I’m not going to lie: the cruelty behind Peruvian alpaca wool shocked me. It may shock you, too
By Chere Di Boscio
When I first visited Peru, I saw something adorable. It was an animal that looked like a cross between a camel and Bob Marley. I had never seen one of these things before. Turns out, it was a long-haired alpaca, and the owner of this cutie handed me a pair of shears and asked me to cut off a few of its huge dreadlocks. She was going to make wool from this, she explained, to create blankets to sell to tourists.
As a vegan, I didn’t see anything wrong with doing so. The alpaca was freely roaming in this woman’s yard, and as I chopped off a few dreads, she didn’t seem to notice or mind at all. I naively thought this was how most – if not all – alpaca wool was ‘harvested.’
In fact, I have since moved to Peru, and every alpaca I see is ‘free range’ like the first ‘rasta’ animal I encountered. I had seen a few pushed to the ground to get sheared, but that was a rare occurrence – maybe once a year or so. And since shearing these animals comprised the local people’s traditional and nearly only means of earning a living, I thought that was ok.
Turns out, I was wrong!
The cousin of the alpaca, the llama, was actually amongst the first ever animals to be domesticated, along with dogs. They served the Inca as a means of transport, and their fluffier relatives, the alpaca, was useful for its warm wool. Today, llamas and alpacas are both very important to the economy of local indigenous communities in the Andes
However, a first-of-its-kind PETA US undercover investigation of Mallkini – the world’s largest privately owned Peruvian alpaca wool farm – has recently unveiled the nasty truth about how alpacas are treated for the textile industry in this country.
Careless, callous farm workers held struggling alpacas by the ears as they were roughly shorn with electric clippers, causing all to cry and some to spit and vomit out of fear. According to PETA US, these workers “slammed the alpacas – some of whom were pregnant – onto tables, tied them to a medieval-looking restraining device, and pulled hard, nearly wrenching their legs out of their sockets.”
The result of such recklessness was that many animals were cut and bleeding from deep wounds. These were then sewn up – without any pain relief for the animal.
PETA notes that since alpacas are prey animals, any kind of restraint is highly distressing to them, due to their deeply ingrained fight or flight instinct. While they were stretched out and violently shorn, it was very clear that all suffered from stress, which could be proven by their cortisol levels, which increase when sheared.
A Swift Reaction
The reaction. of PETA’s report on Peruvian alpaca wool has been swift. Several major fashion retailers, including Esprit, who vowed to phase out alpaca wool from its collections. Gap Inc, owners of several other big brands, including Banana Republic and Athleta, has cut ties with Mallkini’s parent company, the Michell Group, as has H&M. PETA US is asking the Peruvian authorities to investigate the company for possible violations of the country’s animal protection laws.
This will surely come as a blow to the South American country, whose economy has been choked by its President’s strict reaction to the Coronavirus. Many core industries that keep the Peruvian economy alive, including mining, tourism and the production of textiles, have been completely halted for over three months.
PETA Director of Corporate Projects, Yvonne Taylor, believes a ban on alpaca wool is worth the economic damage it may cause: “We urge all retailers to protect these vulnerable animals by banning alpaca wool and are calling on consumers to leave cruelly produced alpaca wool items on the rack,” she says.
Not As Sustainable As You’d Think
Before reading PETA’s report, I believed that alpaca wool was as green as a textile could be. After all, most of it is naturally dyed in Peru from vegetable dyes, and the fabric is completely biodegradable.
What’s more, these camelid animals are usually fed on natural, surrounding pastures, that need no fertilizer or pesticide. Alpacas don’t eat much, and don’t do damage to ecosystems the way cashmere goats do, as they don’t pull grass up from the roots. In fact, I can tell you first hand that many football fields in Peru use sheep and alpaca to ‘mow the lawn’ in an eco-friendly manner on these properties. One animal produces around 2.3kg of high quality fleece annually, and is shorn just once a year.
However, despite these positive points, the Higg Index estimates that Peruvian alpaca wool has a rather high environmental impact. It scores 283, based on enteric methane emissions based on data from Dittmann et al 2014, and due to the methane and nitrous oxide emissions from alpaca manure.
The Higg Index also condemns alpaca farming for eutrophication. This process happens when nutrients from farm waste runoff accumulate in surrounding waterways, causing the growth of toxic algae and making water unpotable for humans and inhabitable for many aquatic species.
Apparently, the reason eutrophication is so significant at alpaca farms is because smallholder farmers in Peru generally stockpile alpaca waste in open air before burning it. The pile of waste can sit for days prior to being burned and once it is set ablaze it can burn for more than 4 days, releasing a large amount of greenhouse gases into the air.
This open-air stockpiling of waste leads to nitrogen and other potentially harmful elements leaching into the soil, and in the end, groundwater. Rainfall will also cause the nutrients to run off directly into surrounding waterways.
Unfortunately, as a developing country, Peru’s farming systems don’t usually include more advanced methods of waste management, such as covering manure stockpiles with impermeable covers, keeping manure storage at a low temperature, burning manure in a closed environment, composting/using manure for fertilisation, etc. It’s a shame, because such practices could better mitigate the chances of eutrophication and reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
Some Serious Doubts
While I have no doubt that what the Higg Index says about the environmental impact of alpaca wool is true, I think it’s important to take this Index with a huge, huge grain of salt. They rate silk as being the absolute worst fabric for the environment, and give alpaca a terrible score of 283, while petroleum based fabrics such as acrylic and polyester, which are obviously horrendous for the environment, get a much lower score (52 and 44 respectively).
The site is funded by the US government, amongst other organisations, and seems to favour any petroleum based fabric over anything natural. Even linen and hemp scored worse than polyester! In short, I don’t think I trust the Higg Index at all.
But nonetheless, PETA is raising important questions about how Peruvian farmers treat animals overall. In fact, the country scores the lowest possible in terms of its treatment of farm animals, according to World Animal Protection (it gets a G, which is below an F). Overall, the country only scores a D for its animal welfare practices, These concerns must be addressed immediately, for the sake of the animals.
Would you still buy Peruvian alpaca wool after reading this article? We’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below!
For more information, please visit PETA UK here. If you would like to see PETA’s exposé of the Peruvian alpaca wool industry, click on the video above. But be warned: it contains scenes some will find distressing.