Excuse Me, Ma'am, Are You Wearing Fetal Lamb?"
Mar. 16, 2001
For years the fur industry has told the world that karakul lamb furs, also known as Persian lamb and broadtail, are simply byproducts of the meat industry. The most sought-after pelts--those stripped from unborn lambs and made into $25,000 suits--come, it says, from normal, spontaneous sheep abortions.
So it was no surprise when spin doctors for the fur trade scrambled quickly for damage control after learning that The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) had turned over results of its broadtail investigation to Dateline NBC . "There appears to be another HSUS investigation on the horizon," the Fur Industry Council of America (FICA) warned its members in a November 28, 2000 e-mail bulletin. FICA urged broadtail designers to call its offices before talking to Dateline .
The fur industry had good reason for concern. HSUS had given Dateline videotape of a lamb farmer in Central Asia beheading a pregnant ewe and slitting her womb open to retrieve the source of those luxurious outfits. Additional footage shows newborn lambs, barely able to stand, being roughly handled to display their various pelt colors. And more tape shows a pile of limp and bloody newborn and fetal lambs killed earlier that day. The bodies would be skinned for their valuable pelts, the tiny carcasses tossed away as trash.
Investigation in Uzbekistan
In March 2000, Rick Swain, HSUS's chief investigator, traveled undercover with another HSUS investigator to Uzbekistan to document how broadtail is produced. Accompanied by a Moscow fur trader and a translator, they were taken to a karakul farm and slaughter facility near Bukhara , the historic motherland of karakul fur production. Broadtail is produced throughout Central Asia, Afghanistan , and Namibia .
During a tour led by the facility's manager, Swain was struck by the protective instincts of the mother sheep toward their lambs. As the group passed a herd of approximately 150 corralled sheep, the manager explained that many of these were pregnant ewes scheduled to be slaughtered for karakulcha (the Uzbek word for broadtail) later that week. The farm maintains a total of 10,500 sheep, and several hundred are slaughtered each week, he said.
The animals are killed inside a small, white cinderblock building with two blue doors. As Swain and the others entered the building, a worker was skinning a dead lamb. Against one wall was a pile of about a dozen recently killed newborn and fetal lambs.
One by one, the plant manager picked out limp bodies from the pile, explaining the qualities of pelts from lambs slaughtered at various stages of development. At 30 days before natural birth, the skins are very smooth, "like naked." These are used for expensive handbags, swimsuits, hats, and gloves. At ten to 15 days before natural birth, broadtail furs are silky, flat, and lightweight, with a wavy texture and luminous sheen. The next grade of fur, from newborn lambs just one to three days old, is tightly curled and glossy.
Eager to do business, the plant manager fetched several newborn lambs scheduled to be slaughtered later that day. Videotape shows these bewildered animals?small, frail, and barely able to stand.
Moments later, workers entered the room hauling a pregnant ewe by her legs. Graphic footage captures how she is slaughtered: She is flopped onto the floor and held down on her back while she kicks in a vain attempt to flee. One worker controls the lower half of her body by stepping on it with his foot. The butcher makes a pass at her throat with a long knife. Her legs continue to kick as she struggles. The butcher slashes again at her throat, this time deeper. Blood gushes onto the floor around her. The butcher then twists her head all the way around until it breaks off in his hands.
More footage shows the workers placing the ewe's headless body on a cradlelike structure. Vigorous movement is evident in the dead sheep's abdomen--the kicking of the unborn lamb. Workers wait until the movement stops before slashing open the sheep's womb to remove the fetal lamb.
The crude slaughter witnessed by the HSUS investigators entailed no stunning or any other attempt at "humane slaughter" techniques. According to the Moscow fur trader who accompanied the investigators, this was a typical farm, one of several she does business with on a regular basis. Swain recalls, "I witnessed absolute indifference to animal suffering. These animals were not killed for food, but for fashion."
Where It Goes
Currently, 4-5 million broadtail pelts are produced worldwide each year, about the same as the number of fox pelts "harvested" annually. The number is down from 10 million in the 1970s and 7 million in the 1980s, but anti-fur activists still have reason for alarm. Broadtail seems to be in fashion this year.
Michael Kors is using the lightweight, crushed-velvetlike fur in skirts and coats. Carolina Herrera has designed tuxedos and vests with it. Karl Lagerfeld has created "Persian lamb coats as thin as felt." The biggest markets for broadtail are Italy, Germany, France, Scandinavia, and the United States, where lamb fur garments can be found in Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's East, as well as other retail stores and independent fur salons.
At an auction held by Finnish Fur Sales in December 2000, more than 100,000 broadtail pelts were auctioned for between $19 and $70 each. The skin of fetal lambs is worth far more to karakul farmers than lamb chops. HSUS investigators who traveled to a factory in Moscow where broadtail skins are manufactured into apparel counted 30 pelts sewn together to make one full-length coat. An average coat sells for $5,000-$12,000; $25,000 is the upper limit for a designer broadtail outfit.
FICA didn't like having a spotlight shown on broadtail production; it responded by attacking HSUS's credibility, even going so far as to imply that the footage had been staged. After the Dateline story aired on December 11, 2000, FICA issued a press release that stated, "With the return of fur to the fashion spotlight, animal-rights groups are sinking to new moral depths in their desperation to slow accelerating sales of fur apparel."
After viewing the graphic footage, FICA spokeswoman Diva Lynch expressed both exasperation and denial, telling Dateline that "Their [HSUS's] spin is to--'Let's show shocking video and let's try to get everyone to see that this is inhumane.' And we don't know that. We don't know that this is inhumane treatment."
"If there are standards of humane care in those countries and they're being adhered to, that's the authority," Lynch said. "This is not an endangered species, these are bred animals for farm use."
HSUS has contacted various department stores known to carry lamb fur, to request that they rid their stock of this inhumane apparel. It is hoped this investigation will convince retailers and caring consumers that the slaughter of these farmed animals is every bit as cruel, grotesque, and inexcusable as that of any other fur-bearing animals.