving chunks of flesh from their legs in lumps. Please help stop this terrible suffering by not buying wool, particularly wool from Australia.

Wendy Carlisle: In the 1930s, a man named John Mules came up with a bold idea to defeat the sheep blowfly. He cut loose skin off the sheep’s backside with a set of shears. This formed a plate-sized scar tissue which was devoid of wool, and it stopped the blowies laying their eggs.

It was partly due to the productivity gains generated by mulesing that Australia’s ride to prosperity was on the sheep’s back.

Two decades ago, animal welfare activists started to rattle the chain against mulesing, but nobody took any notice. Then ten years ago, the wool industry’s own market intelligence started to warn of the threat posed by animal welfare activists. But it took the boycott by PETA to really shift things into high gear.

Presenter: You’re listening to The Country Hour, it’s 21 to 1.

Now to our Monday discussion, and the hot topic of the animal rights campaign against the wool industry. Leading the charge is the American-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Now they’ve already persuaded three retailers to boycott Australian wool products. Joining us will be Ian McLachlan, Chairman of Australian Wool Innovation, the farmer-funded organisation dealing with this issue.

Wendy Carlisle: And now the farmers have hit back, deciding to take PETA to court, alleging the consumer boycott is illegal under the Trade Practices Act.

The three international retailers who have joined the boycott are Abercrombie and Fitch, J. Crew in London, and New Look in New York.

Woolgrowers are frightened the boycott could spread, and Ian McLachlan told listeners the millions of dollars spent suing PETA would be worth it.

Ian McLachlan: Well it might cost some millions of dollars. I have no doubt that it will be very expensive. But on the other hand, we might get a lot of that back.

If PETA are doing things that are illegal and they cost people who export wool from this country money, then we would expect that we would be able to eventually effectively sue them.

Wendy Carlisle: Twelve months ago, not many people knew about mulesing. Now it’s a story running hot in national and rural media, and even in parliaments across the country, from the Federal Parliament to Western Australia and New South Wales, where news of Abercrombie and Fitch joining the boycott sparked an urgent debate in the Lower House. There was a moment of lighter relief, when the member for Murray-Darling, the ALP’s Peter Black, rose to speak.

Peter Black: Going further, last week’s ‘Land’ reveals that the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, is about to announce more boycotts of Australian wool in the United States, and this indeed is a very, very sorry state of affairs. And the propaganda they’re putting out on their website, and they’ve got 800,000 members, they’re not an insignificant organisation, this is what they’re saying about wool: This is why people should not wear Australian wool, according to this group of United States consumers, or whatever. ‘It is susceptible to mildew and moth damage, it tends to be expensive, it’s prone to retaining foul odours and it shrinks with every wash.’

Now is the kind of propaganda that we in Australia, have to put up with this bunch. I’ve just been given a note: ‘What breed of sheep do the nats take out on dates?’ That’s not nice, that is not nice.

Wendy Carlisle: The leader of PETA is a British born American by the name of Ingrid Newkirk, whose philosophy, Animals are people too, has touched the zeitgeist. In 20 years she’s built PETA up from being a small outfit to a powerful charity with annual donations of over $US25-million.

When PETA launched the boycott of Australian wool late last year, she came out to Australia to put her case and she found herself on the 60 Minutes program in a heated confrontation with Ian McLachlan.

Ingrid Newkirk: Everything has to change as people open their eyes and their hearts and their minds.

Ian McLachlan: You’re not prepared to wait for a few years to see whether this thing works?

Ingrid Newkirk: I wouldn’t be sitting here and talking to you if I didn’t think you had a solution that you could grasp, it’s at your fingertips. The only thing is you won’t take it, so you’ll bury your industry, and that will be on your head, not on mine.

Ian McLachlan: Well let me just finish. We won’t be burying our industry -

Ingrid Newkirk: I’ve finished, because I don’t need a lecture.

Ian McLachlan: - in any way at all, and we’ll look forward to seeing you in some other place.

Wendy Carlisle: And then, at the end of this exchange, a surprise. Stepping out of the shadows, a man served a writ on Ms Newkirk, summonsing her to appear in the Federal Court.

Man: I have an application in the Federal Court of Australia. I’m naming you as the first respondent in the Federal Court of Australia.

Ingrid Newkirk: Thank you.

Ian McLachlan: There you are. As I said, we’ll see you again.

Ingrid Newkirk: Maybe.

Wendy Carlisle: And while Ingrid Newkirk might have been surprised by the writ, so too were many woolgrowers.

David Webster runs sheep in Western Australia, and he’s part of the growing number of farmers who don’t agree with Ian McLachlan’s tactics.

