The production of feathers entails the exploitation of hundreds of millions of birds every year.1 Some feathers are drawn from the dead bodies of animals after they are killed for eggs, foie gras or other meat, thus being a further factor that supports the exploitation of these animals. Other times feathers are drawn from the animals while they are still alive. Many people are not aware of the terrible suffering this causes.
The follicular wall of feathers has very sensitive fibers.2 Geese have skin mechanoreceptors (skin cells that are particularly sensitive to touch), that are adjacent to the feather follicles.3 When feathers are pulled out, geese suffer pain similar to what we would suffer if our hair were pulled out.
The industry itself says that while it is possible for an expert to distinguish between feathers taken from a live animal and those from a dead animal, once the feathers are processed, it is impossible to detect.4
The geese, after birth, are sexed and marked by a cut or hole in the leg. Plastic or metal numbers are also inserted into their wings.5 Feathers can be removed either manually or by an automated process. Electrical machines for extracting feathers frequently hurt animals, and such machines have been banned in some countries such as Hungary.
It is sometimes argued that the manual feather removal method does not harm the animal. However, this is false. In manual feather removal, a goose is caught by the neck with one hand, so the other hand can maneuver around her body and wings.6 If the gooses flaps her wings too much, they may end up with her head under their body, which can lead to injury and may cause extreme terror.
An experienced worker can pluck an average of 40-80 geese over a period of 8 hours, devoting 6-12 minutes to each goose, a number that varies depending on the age of the goose.
Manual removal of feathers can be done in two ways: either by plucking, or by using a less forceful method euphemistically and misleadingly called “harvesting” or sometimes “gathering”. So-called “harvesting” refers to the removal of the feathers that are separated from the skin during molting (the time during which geese are losing many of their old feathers naturally), in theory requiring no force and inflicting no skin damage. Plucking, on the other hand, is the removal of feathers through the use of greater force.
When birds are not molting, their feathers are firmly attached to the follicles, and it is necessary to use force to remove them. The force required is between 400 and 750 grams.7 If we consider that the force required to activate mechanoreceptors and nociceptors is 2-5 grams,8 it is reasonable to think that the use of force to extract a bird’s feathers causes pain even if no damage is done to the skin. But if there is also damage to the skin, the pain can last for several days. After having their feathers plucked, animals undergo behavioral and cardiovascular changes. Immobility may also occur due to stress. These are all indications that the birds are suffering pain. Also it should be noted that the repeated removal of feathers by force at the same location might result in increased sensitivity to pain (hyperalgesia).9
But it should be noted that animals also suffer from feather “harvesting”, as discussed below.
The first so-called “harvesting” of feathers occurs when birds are 8-10 weeks old. From this moment, the number of feather collections from each goose depends upon the number of egg-laying cycles. The feathers can be harvested three or four times during the first year, and up to three or four times more over the next four years. If the goose is kept alive after this point, the feathers may be collected once more during each of the following two years. Thus, the feathers may be harvested more than 20 times during a goose’s lifetime.
It is usual to stimulate a second period of egg laying using artificial light. After a break of about three weeks, the birds are kept continuously in dark rooms. Their diet is restricted to 60% that of normal. This causes them great distress, since the geese cannot see well enough with that intensity of light to perform normal behaviors.10 Birds are also harmed when they are caught in order to remove their feathers,11 which occurs whether the feathers are removed by plucking or harvesting. Also, it has been suggested that animals are more susceptible to stress at times of molting.12 During times of stress birds, like other animals, go into survival mode and become very nervous and especially sensitive to abnormal things happening to them. In that state it is very easy for them to get scared. When they are caught and grabbed they don’t understand what is going on, and they frantically try to escape, sometimes suffering injuries in the process.
In small groups of animals, the harvesting of feathers could coincide with the animals’ molting, which would reduce the harm inflicted upon them. However, this does not occur on large farms.13 It should be noted that the molt does not start the same day for all animals, and shedding occurs in different body parts at slightly different times. Also, if several days pass before the feathers are collected, many of the feathers will be lost. For these reasons, feathers are usually collected at a time that will assure no economic losses will occur, leading to the use of force for removing feathers, which causes greater pain to the animals.
