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February 2006
Whistleblower on the Kill Floor
The Satya Interview with Virgil Butler and Laura Alexander

 

Virgil Butler and Laura Alexander.

Virgil Butler was raised in a small town in rural Arkansas, an area known as “Tyson country,” the home state of the world’s largest poultry processor. Virgil’s first job as a chicken catcher helped him pay the family bills through high school. After graduating, he enlisted in the Army, working his way up to Special Operations and participating in a combat reconnaissance team in Panama. After six years in the Army, Virgil returned home to find little work other than a position in Tyson’s Grannis slaughter plant, where he excelled as the best chicken killer in the state.

Meanwhile, Virgil also met, fell in love with, and was inspired by Laura Alexander, whose care for animals served as a guiding light as each awakened and responded to the horror of Virgil’s profession. Virgil subsequently contacted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and signed a statement attesting to the Grannis Tyson facility management’s routine practice of knowingly allowing fully conscious chickens to be scalded to death. Based on his chilling eyewitness account, PETA was able to call for the prosecution of Tyson Foods and five of its employees on charges of cruelty to animals. This received massive media attention.

PETA’s Bruce Friedrich comments: “Every time we go undercover on a factory farm or in a slaughterhouse, we find workers sadistically abusing animals, yet it is rare that we receive calls from whistleblowers, and even more rare that those eyewitnesses are willing to speak out and denounce the cruelty. Virgil and Laura are the only ones in my experience who have both denounced the cruelty and kept denouncing it, now three years later. Virgil and Laura are two of my life heroes for their compassion, their bravery, and their indefatigable commitment to making the world a kinder place, to speaking truth to power.”

Today Virgil and Laura are vegan and take care of rescued chickens and other critters in rural Arkansas. Kymberlie Adams Matthews spoke with Virgil Butlerand Laura Alexander about their remarkable path to animal advocacy.

Virgil, I want to first talk about your job working with chickens as a kid. How did that come to be?
Virgil Butler: Well, I started catching chickens when I was 14 to help support my family, as I was the oldest, and we lived in extreme poverty. I would do this at night and then go to school during the day. It was considered a young man’s job. The oldest person on our crew was 19, with the average age being around 16. Young people are about the only ones who have the stamina and energy to keep up chasing the chickens all night long, night after night. I mean, once they opened the door, we were really at a dead run all night. That was because we got paid by the bird instead of by the hour. I would carry five chickens in my left hand and four in my right, which put a lot of pressure on them, causing pain and injury. And the ventilation in the houses isn’t very good now, but it was much worse back then. I would come out of there coughing up big globs of brown stuff and having lots of nosebleeds. There was rarely a night that I went home and I didn’t have a screaming backache. My hands would swell until they looked like baseball gloves. I ate my supper cold, and many nights fell asleep at the table. I did most of my homework riding the bus. I did this all the way through high school.

That sounds so demanding for such a young boy. Can you talk about your career with Tyson?
VB: I worked there for about 10 years at the Grannis, Waldron, and Clarksville facilities. Waldron was the only one with a dedicated KFC line. I worked as a hanger, a killer, a dump operator. There was no job in that department I couldn’t do. In the hanging cage, I stood on a line with other workers, took live chickens off the belt, and hung them by their legs upside-down in the metal shackles. The process of the line goes by at about 182 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 also worked the kill room. With a sharp six-inch knife you slit the throats of the chickens the machines miss. You catch as many birds as you can because the ones you miss go straight into the scalder alive. My last three years working for Tyson I was a trainer on the back dock where the live animals are handled. My job was to train new hires to mostly kill and hang. I was even employee of the month on four different occasions! It was sad that I was considered the best killer in the state.

What was it like…I mean how did it feel working in the kill room?
VB: Sheer hell. I stayed bloody and sopping wet most of the time. Since I was standing less than 10 feet from the scalders, the temperature would reach 115°, with 98-99 percent humidity. All but one of the most serious accidents I saw the whole time I worked for Tyson occurred in the kill room. Some of those accidents happened to me. I have scars all over my hands and arms where I cut myself. I had several nasty infections from it. When I would go to my supervisor to complain, he would tell me to prove that I got infected there and not somewhere else. I even sewed up my own hand once at break time. It took five stitches.