David Webster: But it was also very provocative from our side, in relation to the television program that this lady, I’ll call her a lady –

Wendy Carlisle: Ingrid Newkirk?

David Webster: And I’m probably over-stating the case, was brought out here for an interview on a television program –

Wendy Carlisle: This is the 60 Minutes interview?

David Webster: That’s correct. When in fact the writs were already prepared and it didn’t look good, it looked like a set-up, the fact that she was handed the writs at the end of the interview. Now that in my view was not handled well.

Wendy Carlisle: Did you know that Australian Wool Innovation was going to take this legal action against PETA in the Federal Court?

David Webster: Well not until it became public knowledge, no.

Wendy Carlisle: So it was a surprise to you?

David Webster: Yes, I think it was to a lot of people. He thought he was General Macarthur, McLachlan, charging up the beach waiting for all the sheep to come bleating behind. They didn’t come. You know, he thought this whole industry was going to agree with him. Clearly they’ve said, Oh shit, we’re in this far, we’ve got to support it. Now what do we do?

Wendy Carlisle: From David Webster’s point of view, even if AWI were to win in court, it wouldn’t prove anything.

David Webster: We’re talking about a bottomless pit that could go on and on and on, and let’s be real about it, and I think Ian McLachlan said in an interview in Sydney the other day, they will have a massive bill, and so will we.

Now they don’t care about the massive bill at the end of it, they seriously don’t care, and that ‘we’d carry on a long as we had to’, he said that again in Williams the other day. ‘We might be in this country this year, another country next year. Now we’re talking about massive amounts of money here that you can’t recover, you just can’t recover it.

Wendy Carlisle: So even if there’s a win in the court, it’s kind of a shallow victory in your view?

David Webster: Well it might be a moral victory, but in reality it’s irrelevant, and we have to deal with the realities that are facing us.

Wendy Carlisle: Ian McLachlan might have started out on a South Australian sheep farm in the 1950s, but his later career has been all about the big battles. He’s a former Defence Minister in the Howard government; he led the National Farmers’ Federation, and he set up the NFF Fighting Fund which bankrolled the Patrick’s dispute, and the Mudginberri confrontation.

The headquarters of Australian Wool Innovation are in a colonial building, not far from Circular Quay in Sydney.

Mr McLachlan, very nice to meet you.

Ian McLachlan: Wendy, how are you? Good to see you.

Wendy Carlisle: I’m Wendy Carlisle from Background Briefing.

When Background Briefing went to meet Ian McLachlan, it was in a large, dark-panelled boardroom.

Ian McLachlan: Committee meetings today and board meeting up here tonight, so …

Wendy Carlisle: Before we began our interview, Mr McLachlan sat down to show me a video of why mulesing was necessary.

Ian McLachlan: So this is not very professional, it’s just been knocked out, but I just want to show you what happens to sheep that get flyblown, and if you don’t mules them, what can happen. Now that is what happened to that sheep last week; those are the maggots on its skin, I would say she’s been flyblown for two or three days, she will die. And they’re the maggots, and they’re just eating her, and eating the flesh, and that is what we are trying to prevent.

Wendy Carlisle: As far as he’s concerned this showdown with PETA is one of the biggest of his career. It’s a battle not just about wool, but about the future of farming.

Ian McLachlan: This is a bigger issue, because somebody wants to actually take livestock off the land. Now that’s big, that’s very big. And they really don’t care about mulesing. Look, let’s get it true. She’s not interested in people; all the statements, they’re not interested in children eating meat, they promote meat being bad for children, that milk’s bad for children, that beer’s better than mil, that guide dogs are bad, that pets are out. I mean come on, we’re dealing with a flank organisation really at the end of believability, who have another agenda, which is total veganism.

Wendy Carlisle: One of the things that AWI gets upset about with PETA is how they describe the mulesing procedure. I think they describe it as carving the flesh off the rear of a sheep. You deeply object to that, don’t you?

Ian McLachlan: Yes. As we know, I mean a survey of the 20 most high profile not-for-profit organisations in US showed that PETA was the least believed. And one of the reasons it was least believed, no doubt, is that they put around exaggerations, which happen to suit their cause, like that one. I mean you do not take the flesh off the sheep. You take the skin; you’re contracting the skin by slicing the skin off the back end of the sheep. Now people might say that’s terrible. I’ll say to you again, it is short-term pain for lifelong immunity, and you don’t finish up getting what we have just seen on the screen, which as I said before, just disgusting and very cruel.

Wendy Carlisle: AWI has claimed that mulesing is a veterinary surgical procedure. That’s not accurate is it?

Ian McLachlan: What, just because it’s not done by a vet, you mean?

