Peta protesters objecting to the wearing of animal skins. The animal rights group's sensationalist and bullying tactics have put it at odds with consumers, scientists and the retail sector. Picture: Markus Schreiber/AP

You needn't be an animal lover to have been appalled by Peta’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) video of abuses in the mohair industry.
Showing goats being manhandled, dragged by their appendages, shorn bare, being dunked in troughs of “poison” and having their throats slit, the video posted by Peta Asia has caused widespread outrage the world over.

About 100 international retailers have either cut ties with the industry or announced intentions to stop supplying mohair products, which the animal welfare organisation is hailing as yet another of its victories against abuse.

The video, which was released at the end of last month, has rightly caused an outcry internationally. Retailers are suddenly dropping mohair textiles.

No one wants to be associated with animal abuse, child labour or workers’ exploitation. And yet, us consumers don’t generally want to know much about the animals we eat because if we knew their lives and deaths were miserable, we might not want to eat their meat. If we knew the toys our children played with were produced by other children under abusive conditions, we might not want to support the industry. And if we knew the materials we clothed our bodies in were produced in sweat shops, we might think twice about buying those comfy running shoes or stylish denims.

Organisations such as Peta, which claims to have 6.5-million members worldwide, hold us to a higher standard - shocking consumers into putting political and economic pressure onto the private and public sectors to protect animals from abuse.

Founded in 1980, Peta’s widely publicised report on vivisection (animal testing), known as the Silver Spring monkeys case, followed the plight of 17 monkeys at a behavioural psychology institute in Maryland. The case lasted 10 years, triggered an amendment to the US’s Animal Welfare Act, and established Peta as an international force.

But its methods - using sensationalism and bullying tactics - have put it at odds with consumers, scientists and the retail sector.

ScienceBasedMedicine.org, an influential blog about medical controversies and alternative medicine, has accused it of having “a history of using science as a drunk uses a lamppost - for support rather than illumination. In that way they are typical of ideological groups. They have an agenda, are open about their beliefs, and marshal whatever arguments they can in order to promote their point of view”.

Peta’s shock tactics have been called into question after the video, headlined Groundbreaking Expose: goats thrown, cut, and killed for mohair, was released showing what it claimed were rampant abuses on angora farms.

The fallout could cripple the local industry, says Mohair SA. This before a proper investigation is conducted or right of reply given. South Africa produces 52% of the world’s mohair. The sector employs 6 000 workers with about 30 000 dependants.

The country’s economy stands to lose more than R1.5 billion and 800000 angora goats could be “put to pasture” due to an imminent boycott of the industry.

Mohair SA managing director Deon Saayman told me they were appalled to see the abuses in the video because it wasn’t in the farmers’ interest to mistreat their animals.

“A lot of the footage in the video doesn’t even relate to shearing - the dead goats had been caught by a jackal. The healthier the animal, the better the hair. Dead animals are sheared, but that hair is classed differently and not as valuable.”

Then there are the claims the goats are thrown into poison - farm animals are routinely dipped to prevent ticks and fleas - that animals are transported to shearing facilities (they’re sheared on their farms) and that a farmer lost tens of thousands of goats over a weekend after they were shorn.

“About 10 years ago there was a cold spell in Rietbron between Willowmore and Beaufort West,” Saayman said. “About 30 farmers lost a few thousand goats. But that happened because of a sudden drop in temperature and other factors. Guidelines are in place and farmers have to provide shelter for animals after they’re shorn.”

Grace de Lange, the manager of the NSPCA’s farm animal protection unit, said it would be laying charges after viewing the raw footage submitted by Peta.

“We will be laying charges against the shearing company and the individuals involved. It is difficult to establish if there was cruelty on all 12 farms (as Peta claimed) but we have identified two. We have met with Mohair South Africa and they have offered their full co-operation as we conduct our investigations. The handling and slaughter is unacceptable and is in contravention of the Animals Protection Act.”

Saayman said the industry shouldn’t be tarnished because of the actions of one shearing company. “There was no supervision. The abuses were seen on two farms and that hair was withdrawn from auction.”

In 2009, Mohair SA introduced sustainability guidelines that prescribe codes of best practices. In January this year, it introduced a traceability system.

“Before this, we couldn’t trace every kilogramme of mohair back to the farm. Now we can go to the auction and trace it back. There’s third-party verification. We have an appointed sustainability officer.”

Ultimately, it’s about the power of the media and who controls the conversation. Tarnishing an entire industry that sustains tens of thousands of people because of the actions of a few is irresponsible - and tantamount to mob justice.

Mohair South Africa said it not only had a responsibility towards the 800 000 angora goats in the country to ensure their safe and ethical treatment, but also to the thousands of people relying on the industry for their livelihood.

“In fulfilment of its mandate to advance the ethical production of this natural alternative to synthetic fibres, Mohair South Africa will continue the dialogue with the international clothing brands about their decision to stop using mohair, while continuing to act against any person who falls short of our standards.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook at ww.facebook.com/ConsumerAgonyAunt 

UPDATE: Peta responds: Abuse in mohair industry not just a few bad apples