Feathers are used as clothing accessories and in the lining of coats. Down and feathers are also used to stuff pillows and comforters. However, for several decades it has been easy to find synthetic duvets and pillows in stores, which were made without exploiting animals.
Council of Europe (1999) Recommendation concerning Muscovy ducks (Cairina moschata) and hybrids of Muscovy and domestic ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Strasbourg: Standing Committee of the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes [accessed on 2 April 2013].
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International Down and Feather Laboratory and Institute (2009) Finding the truth about “live-plucking” and “harvesting”, Salt Lake City: International Down and Feather Laboratory and Institute [accessed on 22 May 2013].
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Rodenburg, T. B.; Bracke, M. B. M.; Berk, J.; Cooper, J.; Faure, J. M.; Guémené, D.; Guy, G.; Harlander, A.; Jones, T.; Knierim, U.; Kuhnt, K.; Pingel, H.; Reiter, K.; Serviére, J. & Ruis, M. A. W. (2005) “Welfare of ducks in European duck husbandry systems”, World’s Poultry Science Journal, 61, pp. 633-646.
Rutter, S. M. & Duncan, I. J. H. (1991) “Shuttle and one-way avoidance as measures of aversion in domestic fowl”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 30, p. 117.
Rutter, S. M. & Duncan, I. J. H. (1992) “Measuring aversion in domestic fowl using passive avoidance”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 33, p. 53.
2 Necker, R. & Reiner, B. (1980) “Temperature-sensitive mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors and heat nociceptors in the skin of pigeons feather”, Journal of Comparative Physiology, 135, pp. 201-207.
3 Winkelmann, R. K. & Myers, T. T. (1961) “The histochemistry and morphology of the cutaneous sensory end-organs of the chicken”, Journal of Comparative Neurology, 117, pp. 27-35. Ostmann, O. W.; Ringer, R. K. & Tetzlaff, M. (1963) “The anatomy of the feather follicle and its immediate surroundings”, Poultry Science, 42, pp. 957-969.
5 EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (2010) “Scientific opinion on the practice or harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production”, EFSA Journal, 8, 1886 [accessed on 18 April 2014].
6 See for instance: Bartlett, T. (2004 ) Ducks and geese: A guide to management, Ramsbury: Crowood; Grow, O. (1972) Modern waterfowl management and breeding guide, Augusta: American Bantam Association.
7 Ostmann, O. W.; Ringer, R. K. & Tetzlaff, M. (1963) “The anatomy of the feather follicle and its immediate surroundings”, op. cit.
8 See for instance: Gentle, M. J. (1989) “Cutaneous sensory afferents recorded from the nervous intra-mandibularis of Gallus gallus var domesticus”, Journal of Comparative Physiology. A, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology, 164, pp. 763-774.
9 Gentle, M. J. & Hunter, L. N. (1989) “Physiological and behavioral responses associated with feather removal in Gallus gallus var domesticus”, Research in Veterinary Science, 50, pp. 95-101.
10 EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (2010) “Scientific opinion on the practice or harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production”, op. cit.
11 Gregory, N. G. & Wilkins, L. J. (1989) “Broken bones in the domestic fowl: handling and processing damage in end-of-lay battery hens”, British Poultry Science, 30, pp. 555-562. Gentle, M. J. & Tilston, V. L. (2000) “Nociceptors in the legs of poultry: Implications for potential pain in pre-slaughter shackling”, Animal Welfare, 9, pp. 227-236.
12 Kotrschal, K.; Scheiber, I. B. R. & Hirschenhauser, K. (2010) “Individual performance in complex social systems: The greylag goose example”, in Kappeler, P. (ed.) Animal behaviour: Evolution and mechanisms, Berlin: Springer Verlag, pp. 121-148.
13 EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (2010) “Scientific opinion on the practice or harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production”, op. cit.