Wendy Carlisle: That’s correct.

Ian McLachlan: Yes, well I think what you’ve just said is inaccurate.

Wendy Carlisle: Well calling it a veterinary surgical procedure suggests to me that it’s performed by a vet under strict guidelines and by trained people, and it’s performed under none of those conditions.

Ian McLachlan: Well that might be what you think.

Wendy Carlisle: No, well that’s the terms used….

Ian McLachlan: …what you’re implying is inaccurate. John Mules invented the thing, and he called it the mules operation.

Well you can call that surgical, whether it’s done by a vet or whether it’s done by me. It’s surgical.

Wendy Carlisle: After live exports hit the headlines following the Cormo Express, international animal rights groups really started to pay attention to Australia and farmers started to sit up and take notice. They formed their own industry task force to deal with the animal activists.

Ian McLachlan: We’ve made a decision in the industry starting with NFF, the Sheepmeats Council, the Cattle Council, live exporters, AWI, Woolmark Company, that we will handle this issue as, if you like, as one. It’s a very important principle. We’re not going to have somebody split off the wool industry from the live cattle industry, from this industry, from the live sheep industry to something else, because we know what the end game is. I have no doubt that other people will join the action. Some of them may contribute financially, some won’t, growers wont, but some may contribute financially because in a general sense, their industry might get a benefit. The meat industry, for example. And we’ve had great support from the meat industry. You can’t just…

Wendy Carlisle: Are they kicking in any money?

Ian McLachlan: You can’t just divide off the wool industry from the sheepmeat industry and say there is some sort of great wall there, it doesn’t work like that, because the interests of one are the interests of the other.

Wendy Carlisle: Australia produces over 30% of the world’s wool, but in the last 15 years, our wool production has been halved. And the reason? Well, there’s the drought, but the most important factor is that the world no longer needs wool. We don’t need it to keep warm, and we’ve got plenty of other cheap textiles like cottons and cheap synthetics to choose from. Farmers have their backs to the wall.

The best sheep money is in the small micron, high quality fibres that end up in the fine Italian suits, which are from the sort of merinos you find at the auctions at Mudgee, in New South Wales.

Auctioneer: Morning, and welcome here to the 15th annual merino Mudgee ram show and sale. Quiet everybody, And now ladies and gentlemen, the first of the day, the first of the Merryvale draft…

Wendy Carlisle: When Background Briefing headed out to talk to the growers, the talk wasn’t just about lousy wool prices, but about the looming battle with PETA in the courts.

I’m from ABC Radio National, I’m doing a story about mulesing, and PETA, and I just wanted to talk to people about what they felt about the court action.

Woolgrower: I don’t know whether it’ll do any good, but I just wish PETA would go away, you know, like wake up and smell the flowers, have a look at real life. If they had any idea at all, they’d be more for it, but they’ve got no idea.

Wendy Carlisle: Do you think it’s an appropriate use of your R&D money?

Woolgrower: Yes, I do. Yes. One would hope there’d be better things it could be put to, but yes, it’s something that needs to be done. The only thing I don’t like about it is that I don’t like those people to get too much publicity because they thrive on publicity.

Wendy Carlisle: But isn’t this giving them publicity?

Woolgrower: Sure is.

Woolgrower: The sheep that are mulesed are consistently clean, their urine and faeces just is not there, it’s like having a clean change of underwear each day.

Wendy Carlisle: I can see a very good advertising campaign on that line. You’re in the wrong business, you should be in advertising.

Woolgrower: You think so?

Wendy Carlisle: A clean set of underwear for every sheep, every day.

Woolgrower: Well anyway, I think that’s some point that hasn’t been made, that those sheep are flies or no flies, that their excreta is not retained on their breach.

Wendy Carlisle: All right, but AWI’s taking this court action, is that good use of your levy?

Woolgrower: I really don’t think so. I really doubt that we have much chance of winning. Probably costs woolgrowers a lot of money that they haven’t got, and really only give publicity to PETA’s cause.

Wendy Carlisle: Do you think enough’s been done to find alternatives or a pain-free alternative to mulesing?

Woolgrower: I suppose that’s one of the things that they probably should have seen PETA coming, and probably not. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing I suppose, but still the money would have been better spent earlier on.

Wendy Carlisle: Wal, can you show me some of the sheep that you sold today, the merinos?

Wal Merriman: This is our top price.

Wendy Carlisle: Wal Merriman is one of the most successful merino breeders in the country. He’s also just been elected onto the board of AWI on a rush of grower disenchantment with the direction it’s taking.

Wal Merriman: He was grand champion ram of the show, he's a ram we call Blues Monarch Super, he’s an ultra fine, he's microning 16.8.