It was also not uncommon for me to have to kill up to 30 birds in a row. And I know that I didn't get them all—I couldn’t. Killing may look easy to someone standing there watching it, and most of the time it is, but the hard part is having the eye to be able to see what needs cutting and what doesn't. In order for that chicken to bleed out before she hits the scalder, both of the carotid arteries and the jugular must be cut without cutting into the spinal column. If you cut into the spinal nerves, it stops the heart from beating, and the blood just trickles out instead of spurting out, so the bird doesn't bleed out all the way before she gets to the scalder.

When I first started killing, it really bothered me. It bothered me because the chickens were hanging there in those shackles, helpless, and couldn't run away. To me, it was extremely unfair simply because they were so innocent. And it really bothered me when I missed one and heard the poor bird go through the scalder alive, thrashing and bumping against the sides of it as it slowly died. I worked to become really good at killing so that I wouldn't miss so many. I did become really good, but at a steep price. The more I did it, the less it bothered me. I became desensitized. The killing room really does something to your mind—all that blood, killing so many times, over and over again. 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.

Would you mind telling us about some of the violence that occurred between the workers and the chickens?
VB: I have seen them shove dry ice up the rectums of chickens to blow them up. I have seen them stuff the head of one inside the rectum of another and so on, making a kind of “train” of birds. I have seen people bash the birds against the belt, throw them into walls, stomp them, throw them into fans, squeeze them so hard that they would spray feces all over another worker (you could hear the bones pop in their rib cages when they did this). These are just some of the little “games” people would play.

Then there are the supervisor-ordered abuses. I was ordered to pull one-leggers off the line, even if that meant pulling the leg that was hung off the chicken. When a chicken got her head hung underneath her foot in the shackle, we were ordered to pull the head off. The night shift superintendent himself ordered us to throw runts into the DOA dumpster alive to slowly smother to death by the ones on top or be ground up alive by the augur (that ground up all of the DOAs and undesirable parts, like bruised areas, heads, feathers, guts, etc.). I frequently disobeyed this order by killing the runts first and was even reprimanded for holding up production once for doing this.

And all of this brutality definitely leads to violence outside the factories as well. I know that it did with me and others that I worked with. Other co-workers became violent towards their own families, even. I know that the longer I worked there, the more violent I became. Life became meaningless—other peoples’ lives became meaningless. I got to thinking that if I had this ability to kill and not care, that others also did, so I trusted no one.

What is your opinion regarding all the hype about eating “free-range” chickens, are they treated better?
VB: Not by much. Not enough to matter. I think it’s more of a way to get people to pay a higher price and give the company better PR. These chickens are still slaughtered at the same plants. They are still babies when they are roughly rounded up and killed. The runts are still culled. They are still living in filth, breathing horrible air. And, depending on the person raising them, the mortality rate is about the same. They are still genetically manipulated and suffer from multiple maladies. So, no, I don’t believe there is that much of a difference. It’s just a way for people to still be able to eat chicken and eggs and not feel so guilty about it because they can tell themselves that they are “free-range,” thinking that their lives are somehow so much better, running through grassy fields or something, when nothing is further from the truth. They are still factory farmed birds being raised for profit. And they are treated as such.

And you weren’t treated much better, getting hurt was just part of the job.
VB: Yeah it was. It was the way people considered it. If you stayed there very long you were going to get hurt. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. I have cut myself badly on the line several different times. There is also a lot of drug use because of the hours, people start doing uppers—amphetamines—to literally keep themselves awake, alert and able to move fast enough to keep up with the pace. Any time you use drugs you alter your judgment, so that creates a dangerous situation too.

Were there unions helping the workers out?
VB:
None of the three plants I worked at were union plants. And that let the companies pretty much treat the employees from day one as disposables. They let you know you’re disposable, easily replaced—there are ten people down at the unemployment office waiting to take your place, plenty of people just chomping at the bit to get their shot at it. And they are willing to work in conditions worse than ours for even less pay. There were discriminatory problems, and that bothered me. I am pretty open-minded and have no problems with immigrants, even if they are illegal. I don’t blame anybody for trying to better themselves as long as they are working hard.

Without unions there were a lot of safety issues that went ignored. There is supposed to be an emergency switch at the end of the line in case somebody gets hung up in it. You are supposed to be able to reach up there and just slap a big red button that stops the line so you can extricate the person without them being dragged through the stunner or the killing machine. And that didn’t always work, and they weren’t too keen on fixing it. A lot of times our lights wouldn’t work either. I kicked a fan over one time because it shorted out and caught fire because the dust gathered in it and they never cleaned it out. Clean up crews were bad about hosing down electrical stuff. We had exposed wires all over the place, and they would just hose them down with water, and then you would turn on the switch, get a shock, and cause a short. We had a problem with our climate control; I mean they never seemed to get the heater to work in the winter or the air conditioner to work in the summer. My boots would freeze to the floor standing in one spot for two and a half hours.

