• Becci Pigeon

Not so cozy: Down-filled jackets mean suffering and death for birds

As an avid bird enthusiast, I was disappointed to hear a fellow birder recently espousing the supposed necessity of a down jacket in extremely low temperatures. (I was not necessarily surprised, though--I had previously been disgusted when, at a birding conference, the buffet centred around fried chicken. The strange dichotomy between the animals we love and the animals we use really exists in all facets of our society!) He wasn't right, incidentally--there are many equally warm vegan alternatives now.

Unfortunately I was not in a position to say anything, to ask whether he knew the facts about the down industry, and if he did, why he would recommend a jacket stuffed with feathers on a trip where he and the other birders would be cheering with delight over the beauty of wild ducks and geese hardly different or less valuable than the ones trapped in farms and live-plucked until they bleed.

hand holding down a goose's bloody neck surrounded by plucked feathers
Photo: Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing

Let me repeat that again: they are live-plucked until they bleed...and then their torn flesh is sometimes sewn back together--and with no anaesthetic. The feathers that are prized by humans for down are the softest ones, the underlayer of plumage that exists to keep birds warm. In the same way it would be intensely painful to have a fistful of hair torn from your scalp, it is agonising for the birds subjected to our greed for their feathers, and they cry out and struggle desperately to get away. This is done every five or six weeks, long enough for the down to grow back, and then they are plucked again. At about six months old, they are killed.

80% of the world's down comes from China, where investigations have revealed '...geese, their feet restrained or held down by their necks, with farm workers pulling their feathers and undercoating off their skin, leaving open and often bloody wounds in the process.' Much of the down in Europe, however, comes from Hungary, Russia, Moldovia and Poland, where circumstances are no better. Investigator Marcus Mueller described the women and men who travel from one farm to the next, working '...without feeling, grabbing terrified geese by their wings or legs, sometimes breaking them, always hurting them, as they tear out the birds’ feathers.' It is impossible for marketers to claim that their down is 'responsible' or that it only comes only from birds who weren't live-plucked, he explains: “Brigades go from farm to farm stripping the birds as they go, then the feathers are sold to brokers and middlemen who mix live-plucked feathers with those recovered from slaughtered animals.”

So if not all feathers come from birds who were live-plucked, does that make them better? Nope. For example, some come from the foie gras industry, which is so patently cruel that it is banned in countries around the world, including the UK, and some US states. (This doesn't mean the product of the industry is necessarily illegal, however--unfortunately, if you are in the mood for the diseased liver of a dying bird, you can still have it imported into the UK. Relevant petition here.) And other feathers come from the ducks and geese raised for their meat. These are birds who would typically spend the majority of their time in and on the water and in fact rely on their ability to fully submerse their bodies in order to stay clean and healthy. And yet on the vast majority of farms--including those which are Red Tractor-certified--ducks and geese will never have access to any water, save for drinking purposes. (Here is a recent news report about the horror of the lives of farmed ducks in the UK.)

And that's the reality of the situation: no matter who and where the down came from, it was the product of horrific cruelty.

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