Wendy Carlisle: And that means it’s very soft wool.

Wal Merriman: Yes, very soft, no itch in it, he’s got a comfort factor of 99.9% almost 100%, and that’s what we call Italian-type, or Oz-fine type wool. It’s high frequency crimp, and that’s the sort of wool that’s used in top Italian suiting.

Wendy Carlisle: And that’s the sort of wool that you’re worried could be affected by any action by PETA?

Wal Merriman: Oh well, all wool’s affected by any action by PETA, you know there’s medium wool and fine wool as well, and it’s not jut one wool type specific.

Wendy Carlisle: And you sold them today. Did you get a good price?

Wal Merriman: Oh no, the prices are back, pretty wool. I don’t know what we’ve averaged, about 2800 something like that, that would be 30% down on last year.

Wendy Carlisle: Really?

Wal Merriman: Yes.

Wendy Carlisle: Wal Merriman is one of those growers who believe taking PETA to court is not the best use of AWI’s funds.

Wal Merriman: Depends how you read the Statutory Funding Agreement.

Wendy Carlisle: How do you read it?

Wal Merriman: Well I would have thought that it wasn’t a use of funds under the Statutory Funding Charter, but Mr Truss has signed off on it, so I presume it is.

Wendy Carlisle: How much money is going to be committed to this action, do you know?

Wal Merriman: Well I do know, but I regard that as an in-confidence area that’s privy to the board.

Wendy Carlisle: Is it as much as say has been spent on researching alternatives to mulesing over the years?

Wal Merriman: Oh no, it’d be slightly more than that I think.

Wendy Carlisle: Did you decide to join the action?

Wal Merriman: No, our company runs as a partnership, and the two other two partners didn’t want to go in it.

Wendy Carlisle: Why is that?

Wal Merriman: Oh well, reasons of theirs.

Wendy Carlisle: Did you want to go in it?

Wal Merriman: No, our partnership decided against it.

Wendy Carlisle: When news of the legal action against PETA broke, a group of irritated woolgrowers got together under the banner of the Australian Woolgrowers Association, or AWGA.

They did some research and found out that PETA had been warning AWI for 12 months that a boycott was looming, yet as ordinary woolgrowers they knew nothing about it until Abercrombie and Fitch announced they would join it.

Door slamming

Wendy Carlisle: Gee, it’s bitterly cold.

Chick Ollson: For summer, yes, it’s very unusual weather.

Wendy Carlisle: I’ll say.

Chick Ollson is one of them, and when Background Briefing met him on his old family farm just outside of Goulburn, he was keen to say that characterising PETA as extremist was missing the point.

Chick Ollson: They may seem that from outside, but when you study the actuality of what they’ve done in America and other countries, there’s been a high conflict resolution where McDonalds, Burger King, you name it, Hungry Jack’s, Safeways, have all come to a resolution where both have walked away, seemed to be winners. I’m certainly advocating we should at least try to go down that path. What’s it going to cost us? What have we got to lose? And I feel that we have to find some common ground in between now and 2010. We both fundamentally agree with the end of mulesing, so what happens between now and 2010? Can we find common ground? If we can we get some breathing space, and we can get on with selling wool. But the way we’re going, there’s nothing going to be achieved except lots of money spent and lots of head bashing.

Chick Ollson’s part of a younger generation of woolgrowers. He’s university educated with a background in marketing and commerce, and he’s got his eye on the market.

Chick Ollson: These are crossbreds. These have had mums, merino mums, they’ve had Poll Dorset rams over them. So all these are probably going to, well they have an option to go to market as fat lambs, to Woolies or Coles…if consumers are prepared to pay more for wool and unmulesed sheep, or sheep that are treated more humanely, we’re the first in there. That’s just not demanded, wool’s not a fabric which is on demand every year; it’s not like what or eggs or meat. There’s no real market for it.

Wool prices and lamb prices to a degree really haven’t moved up in relation to costs in the cities. Wool especially is returning about 0.75% as an investment.

Wendy Carlisle: It would be better to put your money in the bank wouldn’t it?

Chick Ollson: It would be. Really if you were just growing pure wool, you’d be best to sell your bloody farm, and go and live in Sydney and buy a flat at Bondi, and work in a restaurant.

Wendy Carlisle: So if the industry does decline further, I mean will PETA be to blame or will the industry itself be to blame?

Chick Ollson: I don’t think PETA have that much power. I think we’re giving it too much credit. I think it’s just a cycle in industry. We’re not marketing our product overseas effectively, people like using wool, alternative fibres are wonderful and cheap to process, women have forgotten wool, this generation. My mum’s generation grew up with it.

