| “One person can make a difference if you just don’t
shut up. If you keep talking long enough, people will hear you.”
– Virgil Butler, former chicken slaughter plant worker in “A
Killing Floor Chronicle,” Los Angles Times, FRONT PAGE TODAY!
United Poultry Concerns is pleased to send you the following in-depth
article by Stephanie Simon in today’s Los Angeles Times, about
the former Tyson chicken slaughterhouse employee, Virgil Butler,
who has spoken out vigorously against the cruelty to chickens he
witnessed, night after night, for five years. UPC President Karen
Davis is quoted in the article, “He came forward from a world
that’s completely locked away out of sight. Very few people
have the courage.”
Below is the article. Virgil Butler’s website is www.cyberactivist.blogspot.com
The Los Angeles Times takes letters at email@example.com
A Killing Floor Chronicle
A down-and-out former poultry worker's online memoirs of his gruesome
job have electrified animal-rights activists worldwide.
By Stephanie Simon
Times Staff Writer
December 8, 2003
PINE RIDGE, Ark.In his dim trailer in the pines, Virgil Butler writes
He once shot a man to death in the parking lot of a bar. He served
in the American invasion of Panama and recalled killing enemy soldiers
at close range. That is not the violence that drives him to his
He is haunted, instead, by the nine years he made his way in the
world by slaughtering chickens.
In the chilled dark of a Tyson processing plant, Butler killed 80,000
birds a shift. He snapped their legs into shackles so they hung
upside down. He slit their throats. Every two seconds, another chicken
came at him down the line, squawking and flapping. It was not possible,
then, to think much.
But Tyson fired Butler last fall, for reasons the company won't
specify. He has time now to think. The man he shot at the bar
that was self-defense. The soldiers he killed that was war. It's
the birds that shadow his sleep. He sits cross-legged on his sagging
bed and pulls the keyboard to his lap. "There is blood everywhere&.
It's just you and the dying chickens&. You are ashamed to tell others
what you do at night while they are asleep in their beds."
Butler writes for hours each day. His words have electrified animal-rights
activists around the globe.
Posted at http://www.cyberactivist.blogspot.com
, Butler's account of a career on the kill floor is being translated
into French and Dutch. Britain's Guardian newspaper has recommended
his Web log as "powerful stuff," a "must-read."
Supporters in Singapore and Russia e-mail questions. Strangers from
across America send cards.
Veterans of the animal-rights movement say Butler has done more
for their cause than celebrity endorsements from actress Pamela
Anderson and former Beatle Paul McCartney. Lucy Kelley, a 60-year-old
cook in Mount Juliet, Tenn., said she had one response to the blog:
"I don't eat chicken any more."
"Virgil's description of the horrible abuse of chickens in
our nation's slaughterhouses & has turned more people vegetarian
than anything else we did last year," said Bruce Friedrich,
director of vegan outreach for People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals. With 750,000 members, PETA is the largest animal-rights
group in the world. "We get letters and e-mails about it constantly,"
No Lawsuit Planned
Tyson dismisses Butler as a disgruntled worker who invented
tales of slaughterhouse horror only after he lost his job. "Some
of the things he says are outrageous," spokesman Ed Nicholson
said. Tyson does not plan legal action to shut down the Web site,
he added, only because suing would give Butler more publicity.
The local sheriff, meanwhile, points to Butler's criminal record
and asks why anyone would listen to a down-and-out former poultry
worker with a rap sheet.
Butler, 39, sometimes wonders that himself.
A self-described hillbilly, with a drooping mustache, thin ponytail
and a broken smile missing many teeth, Butler is a recovering alcoholic
and drug addict. He used to gulp ephedrine pills and smoke pot;
he's been arrested at least twice on drug charges. He has a high
school diploma and some carpentry skill, but he never expected much
"I didn't see myself as anything other than a chicken plant
worker," he said.
Deep in the Ouchita Mountains, 130 miles west of Little Rock, Butler
lives in a camper so small that he and his fiancee, Laura Alexander,
can't stand up side by side. The stove is broken. The bare light
bulb flickers dim when the coffeepot is switched on. The closest
town has a population of just 220, and even that's nine miles away.
Butler has never had a cause before. "Never had anything I
wanted to try that much for," he said.
Yet somehow, from his trailer in the woods, he has become a beacon
for animal rights. "The vegan cream of the activist crop,"
Friedrich calls him.
"It's the greatest feeling," Butler said. "All my
life, people told me, 'They're just damn chickens.' I had no idea
so many people would care."
Animal-rights groups have long relied on insider tips to help them
craft protest strategies. But most whistle-blowers insist on anonymity
to protect their jobs. That's why activists regard Butler's blog
as such a coup.
"He came forward from a world that's completely locked away
out of sight," said Karen Davis, who runs a shelter for rescued
chickens in Machipongo, Va. "Very few people have the courage."
Butler's blog, which runs more than 200 pages, describes everything
from the bird droppings that seemed to hang in the air ("kind
of gritty, like Metamucil, and kind of salty") to the panic
he thought he saw in the chickens ("sometimes, you catch one
looking up at you, eye to eye, and you know it's terrified").
He spares no gore in recounting the slaughter, including the occasional
mishaps that condemn some birds to broken bones, shocks, bruises
and being boiled alive in the scalding tank.
