Ho, Ho -- Oh, No! Before You Finish Your Holiday Shopping, Read This

It's crunch time. With just days to go, last-minute shoppers are scrambling to check items off their holiday gift lists. Perhaps an angora sweater for Sis and a new snakeskin bag for Mom? A cozy down comforter for your sweetie?

But wait a minute. Wasn't there just a PETA video making the rounds online showing angora rabbits screaming as workers rip their fur from their bodies? So that's out. And wasn't Joaquin Phoenix in a video about how snakes are nailed to trees and skinned alive because live flaying supposedly keeps the skins supple?

With the vegan clothing police, it's always something! So what's a stressed-out but caring consumer to do? First, take a deep breath. Then get to know what clothing labels really mean.

One bit of good news is that everyone from runway trailblazer Stella McCartney and online retailers Olsenhaus and Bourgeois Bohème to socialite-turned-fashion-designer Cornelia Guest and strip-mall staples Target and Payless is offering cruelty-free options, so animal-friendly fashions are a cinch to find.

And some retailers do have a conscience: Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, IZOD, Van Heusen, and other leading retailers pulled angora products from their shelves after they watched that PETA video.

If you want to know what that's all about, here goes: A PETA Asia investigator visited angora farms in China, where there are no standards that regulate the treatment of animals and where most of the material originates. The video is hard to take. It shows rabbits lying in shock in tiny, filthy cages after having their fur ripped out. This process is repeated every three months for two to five years before the rabbits' throats are cut and they are replaced by new rabbits who will endure the same fate. Yikes. Cross angora off your list.


Photo: PETA

Other disturbing videos focus on leather. Because slaughter lines move so fast, many cows are skinned and dismembered while they are still kicking and crying out in terror. So much for leather.

And down often comes from birds who are plucked alive -- meaning that they are pinned down while rushed workers yank fistfuls of feathers from their delicate bodies. Some birds are plucked so hard that their skin rips open, causing gaping wounds that are sewn up without anesthetics.

Photo: Courtesy of Vier Pfoten International

And even that's not all. Sheep in Australia -- the leading source of merino wool -- have large chunks of skin and flesh cut from their backsides without being given any painkillers. Later, many get shoved aboard huge, crowded open-deck ships that travel for weeks to the Middle East, where there are no happy endings awaiting the scared animals.

That's perhaps an overload of depressing stuff, but the good news is that you can still buy Sis the sweater and Mom that new purse without getting a lump of coal from Santa for supporting cruelty to animals. Whether you're looking for the latest trends or timeless pieces that are always in style, here's how to do it: Read the labels, and just say to yourself that "anything that came from an animal is out."

Cruelty-free options are easy to find. Even many high-end designers now embrace animal-friendly fabrics such as cotton, corduroy, satin, muslin, linen, and synthetics, thanks to technological advances that, as Forbes put it, "have made faux fur and animal skin practically indistinguishable from the real thing." When you're shopping, just check the labels and stick to faux fur, fake snake, vegan leathers such as polyurethane, and other animal-friendly materials. With many vegan fashions priced lower than animal skins, you can save money while doing good. If you need ideas, check out PETA's new vegan shopping website, which will help you choose fabulous fashions that are as chic as they are kind to animals.

So let's allow the cows, rabbits, sheep, and snakes to keep their own skins. With cruelty-free choices everywhere, no one needs to be naughty to animals this holiday season -- or ever.