[pain receptors] have been identified in the skin of several avian species [including ducks, geese, and chickens]. The follicular wall of the feather is richly supplied with general somatic afferent (sensory) fibres, and nerves are present in the papilla, pulp and feather muscles. . . The feather is firmly held in the follicle. . . .In conclusion, from the results presented here and from those of previous experiments it seems likely that feather removal is painful to the bird. . . Pain in animals [has been defined] as an aversive sensory experience caused by actual or potential injury that elicits progressive motor and vegetative reactions, results in learned avoidance behaviour and may modify species specific behaviour, including social behaviour. Feather removal [experimentally done to Leghorn hens by these researchers] results in tissue injury which gives rise to motor behaviour and cardiovascular changes which when repeated results in stress-induced immobility and thus satisfies most of the criteria in this definition of pain.” (2)
It takes approximately 75 or more birds to create enough feathers to stuff one comforter.
The live plucking process can sometimes rip the skin of the goose or duck, which is then sewn up with a straight needle without the benefit of analgesic or sterilization. Once sewn up, the bird is tossed to the floor with the rest of the birds who have been stripped of their feathers. (3)
The practice of live-plucking has been decried as inhumane by industry representatives who vehemently claim that most of the feathers and down on the market today are those removed from the birds post-mortem. These same claims say that using feathers and down actually minimizes waste by “making use of materials that would otherwise be thrown away.” (4) By “materials” they mean the lives of birds. This truly demonstrates the disconnect that exists. These birds are seen as nothing more than materials, when in reality they are individuals who matter.
In 2009, a Swedish TV documentary, Plucked Alive: The Torture Behind Down and Goose Down Practices Called Animal Cruelty, examined the industry claims that live-plucking was rare. What the documentary found was that 50 – 80% of the down on the market came from live-plucking. These figures were adamantly denied by organizations such as the China Feather and Down Industrial Association, among others. Another investigation, conducted by Ikea, confirmed the same high percentages. As a result, they phased out a Chinese brand of down bedding citing concerns about live-plucking. (5)
Another method for collecting the feathers of birds through a process called “gathering.” Gathering feathers from live birds is defined as “removing feathers that are ripe due to the phenomenon of molting” and would refer to using a brush or comb to remove feathers and down which are ready to fall out. This process may sound humane, but most operations have hundreds (if not thousands) of birds. Even if all of them are at the same stage of molting at the same time (very unlikely), feathers mature at different times on different parts of the body. What this means is that it is still very likely that some feathers will be live plucked. In addition, the methods of catching, carrying, and restraining birds is the same whether they are live plucked or gathered- meaning that bones can still break or become dislocated, and some birds don’t survive the process. (6)
Roosters & Ostriches & Peacocks
But it’s not just geese and ducks that are abused for their feathers- roosters, ostriches, and peacocks are also victims of the feather industry. Raised and slaughtered for their beautiful saddle feathers, the striking feathers on their backsides, are commonly used in fly fishing, hair fashion trends, home decor, costumes, and cat toys.
“Whiting Farms in western Colorado is the world’s largest producer of fly tying feathers. There, the roosters are given only a year to live while their saddle feathers grow as long as possible. Once the feathers are deemed satisfactory, the rooster is slaughtered, and his feathers plucked. His lifeless body is then thrown out for compost; Thomas Whiting, the company founder (via the Orange County Register), claims that, “They aren’t good for anything else.” The Whiting Farms website boasts that “over 125,000 total birds (were) harvested in 2000.” (7)
Looking Behind the Curtain
Free living geese normally live in small family units, living up to 20 years, and mate for life. Geese bred for meat, foie gras, and their feathers live just a fraction of that time- a mere 2 years in some cases. Research varies but roosters can live to be 10 – 15 years old, but are killed at one year old for their beautiful plumage. Ostriches have a lifespan of 30 – 40 years old, but can reach as old as 70 in the wild.
It’s not profitable for humans to allow these animals to live their natural lifespan, therefore these animals are slaughtered at young ages and in terribly cruel ways.
“Before slaughtering, starve geese for 12–18 hours. This facilitates bleeding and cleaning. . .Geese should be killed. . .as quickly as possible. The most efficient way is to place the goose headfirst into a killing funnel and cut the jugular vein with a sharp knife. If the birds are difficult to manage, stun them by hitting them at the base of the skull before cutting their throats.” (8)
Breeding domesticated animals into existence is also problematic for much of the same reasons as factory farming: forced breeding, disregard for family bonds, overall welfare and care of animals, resource depletion, and environmental destruction.
What about recycled or second-hand down and fake feathers?
This is a question that is brought up frequently when discussing vegan fashion. Should we wear or use animal-based clothing or textiles if they are recycled or bought at a second-hand store? Some organizations claim that reusing or repurposing textiles already produced is perfectly fine and falls under the proverbial vegan umbrella. I emphatically disagree. It is true that these products have already consumed resources in their manufacturing, thus eliminating the need for additional resources to produce new, plant-based items. But the wearing of these items still sends a message that animal-based clothing is not only acceptable, it is fashionable. After all, in most cases the people will have no idea if the item is second-hand or recycled. They will only see the item for what it is- the skin, fur, or feather of an animal. Instead, we should work on reducing and eliminating these items from being manufactured in the first place.
What about “ethically sourced” or “traceable” feather or down products?
There is a new trend in the feather and down industry: ethically sourced and/or traceable down standards. Much like the “humane certification” program from the meat and dairy industry, the feather and down industry has come up with it’s own certification process meant to put consumers minds at ease. These programs make claims of proprietary machinery and processing procedures, complete with water recycling and biodegradable non-toxic detergents used to clean the feathers. They boast “environmentally sensitive initiatives” and renewable energy systems in their offices and facilities. From the lightbulbs to the recycled office paper, they want you to know they are “ever mindful of [their] footprint on the Earth.” Their customers are assured that they “always receive quality and humanely gathered down and feathers.” (9)
Despite standards, certifications, audits, processes, and assurances, the truth is that animals are still being bred and killed for this industry to exist in the first place. Traceability does not ensure humane treatment- only freedom and autonomy can do that. Instead, it misleads consumers into believing that they are buying a product that is kind to animals when in fact, it isn’t. There is only one way to truly be humane to animals, and that is to let them be, on their own terms.