Disturbing goat video leads to scandal for the SA mohair industry

Image: 123RF/ KORNIENKO

The South African mohair industry – which effectively supplies more than 50% of the fashionably soft, supple material to the world – might be in serious trouble.

The recent release of inflammatory video footage, taken by undercover PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) activists on visits to 12 local Angora goat farms, has shocked both retailers and consumers. Consequently, H&M, Zara, Gap, and Topshop have undertaken to ban mohair products from their ranges as fast as possible.

PETA’s disturbing footage is mainly concerned with the brutality of the shearing process. It reveals the gurgled screams of kids being corralled into pens, mutilated goat corpses in different stages of decay and shows the many ways which the animals are profitably denuded. It’s upsetting.

Deliberate cruelty

However there is something about the hype used by the video’s conscientious narrator that undermines the integrity of PETA’s investigation. At times, the narrative is plainly misleading. We are meant to infer, for example, that a dead goat – “allegedly” the victim of a natural predator, says the voice of PETA – was a casualty of deliberate cruelty. Shortly afterwards, a worker who methodically nudges a goat with his knees to prevent it from standing up while it’s being shorn, is described as having “sat on” the creature as though he planned the action with malice. Indeed, there is no compassion spared for the human actors who unknowingly exposed themselves to criticism in this video – the farmworkers doing their minimum-wage jobs.

Of course, PETA’s proselytism doesn’t justify the situation. It’s difficult to remain impartial when the suffering of animals is revealed as a raw reality. For all our cruelties and contradictions, humans can’t help but react to the sounds and signs of pain, which don’t quite overcome the blind eye we have to turn to eat steak and still sleep peacefully.

It is upsetting to see the goats’ bare skin bleeding and mutilated by enormous cuts after they’ve been shorn. According to PETA’s report, the workers responsible are paid by volume and not by the hour, which incentivises them to rush at the expense of care.

WATCH | PETA's expose on the SA mohair industry. WARNING! Footage may upset sensitive viewers

An eyewitness in South Africa—the world's top mohair producer—found that workers struck, mutilated, and decapitated terrified goats. Help these gentle animals today!

Corpses

For me, though, the worst scene in the short exposé shows workers shearing the wool off the corpses of goats that didn’t survive. It is about reducing animals to things.

Beauty Without Cruelty is a South African animal rights’ organisation which educates the public. It’s well known for its outspoken opposition to the use of animals in cosmetics testing and for highlighting synthetic and plant-based alternatives to meat, leather, fur and wool. As far as chairperson Toni Brockhaven is concerned, the “mohair scandal” is just one example of a pandemic.

“In South Africa, animals are seen as mere commodities, property, resources, in the eyes of the law and that, right there, is the problem,” she says. “As soon as money enters the equation, animals suffer. The farm owner is directly responsible for the way his/her employees treat animals, as well as (for) the individual perpetrators. There is never justification for mistreating animals, no matter their ultimate fate.”

Misguided

According to Deon Saayman of the South African Mohair Growers Association – which seems to have been taken by surprise by PETA’s guerrilla reportage – the same ethics of accountability are shared by most of the farmers whose interests the association represents.

“It’s very, very sad that PETA published something like that, because it’s totally misguided. We have a Code of Production.  That’s not how mohair is produced,” Saayman insists. “If this happened (the way it seems to have in the video), then it’s a freak.”

The association’s ability to intervene fast has apparently been compromised because, according to Saayman, “PETA visited the farm(s) under false pretences. We don’t know which farms the video was taken on. We’re in the process of gathering all the information we can to see what transpired – we also aren’t sure if PETA didn’t entice the workers to behave in a certain way, because we know that sensationalist reports get them their funding,” he says.

Collective morality

Reports on the big clothing brands’ mass sanction have largely interpreted the backlash as evidence of a movement towards ethically-sourced, transparently-produced clothing – many of the same brands stopped using Angora rabbit fur a few years ago after a similar PETA infiltration in China.  But I’m not sure these isolated attacks of conscience can honestly be seen as the start of a newfound, collective morality, where our wardrobes are concerned. “Fast fashion” comes at a cost to human actors, too – factories can be as cruel as farms. And as long as we’re still eating meat, buying leather and wearing sheep’s wool, not buying mohair blankets isn’t enough to keep our hands clean – it’s ridiculous to imagine that needless cruelty is isolated to Angora goat farms. 

Capitalism has complicated our relationship to farming in a manner that makes it impossible not to get caught in a mire of hypocrisy. Nothing justifies brutality and deliberate cruelty to creatures weaker than we are. But we are products of a competitive economy, driven by an animalistic desire for survival by any means necessary. The wish to boycott mohair makes sense when you’re thinking about the animals - and we all should - but I bet your resolve will waver when you think about the farmworkers and what they stand to lose if the industry suffers.

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