Young fashion designers don’t even know about wool. They know about everything else except wool: cottons and silks and all those wonderful things, all those lovely fibres. We’re doing nothing to promote this product, nothing, so what do you expect? Are you expecting someone to ride in to save the industry? It’s not going to happen. There’s no miracle cure, there’s no second coming here, it’s all over, unless we do something very quickly. We used to be kings of the land once, now we’re slaves of events we’ve no control over.

Wendy Carlisle: Farmers are now spooked by the arrival of animal welfare. It’s a world-wide thing: next month there’s a big conference in Europe sponsored by the group Compassion in World Farming, and the EU has already tightened up considerably on how farm animals are treated.

On the phone from his farm in Western Australia, David Webster says you shouldn’t deal with this movement by bashing them on the head with writs.

David Webster: They’ve already cited the de-horning of cattle, castration of livestock, the tail docking of lambs, that involves the prime lamb industry, which directly isn’t a muleser, so this thing now, we’ve created a platform for these people to spread their wares, and don’t worry, it’s very misleading, the sort of information they provide, they’re misleading the world. But we’ve provided the platform to operate on there, and that in my view, is something we have to get out of. We can’t keep this thing up in lights, it could go on for what? the next 10, 15 years. There wouldn’t be a wool industry left, there wouldn’t be one left in two years time.

Wendy Carlisle: You think it’s this serious?

David Webster: It is this serious, because when you go to the other end of industry, nobody is going to reinvest capital money in a wool processing industry. They wouldn’t put a cent in, why would they? They’ve had their heads on the chopping block. I’m talking about a processor, a major processor in the world who are now deeply concerned about it, and are saying to me ‘We are not investing any more money in this job now, because this job’s in serious trouble.’

Wendy Carlisle: PETA began its international campaign against Australian wool with a series of enormous billboards in Manhattan showing graphic images of a mulesed sheep with the words, ‘Did your sweater cause a bloody butt? Boycott Australian wool.’ The billboard so shocked New Yorkers it was taken down.

Paradoxically the image was taken from a film made of an AWI-sponsored project, and the man who took the footage is Animal Liberation’s Mark Pearson.

Mark Pearson: That billboard sat on a major highway of people coming into New York to go to work, and the response to that billboard has been like no other billboard that they’ve put up, and they put up fairly controversial billboards. But this was the most shocking, because it is shocking, you know, when you stand there and you see those legs tucked up in the brace that the sheep are put into, and it’s just a massive wound dripping blood, and the sheep is not receiving any pain relief at all. So it has shocked the world that this practice is happening in a Western country which espouses animal welfare to the world, and clean and green and all those images, we suddenly have blood on our hands in the world view.

Australian wool promotion ad: Australia’s vast and beautiful landscape, and with its abundant nature is the perfect environment for producing one of the world’s most valued fibres: Australian wool. Australian woolgrowers…

Wendy Carlisle: In Australia this year, 17-million lambs will be mulesed. And without this, up to 3-million sheep could die from blowfly strike. Right now there isn’t a more economic or effective alternative. The sheep blowfly is becoming increasingly resistant to insecticides; consumers don’t want more chemicals anyway, and crutching is not foolproof. And there aren’t enough people on the land to watch over 90-million sheep every day.

And on the internet you can find Mark Pearson’s video of sheep being mulesed, the sounds you can hear are shears cutting the sheep’s skin.

Mulesing contractor: And I blame sore tails a lot on contractors, because they came around there like that, whereas I take four or five cuts to do the tail, so therefore people like to get big numbers. We advocate a that 80 over a fast muleser, 64, is not necessarily a good muleser, and we tell graziers that perhaps someone that does 1200 a day will do you a better job for you than doing 15, 1700. I mean that one’s thrown himself around more, maybe he knows what’s going to happen. But this bloke is still sitting here quiet, he’s not heavy breathing or anything else. And you know, I’m not silly enough to say, people say Oh it doesn’t hurt them, but that’s bloody rubbish. My argument is, some say I take a bit more than the others, but my argument is if I’ve taken that much, I’ve hurt this sheep, I’ve stressed him, so I may as well do the right job for the poor bugger.

Wendy Carlisle: In the 12 months since PETA started turning up the heat on the wool industry, things have really started to look up for sheep. The industry has suddenly agreed to phase out mulesing by 2010, and for the very first time there’s a project looking at pain relief for sheep. And, by the end of this year, there will be a national training and accreditation program for those actually doing the mulesing operations.

