Outside Online Archives

Outside magazine, November 1996

By Patrick Clinton

How do they get goose down? Is it a poultry-processing by-product, or are living birds subjected to unspeakable torture?
--Rebekah Creshkoff, New York, New York

No, Rebekah, you won't find concentration camps full of naked, shivering geese behind the L.L. Bean plant. Most down comes from slaughterhouses--Chinese slaughterhouses, to be exact, thanks largely to the Asian taste for waterfowl. Of the roughly 7.1 million pounds of down and feathers imported into the United States last year, about 6.4 million pounds came from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. If you were thinking of warming yourself with more humane alternatives this winter, remember this: Feathers and down represent some 20 percent of the value of a goose, so if you switch to a synthetic, the doomed goose will still end up in someone's pot and a poor farmer will suffer.
Down can be harvested by humane means, however. In Iceland, home of the endangered eider, down collectors climb cliffs and "defeather" old nests in a labor-intensive process whose cost, of course, is passed along to the consumer: Eiderdown runs about $300 per pound. There's also "hand-plucked down," another expensive product coming mostly from Europe, that's gathered by massaging the breasts of live geese. This procedure causes the birds mild distress, but compared to the gruesome destiny of millions of other geese in Europe--foie gras--it seems an infinitely kinder fate.

I left the gas on in my kitchen, and the smell was just like skunk. Is that possible?
--Emma Court, Forest Hills, New York

Pure natural gas has no odor, which is a major drawback from the perspective of safety, so your gas company adds an "odorant." The most common are thiols, compounds that are present in lots of bad-smelling things, from sewage to rotten eggs. And yes, thiols are the same chemicals that make skunks the memorable critters they are. The big difference, according to chemical ecologist William Wood of California's Humboldt State University, is that the gas company tends to use thiols that are gaseous at room temperature, while PePe LePew favors thiols that remain in liquid form. The smells, at any rate, are quite similar. "I'd classify them both as mephitic," says Wood. Mephitic, by the way, derives from mephitis, which Webster defines as "a noxious, pestilential, or foul exhalation from the earth" and which also is the name of the genus to which skunks belong. Case closed.

What are the evolutionary reasons for, and possible benefits of, male-pattern baldness?
--Tom Ruttan, Woodstock, Ontario

Male-pattern baldness involves a combination of genetics and testosterone. To oversimplify slightly, if you're cursed with a certain gene, which perversely enough is passed down through your mother, your balls make your hair fall out. The same set of chemical signals, conversely, puts hair on your chest and props up the multibillion-dollar razor-blade industry. Why does nature bother? No one seems to know, but the best guess is that balding evolved as a way for males to show females that they were mature and hormonally sound."There tend to be a lot of things that signal age," says biological anthropologist Jim Moore of the University of California, San Diego. "They show that you've got good genes, because you've survived. And the testosterone connection shows you're ready to reproduce." For a long time it was thought that male-pattern baldness was unique to humans, but it's not: The stump-tailed macaque seems to go bald for similar genetic reasons, though no one has yet spotted male macaques swirling that proverbial last strand around and around.

If the point of male-pattern baldness is to send out a come-hither, you've probably noticed that it doesn't work very well with the female Homo sapiens--hence Rogaine. It's not fair, but that's not biology; that's just life.

Send your questions for The Wild File to Outside, 400 Market St., Santa Fe, NM 87501, or submit them here.

More Culture