Video of Chinese farmers ripping fur off live rabbits damages angora trade

A viral video of Chinese farmers ripping fur off live rabbits has sparked outrage, dealing a major blow to global angora trade, writes Andrea Chan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 9:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 1:34pm

Many Chinese netizens were outraged when they saw a video clip of angora fur harvesting on a mainland rabbit farm, the animal screaming in pain as its hair is ripped out instead of being clipped or sheared.

"Whoever did it is a monster in human skin! I never thought the first time I'd learn what a rabbit sounded like would be to see it suffer," writes microblogger "mskkkkkay".

The horrific two-minute video, made by an undercover investigator for animal rights group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), soon went viral after it was posted on several social networks last month.

With celebrities such as Taiwanese actress Barbie Hsu sharing the original post, the clip recorded more than 142,000 views and 40,000 reposts within a month of it being uploaded on mainland video site Youku.

Video: Chinese farms torture angora rabbits for fur: PETA
(Graphic Warning)

Shocked and angry netizens have called for a boycott of angora wool, while some reposted the clip to Rabbit Wool Forum, a chat room for mainland rabbit farmers.

While global fashion retailers, from H&M and Esprit to Calvin Klein and Marks & Spencer, have suspended the use of angora wool in their clothing lines, the international outcry has not spurred rabbit farmers to review their harvesting practices, as some consumers expected. Instead, many farmers are offended by what they view as bourgeois hypocrisy.

"If you are idle enough to accuse us poor fur farmers of abusing our rabbits, why not spare some time to look into the corrupt officials who are abusing our social welfare?" a rabbit farmer from Zhoukou, Henan province, writes in response to the video, drawing applause from his peers on the forum.

Prized for its soft, fluffy texture, lightness and warmth, the fine, hollow hair of angora rabbits is combined with other fibres to make sweaters, gloves and scarves.

Countries such as Argentina, Chile, France, Germany, India and the United States produce angora wool but China has led production in recent years.

Most angora wool shipped to the US comes from China, according to the American Rabbit Breeders Association. "Angora wool produced in China is much more affordable than domestically grown wool," says Eric Stewart, executive director of the association. "In fact, China is the single largest producer of angora wool in the world."

Global demand has spurred mainland farmers to find ways to produce the greatest volume of rabbit fur in the cheapest way possible, says Peta's investigator, who shot the video during a four-month probe into practices on mainland angora farms.

Insisting on anonymity, the investigator says in an e-mail interview that he visited 10 angora farms - one in Shandong province, six in Zhejiang, and three in Jiangsu.

Half the farms adopted the practice of plucking fur.

"[The rabbits] screamed like hell," he says. "I have conducted several investigations for Peta over the past few years, seeing animals on fur farms have their necks broken and some being skinned alive at markets. I thought I had seen it all and become hardened. But the screaming of the rabbits horrified me."

However, Stewart, who runs his own angora farm, argues it is wrong to write off the entire industry because of one video clip. "Consumer reaction has been strong, and many consumers may likely pursue synthetics or other fibres, as opposed to doing formal research on how angora wool is grown and harvested."

There are more acceptable techniques for harvesting angora wool, such as shearing and clipping.

Writing in an academic paper, "Animal Welfare Issues for Commercial Rabbit Producers", researchers James McNitt and Janice Swanson say even plucking can be harmless - if done with the right breed at the right time.

Breeds such as French and satin angoras shed their coats seasonally, just as some cats moult fur at certain times of the year. Removal of loose hair in areas with new growth does not harm the animal, they say. But plucking is not appropriate for German and giant angoras - commercial production breeds which never shed their coats.

Although it is hard to identify the breed from Peta's shaky video images, Stewart says the plucking it depicts is a form of torture, likening it to pulling handfuls of hair from a person's head. "One knows when [a rabbit's] coat is being released because follicles on the skin darken with the new growth coming in. Its pink skin will start to appear white." But the rabbit in the tape has pink skin, which indicates it is not ready to shed its hair.