Ian McLachlan: Well it’s not compulsory, it’s just that if those people want to improve their mulesing they can go along and get accredited. For instance, I think it probably would help mulesing contractors in selling their wares, their abilities, if they had an accreditation. But I mean I can tell you, I know a lot of people who will probably not get accredited, who are the most wonderful mulesers, that they do a perfect job quick and easy.

Wendy Carlisle: Indeed, isn’t it one of those things that if the industry wants to deal with welfare concerns, to do with mulesing, that it would have said, Well look, you know, we will not allow people to mules unless they’ve been trained and they’re accredited, and make it compulsory?

Ian McLachlan: Well no, because that’s not necessarily the answer. I mean became you have, or somebody has concerns about this, it doesn’t mean to say you have to do everything that somebody wants when they’ve never even been near a sheep station or a sheep farm. One of the things that farmers in Australia really object to is being told how to look after their sheep by some company that operates on the east coast of the USA.

Wendy Carlisle: But isn’t that why AWI’s investing $360,000 into a national accreditation program, to deal with standardising mulesing practices across the country, to deal with those animal welfare concerns?

Ian McLachlan: It’ll probably help some people feel more comfortable.

Wendy Carlisle: So at the moment, there’s no policing, there’s no regulation, there’s no enforcement of standards?

Ian McLachlan: You’re saying that these farmers need to be controlled. I don’t agree, I think my view is, look, it’s not just me, there’s 60,000, 70,000 sheep farmers out there and their families. They are the best people to look after their sheep.

Protester: Ban mulesing! Ban live exports! Imagine having your arse cut off with these mulesing shears! You must stop…

Wendy Carlisle: When PETA began its campaign against Australian wool, they took to the streets of New York. The placards read ‘Abercruelty and Fitch’; their newest target is ‘The United Cruelty of Benneton’.

Ingrid Newkirk: One of the things we do is we have body screen televisions, and we stand outside the stores and let people watch the video of mulesing and live sheep exports for themselves, and decide if they think that it’s as hunky dory as the wool industry thinks it is, or says it is, and people you find turn away, they don’t want to buy something that’s so cruelly produced.

Wendy Carlisle: Australian wool is not the first big industry PETA has taken aim at. A few years ago McDonald’s were in the gun, with PETA demanding better inspections of slaughterhouses, more humane killing of chickens, and better conditions for pigs.

And they won.

Ingrid Newkirk: When these concessions were made, we praised the companies and, like them or hate them, McDonald’s is certainly despised by many people in various parts of the world. We praised them, because they may be serving meat but they’ve done more than any other fast food company to ameliorate some of the horrors of factory farming and slaughter.

Wendy Carlisle: And then there’s the campaign against Burger King, which PETA labelled ‘Murder King’, and after they too, brought in similar reforms to McDonald’s they were given pop-up ads on the PETA website.

Ingrid Newkirk: We did, we advertised them heavily. We decided to do it ourselves, and we actually invited people over to Burger King. They also introduced a vegeburger, a BK Vegie, which was very nice of them. That was sort of the last thing on our list, and they decided to do that too. So we’re very proud of our relationship with Burger King.

Wendy Carlisle: Does the court action by the Australian wool industry against PETA make you think twice about continuing your campaign?

Ingrid Newkirk: No, not in the least. It’s completely ineffective. It’s always very good to have the story discussed. It certainly hasn’t hurt at all, and it’s probably helped.

Wendy Carlisle: Probably helped?

Ingrid Newkirk: Yes, because it has kept the story alive. It has had people discuss the issue. It’s a really stupid strategy, but never mind.

Wendy Carlisle: The court action that Australian Wool Innovation is taking against PETA alleges the consumer boycott is an unlawful secondary boycott under the Trade Practices Act, and they’re asking the federal court to prevent PETA from continuing it, and they’re suing for damages.

Ingrid Newkirk: I think it’s really pathetic; in a free society or an open society, the fact that the Australian Wool Initiative’s reaction was after a year of not bothering to talk to anybody, to serve me with a writ telling me to shut up, I don’t think you can do that any more. I can’t imagine that you can just tell someone to stop talking about the bad things someone is doing. If someone is doing something bad, face the music, or change it. It seems very clumsy, a very sad little indictment of them. And of course they’ve openly said that one of their strategies is to try to bleed us out financially. Well that’s a charming thing to say about a charity, even if you don’t like them.

Wendy Carlisle: Under US laws, PETA is not required to disclose the source of its annual donations, which last year came to $25-million. Background Briefing did ask Ingrid Newkirk if PETA received any money from competitors to Australian wool, like the cottons or the synthetics, and she said No. But she said PETA would take money from anywhere.

