Many of us like to sleep under down-stuffed comforters and on soft down-filled pillows. When it’s cold, there is something special about the lightweight warmth and breathability of down-filled jackets and coats.
Down fills bedding, clothing, gloves, furniture and other heat-preserving items for people. Most high-quality down for commercial use comes from the soft layer of smaller feathers that cover the skin of geese and ducks. The sourcing and production of down goes back hundreds of years.
While at the American Veterinary Medical Association conference in Seattle last July, I stopped by the Animal Welfare Institute booth and picked up its fall quarterly magazine, which included an article titled “Down on the Goose and Duck Farm.”
It reported on a 2009 Swedish TV documentary that estimated today’s down is provided to manufacturers either as a byproduct from ducks and geese slaughtered for meat or by live plucking.
Defining the Term
What is live plucking? I had to clarify this question for myself. It seemed offensive to me from the start to learn that down feathers might be plucked or harvested from live geese and ducks. Live plucking is the rapid pulling off of feathers from fully conscious geese or ducks as they are positioned firmly between workers’ knees so they remain on their backs during the procedure.
Last February, the Swedish investigative television show “Kalla Fakta,” or “Cold Facts,” ran a two-part story about down collection. In trying to find out about the documentary, I came across a rebuttal. The response is from the International Down and Feather Laboratory and Institute, the European Down and Feather Association and the China Feather and Down Industrial Association.
These associations contend that live plucking is a rare practice and is used only to fill special orders for expensive Japanese bedding and outerwear. To settle the dispute, a test is being developed that will differentiate between live-plucked vs. by-product down and a new certification for cruelty-free down will appear on labels.
A 1990 article by M.J. Gentle and L.N. Hunter, titled “Physiological and Behavioural Responses Associated With Feather Removal in Gallus var domesticus [Chickens],” published in Research in Veterinary Science, concluded that the procedure is painful.
The article verified that, “Nociceptors [pain receptors] had been identified in the skin of several avian species [including ducks, geese and chickens]. The follicular wall of the feather is richly supplied with general somatic afferent (sensory) fibres, and nerves are present in the papilla, pulp and feather muscles … and the feather is firmly held in the follicle.”
The article referred to Zimmerman’s 1986 definition of pain in animals as “an aversive sensory experience caused by actual or potential injury that elicits progressive motor and vegetative reactions, results in learned avoidance behaviour and may modify species specific behaviour, including social behaviour.”
Gentle and Hunter found that “Feather removal results in tissue injury which gives rise to motor behaviour and cardiovascular changes which, when repeated, results in stress-induced immobility and thus satisfies most of the criteria in this definition of pain.”
Six Times a Year
Geese normally develop their first full coat of down and feathers at about 8 weeks of age and will molt each year. Geese can fly long distances and normally live in small family units and mate for life. They can live up to 20 years. The geese on Hungarian factory farms are raised in small areas that may contain up to 20,000 geese.
The geese are reportedly live-plucked at 10 weeks old and up to six times a year before slaughter. Some geese and ducks are force-fed for another year to produce pate de foie gras.
From the information available, my impression is that live plucking is painful and frightening for birds because they struggle to get free and they scream during the process.
Stanley and Max, two macaws who share my life, would not tolerate me pulling out even a tiny feather. Birds can’t breathe when pressure is on their chest, so in addition to the torment of enduring the pain of being restrained and plucked alive, the birds probably experience feelings of being smothered.
Public sentiment in the U.S and the European Union countries opposes live plucking, and the practice of live plucking in Europe and the U.S. is illegal. Unfortunately, there are no sanctions to enforce the law in Europe. The Animal Welfare Institute and “Kalla Fakta” report that live plucking remains a continued practice in the world’s top three down-producing countries: Hungary, Poland and China. That contention is adamantly refuted by stakeholders in the down industry.
The “Kalla Fakta” documentary informed viewers that from 50 to 80 percent of the world’s down market comes from live-plucked birds. Fervent rebuttals of these estimates have been issued by the European Down and Feather Association and the China Feather and Down Industrial Association, and they dominate the Internet.
However, IKEA, the giant Swedish furniture corporation, independently verified the 50-80 percent estimate to be true on May 10 in a follow-up segment by the television show. IKEA canceled an order from China for down-filled furniture after verifying that the down was from live-plucked birds.
After the segment ran, the China Feather and Down Industrial Association denied IKEA’s claim. It said the Chinese representative had lied and told IKEA what the company wanted to hear.
As a result of the public reaction to the TV report, European companies that deal with down-filled products have pledged to review their sourcing and policies regarding live-plucked down. The industry may take years to change, but it can and will change as consumers demand to know that the down they buy did not cause birds any pain.
The best way to end live plucking is to purchase certified cruelty-free down products. Are there alternatives to down?
Modern industry provides excellent synthetic insulation materials that provide the same heat-preserving qualities as down. Some popular insulation fabrics that are comfortable and fashionable are Thinsulate, Thermolite, Polargaurd and Primaloft. Others exist.
As an avid skier, I prefer wearing a colorful synthetic fleece sweater under a wind-resistant insulated jacket made of high-tech fabric. This keeps me warm, is easier to care for and isn’t as bulky as down. In addition, these fabrics are water resistant, dry faster, wick away moisture, breathe better, are hypoallergenic and machine washable and often cost less than down.
Today’s society wants to be kinder to animals in agriculture. Society will vote with its pocketbook to put an end to live feather plucking if it is as prevalent as some claim. ~ A.V.
Alice Villalobos, DVM, DPNAP, is a past president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is president-elect of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics.
This article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News.