|Traditionally, leather products are made from the skins of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. The majority of these animals suffer the horrors of factory farming, including extreme crowding and confinement, deprivation, un-anaesthetized castration, branding, tail-docking, dehorning, generally without pain killers, and cruel treatment during transport, before being slaughtered. Many consumers, including people who do not eat meat, think it is acceptable to buy leather products because they are a necessary by product of the food industry and thus, since the animals were killed anyway, it is preferable to use the products rather then let them go to waste. This reasoning, unfortunately, does not take in to account the fact that leather and suede are not just by-products of the meat industry. The skin actually represents about 10% of the animal’s total value. Selling off every bit of the carcass is what makes killing animals profitable, and skin is the most economically important by-product of the meat-packing industry (1). Thus, buying leather directly supports factory farms and
slaughterhouses. In addition, calfskin, a very soft leather, is often taken from calves who are the ‘surplus’ offspring of dairy cows, ripped from their slaughtered mother’s womb. Thus, the economic success of the dairy farms is also directly linked to the sale of leather goods.
Much of the leather sold nowadays in North America and Europe does not come from North American slaughterhouses but from China and India. China is the world’s leading exporter of leather. In addition to the cattle, sheep, and other animals who are turned into leather in China, an estimated 2 million cats and dogs are killed for their skins each year. Confined to wire cages in which they can barely move, these animals are routinely skinned alive and hacked apart, piece by piece, until they bleed to death. Other Asian countries also contribute to the dog and cat skin trade. In the Philippines and Thailand, cats are collected and hanged, while dogs are snared, slashed, and then bled to death. The animals are frequently still alive during the skinning process. Their hides are commonly used for drumheads, gloves, handbags, shoes, slippers, dolls, orthopedic products, wraps for arthritis, and chewy dog toys. The fact that some leather comes from the skins of cats and dogs is little known by consumers, and the products are often intentionally mislabeled and do not accurately indicate their origin (2). It is important to remember, though, that all other animals whose lives are t
aken away by the leather industry endure similar suffering, and should have the same right to life and protection from cruelty as cats and dogs.
In India, the other large exporter of leather (3), thousands of cows are slaughtered each week for their skins, purchased from poor rural families. Cows are supposed to be sacred in India, yet they are often marched for days between trucking points through the heat and dust without food or water. This occurs, in direct violation of theConstitution of India, to relocate the animals to a state where they can legally be killed, since cattle slaughter is forbidden in most of India. As a consequence, many cows collapse from exhaustion. In an effort to get them back up on their feet, chili peppers and tobacco are routinely rubbed directly into their eyes, and their tails broken by repeatedly pinching them in several areas.
To keep them moving, handlers pull them by nose ropes, twist their necks, horns or tails. They force the cows down steep embankments and in and out of trucks with no ramps, causing injuries like broken pelvises, legs, ribs and horns. Crammed into extremely crowded illegal transport trucks for the long journey to slaughter, many are trampled or gored during the ride. After one or two days inside the truck without food or water, the animals are desper
ately thirsty and hungry, especially since it is normal for such cows to eat frequently throughout the day. Many of the animals get so sick and injured by the time they arrive at the slaughterhouse that they must be dragged inside. At slaughterhouses, their throats are cut open, often through hacking and sawing with a dull blade, in front of one another. The cows routinely are dismembered wile they are still conscious. The documentary Earthlings (www.isawearthlings.com) is a must see to fully understand the suffering involved for these animals.
A great premium is set on leather from unusual sources. Therefore, hunters, fishermen, and poachers target wild boars, kangaroos, elephants, seals, sharks, dolphins, zebra, eels, walruses, frogs, turtles, crocodiles, ostriches, snakes etc. Other wildlife species like deer, buffaloes, ostriches and alligators are farmed specifically for their skins. In any case, what is mistakenly considered to be the extravagant end of the leather market is certai
nly not glamorous for the animals involved. Snakes and lizards are often skinned alive because of the belief that live flaying imparts suppleness to the finished leather. British reptile biologist Clifford Warwick, who watched reptiles skinned alive on Asian snake farms, reports that some animals are drowned, others decapitated, others gutted, and that it typically takes an hour for a snake whose head has been taken off to die.
Alligators on factory farms are packed into half-sunken tin-sided structures of cinder blocks on concrete slabs, immersed in filthy stagnant water rife with their own waste and the stench of rancid meat (4). As many as 600 young alligators may inhabit one building. Although alligators may naturally live 40 to 60 years, on farms they are usually butchered before their fourth birthday (5,6,7). They may be beaten to death with hammers and axes, sometime remaining conscious and in agony for 1 1/2 to 2 hours (8). Crocodiles are often caught in the wild with huge hooks and wires and reeled in when they become weakened from blood loss or drown.