AWI’s application to get this heard will go back to the Federal Court in Sydney next week. But several leading silks have told Background Briefing there could be problems with AWI’s case. For instance, there are queries over whether Australian courts have jurisdiction over conduct which takes place overseas, and whether peaceful protests can be regarded as hindering trade.

Cameron Murphy from the New South Wales Council of Civil Liberties, believes that if AWI wins, it would set a nasty precedent.

Cameron Murphy: If it were to succeed, then it puts a cloud over every other type of consumer action or consumer boycott that takes place. Imagine if we were in the situation today where victims of asbestos were being sued by James Hardie or another corporation because of the action they took to highlight the issue, and to eliminate what they saw at the time as an unsafe practice that’s now recognised. That’s exactly what AWI is seeking to do in testing the legal waters in this case.

Wendy Carlisle: Another now famous court action was the McLibel case in the UK, which became the most expensive civil action in history.

In Australia recently, the Tasmanian logging giant, Gunn’s, has launched a $5-1/2-million damages suit against 20 protesters, including Bob Brown. And Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock says he’ll legislate to allow corporations to sue individuals for damages, despite the opposition of every State government.

Some people call these kinds of actions ‘Strategic Legal Actions to Prevent Public Participation’, or SLAPP suits, for short.

In the US, over 30 States have made these kinds of SLAPP suits unlawful, because they are an attack on free speech.

Some industries are handling all these sorts of issues not by resisting consumer movements, but by listening to them and adapting.

Take the US meat industry for example. After years of bearing the brunt of unwelcome animal welfare attention, they’ve changed their ways. And while KFC and McDonald’s declined our invitation to discuss this, one person who was willing to talk is Temple Grantin.

She’s a consultant to the meat industry on human animal handling systems, and she’s also a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. And Background Briefing caught up with her by phone from Kansas City, where she was a keynote speaker at the American Meat Institute conference.

Temple Grantin: You’ve got to remember, I do not involve politics, I don’t want anything to do with politics. I want to work on what’s actually happening in the field, and I’ve worked with some really good people in Burger King’s quality assurance staff.

Wendy Carlisle: But when Burger King finally endorsed some industry guidelines which defined a more human treatment of beef, pork and poultry, and the egg industries, was this because of the public pressure that had been brought to bear on them by organisations like PETA?

Temple Grantin: All I’m going to say is that heat can soften up steel, and I don’t want to get involved with politics. If someone’s little heat softens the steel, but then on the other hand, activist groups need to make sure they don’t get the steel so hot that they just destroy it.

Wendy Carlisle: Temple Grantin’s become a bit of a celebrity in the industry. So what does she think about mulesing?

Temple Grantin: Well mulesing is a legitimate welfare concern. It’s an extremely invasive surgical procedure. I was just looking at some pictures of freshly mulesed lambs just the other day on the internet. I think there are some very legitimate concerns here that have to be addressed.

Wendy Carlisle: The industry says, one of the things they say about mulesing is that it’s not cutting into the flesh, it’s cutting the skin of the sheep.

Temple Grantin: What do you mean, the skin of the sheep is the flesh.

Wendy Carlisle: You think therefore that’s just playing with words?

Temple Grantin: Well that’s playing with words. I mean you are cutting into the skin of sheep and there is pain sensors in the skin of the sheep. You would not be doing an equivalent operation on a person without tons of painkillers.

Wendy Carlisle: How do you know that that’s cruel?

Temple Grantin: Well sheep feel pain. Now the thing about sheep is they are a prey species animal, and a prey species animal tends to cover up the fact that they hurt. You know, an animal like a dog will yelp when he hurts, because he’s a predator, but sheep being a prey species animal, doesn’t want to advertise to all the dingoes out there that ‘I’m injured’. And you can get situations where you can just about torture sheep and they behaviourally act normal, but if you go in and measure their stress hormones, their stress hormones are going to be off the charts.

Wendy Carlisle: Announcing the decision to phase out mulesing in the next five years was the easy bit. The hard bit is finding something to replace it. And many growers think a 2010 phase-out deadline for mulesing is a pipe dream.

But in South Australia, researchers are frantically working on a solution which offers the best alternative yet. Basically it uses the sheep’s own enzymes to produce a permanent wool removal solution. And since PETA turned up the eat, AWI has put the accelerator down, putting the project on fast track, and kicking in another $1-million.

But there’s a small problem. They haven’t yet figured out a way of getting it onto the sheep’s behind.

Phil Hynde is Professor of Animal Science at Adelaide University.

Phil Hynde: This is the deal-breaker in the whole project. We know the protein works, we know it’s painless, we know it replicates mulesing, we’ve just recently found out that the product is cheap, which is very important in it being adopted, but we need to apply it. So we’re working with Australian Wool Innovation and some engineering companies to come up with an applicator which will quickly, effectively, safely allow us to apply the product.

