“Slaughterhouse Worker Turned Activist” UPC Talks with Virgil Butler and Laura Alexander
Photo By: Karen Davis
In testimony given via PETA in January 2003, Virgil Butler documented the horrific treatment of chickens that he witnessed every night while working at the Tyson chicken slaughterhouse in Grannis, Arkansas from 1997 to 2002. His testimony and ongoing website revelations resulted in a front-page article in the Los Angeles Times on December 8, 2003, “A Killing Floor Chronicle.” On August 21, 2004, at UPC’s 5 th Annual Forum in Norfolk, Va., Virgil gave his first conference presentation about his Tyson experience, “Inside Tyson’s Hell – Why I Got Out of the Chicken Slaughtering Business.”
In the interview that follows, Virgil and his partner, Laura Alexander, talk about their relationship to the chicken industry, and to each other, and how their relationship influenced Virgil to become, in his words, “a slaughterhouse worker turned activist.”
Q. Virgil, please describe your job at Tyson when you first met Laura.
A. I worked on back dock, where I hung live chickens in the shackles and worked the kill floor. I was lead hanger for the last few years, so it was also my job to teach new-hires how to hang and kill chickens. In the hanging cage, I stood on a line with six other guys where we took live chickens off the belt and hung them by their legs upside down in the metal shackles. The line goes by at about 182-186 birds per minute, so a hanger must be able to hang 26-30 birds per minute. As lead hanger, it was also my job to catch the empty shackles that the new-hires would miss. I spent so much time catching empty shackles and one-leggers (birds hung by only one leg), that I didn’t have much time to train anybody to do anything.
Some nights I worked in the kill room. The killer slits the throats of the chickens that the killing machine misses. You stand there with a very sharp 6-inch knife and catch as many birds as you can that the machine misses because the ones you miss go straight into the scalder alive. You have to cut both carotid arteries and the jugular vein for the chicken to die and bleed out before hitting the scalder. This requires quite a bit of skill and entails quite a bit of risk. It’s the most dangerous job in that department. All but one of the most serious accidents I saw the whole time I worked for Tyson occurred in the kill room due to the killer having to cut the throat of a one-legger. Some of those accidents happened to me. I have scars all over my hands from working the kill floor.
The killing room was worse than the hanging cage. It really does something to your mind when you stand there in all that blood, killing so many times, over and over again. The blood can get deep enough to go over the top of a 9-inch set of rubber boots – I have seen blood clots so big that it took three big men to push them. You have to stomp them to break them up to get them to go down the drain. That can happen in just 2 ½ hours. We filled up a diesel tanker truck with blood every night in one shift. I have actually had to wipe blood clots out of my eyes. Working as a killer was what I hated the most. But since I was good at it, that was where I got sent a good bit of the time.
Q. How did meeting Laura affect your attitude toward your work? What happened, and why?
A. My attitude changed in such a way as to make me not want to go to work anymore. I would start finding excuses not to go. I got sick of it, even literally. I was constantly getting sick all the time for the last year or so. And I started feeling ashamed. I didn’t want Laura to know what I did, the specifics of it. I had told all of my co-workers not to talk about anything that happened down there, in front of her. Laura cares so much about animals – all animals – that I just knew she would be horrified at what I was a part of.
Q. At our Forum, Laura, you mentioned your feelings the first time you accompanied Virgil to the slaughter plant. Please tell us about those feelings and about the impact they had on you and on your relationship with Virgil.
A. I had been to the plant before, but only in the parking lot. Even there, though, you could just feel a certain wrongness in the air or something. But one time we went down to pick up one of Virgil’s paychecks from when he had been off work sick. It was right before the shift started, so the plant wasn’t running yet. I asked Virgil to take me back to the hanging cage where he worked so I could see for myself what it looked like.