Many animals are skinned when they are still alive, sometimes remaining conscious and in agony for up to two hours and then beaten with hammers, axes, and aluminum baseball bats. Ostriches may be stripped of their feathers before slaughtering by farmers pulling them from their sockets with pliers, or shaving them of with electric shears. The “New York
Times” reported that a slaughterer in California said it took him “two hours of violent struggle to kill a single ostrich.”
Millions of kangaroos (4.4 million in 2004) are slaughtered every year in Australia for their hides, the resulting products often being labeled “K leather” or “RK” (rubberized kangaroo technology). Typically, kangaroos are shot at night in the vast outback, under spotlights, by hunters aiming at their heads. Frequently, the animals are shot in the throat, the neck, or have their jaw blown off. Many wounded kangaroos escape and die slowly and painfully. Orphaned joeys and wounded kangaroos are considered collateral damage and the government mandates that they be decapitated or hit sharply on the head “to destroy the brain” (9). In reality, tiny joeys are pulled from their dead mothers’ pouches and stamped on, clubbed, beaten to death with a pipe or simply left to die. Older joeys hop away into the night invariably to die of starvation, predation, cold or neglect (10). Kangaroo hide is popular for sporting equipment like golf bags and shoes, especially sneakers made by Italian and American manufacturers (11,12). With demand for kangaroo products so high and the constraints on harvesting the animals so few, many people are afraid that the species will be in danger of extinction.
In Canada, seals are brutally killed for their skins, in many cases skinned while still alive or left to agonize in their own blood. Along t
he coasts of the South China sea and the Bay of Thailand, poachers illegally capture and violently kill sea turtles for their shells, their flesh, and for the leather produced from their necks and flippers. It is estimated that 25-30 percent of imported crocodile shoe leather and other wildlife items are made from endangered, illegally poached animals.
The export of processed leather by itself is a 60 billion dollar international industry derived from factory farming, hunting, trapping, fishing and poaching of endangered species, rounding up of stray domestic animals, stealing pets and collecting animals drowned in transport or illness. With so much value built in, the leather market effectively underwrite
s associated businesses, from slaughterhouses to tanneries to manufacturers, in a vast supply chain. All of this is fueled by consumer choice that is tradition bound and fashion driven, perpetuating inherent cruelty. The reality of the leather trade is that more then a billion animals are killed per year, and that all die feeling terror and great pain.
WHAT YOU CAN DO!
Be aware that leather is everywhere. It could be what makes your watchband (snakeskin from India), your new pair of Adidas (kangaroo hide from Australia), your cordovan loafers (horsehide from Belgium), the cover of a book on your desk (sheepskin from England), the wallet in your purse (ostrich hide from South Africa), the cigar case on your desk (sharkskin from Panama), and the upholstery on your easy chair (cowhide from India).
Instead of buying leather, opt for the many alternatives that exist: cotton, linen, rubber, ramie, canvas, and synthetics. To find out more information on substitute products and listings, please check out our “Vegan Shopping” listings.
Educate your family, friends and co-workers about the plight of farmed and wildlife animals used in the leather industry, as well as the human (a) and environmental (b) cost of leather.
(a) Leather is dead flesh, and as such would literally rot on your feet or back if not treated with dangerous chemicals like, mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, cyanide-based oils and dyes, chromium and other toxins. In addition to the release of these toxins in the environment, leather also shares the environmental destruction of the meat industry.
(b) People who have worked and lived near tanneries are dying of cancer caused by the exposure to the toxic chemicals used to preserve and dye the leather.
References: (1) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Slaughtered/Production Animals 2002, FAOSTAT database. (2) John Lichfield, “20,000 French Cats Stolen by Rustlers,” The Independent goods. (3) Kadekodi, J.K, Trade and Environment:Conflict and Prospects: A Case Study of Leather Goods.(4) Michael P. Masser, “Alligator Production”, Southern Regional Aquaculture, May 1993. (5) Edith Stanley, “Chicken Again?” These Gators Get a Steady Diet of Dead Foul”, Los Angeles Time, Jun 10 2001. (6) “Alligator and Crocodile”, Animal Bytes, San Diego Zoo.org, 2003. (7) Michael P. Masser, “Alligator Production”, Southern Regional Aquaculture, May 1993 (8) Sue Reid, “Getting Under Their Skin”, The Sunday Times (London) (9) Department for Environment and Heritage, “The Macropod Conservation and Management Plan for”’ Nov 2002.: 49. (10) Gellatley, J. 2004. Under Fire. Viva!. (11) Environment Australia, “Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Quotas—2003”, Wild Harvest of Native Species—Kangaroos. (12) “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”, The Sports Factor, narr. Amanda Smith, Radio National, Australia.