Wendy Carlisle: There’s a lot riding on it, isn’t there?

Phil Hynde: There certainly is.

Wendy Carlisle: You feel a bit of pressure at the moment?

Phil Hynde: I certainly do. You know, I have a passion for animal science and animal production. I love animals, which is why I’m working with them all my life. I feel a great sense of excitement as well, but we’re involved in a project that has tremendous animal welfare implications to reduce the suffering of millions of animals every year would be a great legacy.

Wendy Carlisle: The chances of this project actually making it are quite slim.

Phil Hynde: I’ve been asked what I think the chances that this becoming a commercial reality, and the figure I quote is about 30% chance that it will make it to the market and work across all sheep types, across all environments in a safe, simple cheap, quick effective way. It’s a big ask. What that means, Wendy, is there’s a 70% chance that it won’t, and I’ll make that very clear.

Wendy Carlisle: So if it doesn’t work, we’re back to the drawing boards?

Phil Hynde: Yes, there’s a few other things in the closet. I think the ultimate answer to mulesing is a genetic solution that we have sheep that effectively are bare around the breach, don’t have wrinkles, don’t have long wool around the backside, and we’re working rapidly with some producers who have got those sheep at the moment.

Wendy Carlisle: Professor Phil Hynde from Adelaide University.

In the meantime, there are growers who are actively reducing the amount of mulesing they perform. But that takes money, and they don’t have a lot of that right now.

One grower who does is Peter Spencer, who runs 3-1/2-thousand merinos on his property near the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales. He produces superfine wool, some of the softest, most marketable wool in the world.

Peter Spencer: We focus on every animal, as a matter of fact a lot of the people who come to work for us are told ‘We know you’re paid by the hour, but look at the animal. Slow down and look at the animal. The animal is what the focus of this project is all about, not you, and if it takes two hours extra, take two hours extra.’ But this is also very economically intense. The more you focus on an animal, the more, but we also have cell grazing, where when we put rams out, we have 53 ewes with one ram, and dozens of cells, and every one with a water trough, it’s very intense. Farmers can only do this if they’re getting a much greater return for their investment. The average farmer in the wool industry today doesn’t even have the money to spray the weeds.

Wendy Carlisle: Peter Spencer has the luxury of being able to oversee his sheep individually. But he says change is inevitable for all farmers.

Peter Spencer: So there’s going to be a lot of pressures on us, whether we like it or not, just because society is changing, and there’s a greater appreciation of people’s concerns about animals, whether we are meat eaters or whether we’re fibre wearers or what. Now what we have to do is respond to that in a way that shows understanding towards their concerns, but at the same time they also have to appreciate that there are tremendous difficulties in not just the change technically, but also the change culturally to adopt to a lot of these. A lot of people say What the hello? What’s the problem? Well there is a problem and we have to realise there is because people are concerned, and animals are affected. So I think it’s a twofold thing, a technical thing and also a cultural thing. But change doesn’t always happen overnight, because often people have to learn why do we need to change, and that appreciation I think has got to be understood.

Wendy Carlisle: It was George Orwell who said ‘All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. And nowhere is this truer than in the laws which protect animals from cruelty by humans.

There are basically two sets of laws: one for pets and the other for farm animals.

Our cats and dogs have a better standard of protection because they’re not a source of food, fibre or scientific knowledge like sheep, pigs or cows. And it’s interesting that with the rise of animal welfare, a new discipline of animal law is springing up in universities all over the world.

Including in Australia, where the University of New South Wales is the first to offer it. Geoffrey Bloom is foundation lecturer.

Geoffrey Bloom: I guess the best example is rabbits, because rabbits are kept as pets, rabbits are needed for agriculture and rabbits are also used extensively in experimentation. And depending on the different context, different treatment will be classed as cruel or totally lawful. And so you’re not allowed to practice vivisection on your pet, but if you’re a scientist, exactly the same actions will be lawful. And you know, society says that there’s greater social benefit in someone doing vivisection to get scientific knowledge rather than doing it just for kicks.

The question that we have to ask is whether we think this is a price worth paying for various agricultural practices, and because in modern times most agriculture is practiced not in view of the public, in agribusiness sort of settings, the common person is just not aware of what the practices are. And you know, often they’re distressing, so it’s not something that people feel like finding out about. So there are standards for sure, it’s just that those standards are lower than for other animals.

Wendy Carlisle: Background Briefing’s Co-ordinating Producer is Angus Kingston. Webmaster is Paul Bolger. And our Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I’m Wendy Carlisle, and you’re listening to ABC Radio National.


© 2005 Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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