"Rabbits are very quiet animals and, unless in extreme distress, do not make screaming noises. I cannot imagine the amount of pressure necessary to rip the wool out, nor the extreme pain inflicted on the rabbits," Stewart says. "I've been raising rabbits for 27 years and have never heard sustained rabbit screaming like on that video."

If they were in Hong Kong, the rabbit farmers in the video could face up to three years in jail or a fine of HK$200,000 for violating regulations preventing cruelty to animals, says Amanda Whitfort, an animal-law expert at the University of Hong Kong.

On the mainland, however, farm owners are unlikely to be prosecuted. Although a draft anti-animal-cruelty law was submitted to the National People's Congress in 2010, delegates have yet to review the regulations. Animal welfare is not a priority for the mainland government, which has its hands full dealing with economic growth, says Whitfort.

After 15 years of anti-fur campaigning on the mainland, Su Pei-feng, executive director of animal welfare group ACTAsia, believes the drive for profit breeds cruelty in people.

Plucking may shorten a rabbit's lifespan to two years, Su estimates, "but farmers never think long term; they are looking for quick money".

Angora wool sells for between 110 yuan (HK$140) and 250 yuan per kilogram on the mainland, depending on the quality and length. But plucked wool fetches double the price of sheared or clipped hair, because it is longer and regarded as higher quality, the Peta investigator says. They can also get twice as much wool compared to the 400 to 500 grams obtained through shearing or clipping.

Howard Wong Kai-hay, a senior veterinarian in Hong Kong, is also concerned about the "disgusting conditions" in which mainland farmers raise rabbits. The Peta video shows rabbits housed in individual wire cages, without any bedding and little room to move around in.

"There are no economic incentives for the farm owner to give the animals more space," says Wong, executive director of life sciences at City University. "Also, they want the poop and urine to fall through the cage to the ground, so that no one needs to clean [the bedding]. But such practices could lead to abrasion and thickening of their pads - that's why wire cages without bedding are banned in Hong Kong pet shops."

But most angora famers are not ready to take animal welfare into consideration. "I feed the rabbits every morning before I have my own breakfast . . . Is it too much to ask that they pay me back every three months with their wool?" writes a farmer surnamed Zhang on the online forum.

Why should I be concerned about animal welfare while my own is not yet taken care of? It is a question Su has heard again and again from farmers throughout her anti-fur campaigns on the mainland. "It's the mentality that needs to be changed," she says.

Wong says he understands to an extent that development in rural areas where rabbit farms are located has not advanced to a stage when people will pay attention to animal welfare.

"People care more about food security before they start to be concerned about food safety. And they are more worried about food safety before they care for animal welfare," he says. "We need to... be sensitive to what stage different cultures are in. We cannot be so blind and assume that everyone has the luxury and liberty to choose what kind of food he or she wants, based on ethical feelings about how an animal is kept, although I would like that to be the case."

Stewart says he is also puzzled by the practice of plucking because it is labour-intensive and does not seem an efficient way to harvest angora wool. A commercial producer needs to produce a high volume of uniform wool with the least amount of labour, he says, which is why shearing is widely embraced in other countries.

Efficient or not, fallout from the Peta clip will be far-reaching. A number of mainland rabbit farms are likely to cease production as fashion companies take angora off their supply list. British online retailer ASOS has announced it will replace angora wool with other fibres permanently. Marks & Spencer, which used to source angora from China and Germany, plans to conduct farm inspections and will not place further orders until it has reviewed its findings, a spokesman says.

But even if more humane farms survive, the market has suffered a body blow worldwide.

Stewart says the fashion industry could and should support producers who meet minimum care guidelines for animal welfare practices. "But I fear that the video may have caused enough damage to the angora wool commodity and some of the damage will be impossible to mitigate."

That's just fine with animal rights activists. Peta Asia-Pacific senior campaigner Ashley Fruno says retailers' suspension of angora sales is just the start. Even before the investigation broke, Peta had been "urging [retailers] to ban the use of angora completely".

In any case, when people see a sweater label that reads angora, they will associate it with a screaming rabbit for years to come.