You know, I had prepared myself to feel disgusted, sad, and uncomfortable, but nothing could have prepared me for the way I felt when I saw it. It’s kind of hard to express in words, but it was like this wave – this wall – of negative energy hitting me in the face when we opened that door. The only thing I can even try to compare it to would be that feeling you get in places like hospitals and jails, where there is suffering and death, dread and fear. You know what I mean? Well, take that feeling and magnify it by at least 10 and you will have maybe an inkling of what I felt at the door of that room that day. I couldn’t leave fast enough.
I talked about it all the way home in the truck. I didn’t realize it then, but I remember now: Virgil just sat over there in the passenger seat with his head down, listening to me spew all this as we went down the road. I was just so outraged and loud about it. I found out later from him that that was the night he knew he couldn’t do that work anymore. That he was terribly ashamed of what he did. Things got a bit rocky after that for quite some time, almost as if he was trying to get me to reject him and not want anything to do with him anymore.
Of course, that behavior had the opposite effect on me. All it did was to make me feel worse for him and understand more about what had made him feel so tormented in the first place. And that made me even more determined to see it through and try to help heal him. It was so heartbreaking to think that he had subjected himself to that life for so long, and that he thought that was all he was good for, all he could do, and that he was doomed. My heart went out to him. It ultimately brought us closer. And that closeness enabled him to finally tell me – and then the world. I could tell Virgil wasn’t really a bad person, not deep down. He was just lost.
Q. Virgil, one of the most powerful things you describe in your writing is making eye contact with the chickens on the slaughter line and seeing their terror. When did you start to connect with the chickens that way? Was there a time when you didn’t “see” them, but then you did? Was there a time when you saw their suffering but didn’t care, but then you did care? What happened?
A. I felt that connection from the first night I killed. That’s part of what made the job so hard for me. I just suppressed how I felt because it would have been an unpopular opinion among the other workers. What happened was that this feeling just kept adding up and getting worse. By the time Laura came along, I was already pretty disgusted, but Laura helped me to finally make the move to walk away forever by going public. I knew that when I did that I could never go back. And that’s part of why I did go public. To make sure I never had that option again.
Also, once I came into contact with all of these other people who cared so deeply about animals, I felt like it would have been wrong for me not to jump in and help to do my part, especially since I was responsible for so much of the suffering they were fighting. It’s been a good way for me to work through the guilt that I accumulated for so many years, especially since I always knew that the work I was doing was wrong and just kept justifying my actions and kept on doing it.
Q. Is your change of heart unusual or unique in your opinion – an “isolated incident” so to speak? Or do you believe there are many slaughterhouse workers with similar feelings of compassion that are simply buried? If so, why? and what can be done to bring out this buried compassion?
A. My feelings aren’t that unique, I don’t think. I may have been one of the first to come forward, but I doubt I will be the last. I can see others coming out in the future. I have talked to a couple that want to. The main thing that keeps most workers silent is knowing that they will suffer through what I did in not being able to find work and having others still connected to Tyson shun them. I don’t know of a single person I ever talked to down there that liked the job. They are there because they feel they have no choice. If they had somewhere better to work they would leave in a heartbeat.
Q. Laura and Virgil, you are a team, are you not? Please tell us about your activism. What are you doing now, and what are your plans?
A. We are a team. We do everything together. Everything. We were already active in environmental issues before any of the animal rights stuff started. And we were already exploring spiritual healing and trying to be responsible citizens of the planet, like recycling and not being wasteful. Animal rights seems to round things out. Of course, we changed our diet. We couldn’t credibly criticize the abusive practices we were protesting against if we were still consuming the products of those practices. We just couldn’t look at a piece of meat anymore without seeing the sad, tortured face that was attached to it some time in the past.
For now, we intend to finish writing Virgil’s first book – the story of his transformation from killer to savior – and to keep making speaking engagements in an effort to make people more aware of the consequences of the choices they make on a daily basis. If people can start to realize they are being lied to by the poultry industry and the government, and that the horrible things we’ve described are not isolated in any way, we hope people will question the effect that their actions have on the world around them, especially on the innocent creatures who share it with us. We hope people will join us in changing their lives.