Such mistakes are "not common in terms of the number of birds
per thousand affected," said Bruce Webster, a poultry scientist
at the University of Georgia who advises KFC on animal welfare.
"But if you stand there long enough, you will probably see
it happen," Webster said.
In his blog, Butler also claims he saw his co-workers at a Tyson
plant in Grannis, Ark., rip the heads off live chickens, stomp them
to death and blow them up with dry-ice bombs.
Polk County Sheriff Michael Oglesby investigated the allegations
but found no proof. "Everyone from the plant manager on down
denies it," he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also looked into the claims but
"could not substantiate them," spokesman Steven Cohen
Butler's disputed claims of sadism at the Grannis plant have been
heavily promoted by animal-rights groups. But his less sensational,
and less controversial , account of the slaughterhouse routine appears
to stir readers just as well.
"Before reading it, I never thought about how meat came to
be on my plate," said Josh Tetrick, a senior at Cornell University.
After reading it, he took up tofu.
"I was shocked to learn that the animals weren't always killed
instantly, that sometimes the instruments didn't work right,"
A football player accustomed to wolfing down three chicken breasts
at a meal, Tetrick, 23, has maintained a vegan diet for three months.
"Hearing a firsthand, personal account that's what did it
for me," he said.
A 'Disturbing' Read
Butler's blog draws anywhere from four to 400 readers a day.
Many are moved to respond. "Your page was the most disturbing
thing I have ever read in my whole life," one supporter wrote.
Another, "not quite vegan but working on it," asked for
advice: "I am so afraid to let my friends know what is really
behind their McNuggets."
Butler and Alexander, at their banged-up computer at 5 a.m., answer
Butler made $500 off his activism this fall, when PETA sent him
undercover to try to corroborate his claims of chicken abuse at
the Grannis plant. (He taped some workers talking about the incidents,
but the district attorney declined to prosecute.)
Unable to find work since Tyson fired him, Butler has not earned
another paycheck in more than a year.
His unemployment benefits, $112 a week, ran out last month. Alexander,
35, is broke as well. She says back injuries from a car accident
make it hard for her to work, so she spends most of her time helping
Butler with the blog and a chat room they run at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/activistsagainstfactoryfarming
Hoping for help from supporters, Butler recently put a donations
button on his Web site. He's received one pledge of $75. But even
if he can't make a living off his activism, Butler plans to keep
"The more I've done, the more right I feel about it,"
he said. "I have found my niche."
It has been an improbable journey.
Butler took his first job in the poultry industry when he was 14.
Joining a local catch crew, he went from farm to farm, grabbing
chickens and stuffing them into wooden crates for transport to the
As soon as he finished high school, he enlisted in the Army. He
said his combat reconnaissance team was sent to Panama during the
American invasion in 1989, and was involved in several firefights.
When he came home, Butler took the only steady work he could find
in rural Arkansas: killing chickens at Tyson plants in Grannis and
The job was dull but Tyson paid well above minimum wage, with benefits.
Butler didn't stop to think much about the birds he slaughtered;
they were just so much "pre-processed product."
After the fight outside the bar, Butler spent three years in prison
for manslaughter. When he was paroled in 1997, Tyson put him right
back on the line in Grannis, an hour south of Pine Ridge. Butler
was disciplined several times for scuffling with his co-workers.
He was also honored at least twice as employee of the month, accepting
his plaques with pride.
But the longer he worked the kill floor, Butler said, the more it
began to disturb him.
He dulled himself with drugs. He started carrying a knife. He verbally
assaulted Alexander. He felt like a killer, he said, and acted the
part. "It felt like you were losing your humanity."
Butler found he couldn't talk to Alexander about the job. On mornings
when he came home without his T-shirt, he couldn't bring himself
to explain that it had been so soaked in blood, he threw it away.
"I realized I was honestly ashamed to show her what I did for
Butler claims his loud griping about conditions for both birds and
workers cost him his job in November 2002. Tyson says no one at
the plant recalls Butler making such complaints.
Two months after he was fired, Butler described slaugh-terhouse
abuses at a news conference sponsored by PETA. Only one reporter
attended. No one wrote it up.
But over the next several months, PETA and other groups featured
Butler's story on their Web sites. Each time they did, hundreds
of e-mails poured in, thanking him for, as one writer put it, "being
a voice for the animals."
Amazed, emboldened, Butler began to think of himself as more than
an assembly-line killer. He gave up his fried ham and his pork rinds
in favor of a vegan diet.
When memories of the kill floor crowded his thoughts, he talked
through them, instead of pushing them aside.
For the first time, he told Alexander what he had done those nine
years at the slaughterhouse. And how it felt.
Inspired by Iraq Blogs
He spent months haltingly unrolling his memories. Then, in August,
inspired by soldiers' blogs from Iraq, he launched the online diary.
Last month, Tyson officials began logging on to Butler's site. Within
weeks, the company announced plans to inspect its slaughterhouses
regularly to ensure humane treatment of the 42 million chickens
it processes each year.
Nicholson said the new inspections had nothing to do with Butler's
blog: "His saying it does is like the rooster saying the sun
came up because he crowed."
Butler isn't so sure.
"One person can make a difference if you just don't shut up,"
he said. "If you keep talking long enough, people will hear
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150