Okay, I need a break from all of this morbid talk. I want the scoop…how did you and Laura meet?
VB: Ha, well my mom runs a beer and burgers fast food place where I worked as an unofficial bouncer when I wasn’t hanging chickens. Anyhow Laura came over to my mom’s place one day, and that was back when we were both eating meat of course, and we got to talking over hamburgers. And one thing led to another…[laughter]

That’s it? Okay, we’ll respect your privacy [laughter]. Turning serious again, Laura what were your feelings the first time you saw where Virgil worked?
Laura Alexander: It is hard to describe the feeling that I felt when Virgil opened the door of that room. Even though the plant was not running at that time, and I didn’t actually see chickens being hung and killed at that moment, just seeing where it was done had a great effect on me. When he opened that door, it was almost like I hit a wall of energy that was so horrible and strong that it was overwhelming. The best way I have been able to describe it is the feeling you get when you go to where people feel hopeless and they suffer and die, like in a jail or a hospital or nursing home or some place like that, only magnified by about 100. It just hit me in the face—all of the suffering seemed to be embedded in that awful room. All I could say to Virgil was, “Get me out of here.” He said that I turned white in the face when I said that. We left immediately, and I have never been back.

How did this impact your relationship?
LA: All the way home (which took about an hour) I just cried and sobbed uncontrollably and couldn’t believe that this is what he did for a living every night and that this was how he supported me and paid our bills. I felt guilty and horrified. I just never knew. He made sure of that, as he had forbade any of his co-workers to ever talk about what went on down at that plant around me because he knew how much I loved animals. I was just as ignorant as most people are about how their food gets on the table and really hadn’t ever thought about it. All of that changed after that night. I cried all the way home, ranting and raving about how I couldn’t understand how someone who was so good to me and took in strays could actually do that for a living. He said nothing as I did this. He just sat over on the passenger side of the vehicle, totally quiet, later telling me that he was very ashamed and didn’t know what to say, but that for the first time in his life he was ashamed of himself for what he did for a living.

That day was a major turning point in our lives. He started not wanting to go to work, calling in sick a lot. That last year he worked, he just became a different person, quick to anger. We argued quite a bit about anything and everything. It was a very dark time during our relationship. He finally decided he wanted to quit, but didn’t want to lose his unemployment. He really had no other prospects for work. So he decided that he would just make them fire him. It took awhile because he was so good at what he did, but they finally fired him after he tried to report them to OSHA for safety violations and brought the forms to work for other employees to sign. We were both so relieved when that day finally came. Even though we had no idea how he would find other work to pay the bills, we just didn’t care as long as he didn’t have to go back down to that hellhole.

Things got better between us. We swore off of eating chicken first off. Then we decided to finish what he had started that got him fired—helping improve the working conditions. Since he no longer worked there or had anyone else willing to sign the papers for fear of being fired, we decided to go at it another way—by improving the conditions for the chickens. We wrote an email to PETA, and the rest is common knowledge now.
VB: When I took Laura into the plant, seeing how affected she was just changed me. She didn’t realize that people did these awful things to animals. I got to looking at it through her eyes and I realized how wrong it was. So I quit. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was fired technically, but I consider myself to have quit because I made the decision not to go back. Anyhow, my physical health was going to hell in a handbasket on top of it. I began to realize just exactly what it was I was doing. I decided it was a shame. I just couldn’t do it.

Can you talk about your work with PETA?
VB: PETA has been just great. They helped us get the word out in a much more public way than we could ever have done alone. And PETA, especially Bruce Friedrich, was a big part of why we eventually went all the way with this, going vegan and going so public, as opposed to just writing that one email and then going back to our lives, letting others do the work while we maintained the status quo and never made any changes to the way we live our lives. We still work with them, as we do with other organizations. But we never could have reached as many people as we did without them.

How has this ‘awakening’ changed your life?
LA: Well, even before all of this happened, I was already on a kind of spiritual quest, I guess you could call it. I was reading a lot of books and learning healing touch and about herbs and all of that. This just took that even deeper. Once I realized that the food I had been eating all of my life came from animals treated so horrendously, I didn’t want a single cent of my money going to support that kind of horrific suffering. Luckily, Virgil felt the same way. So, one day we talked about it and just decided that from that point on we would never eat another bite of meat again. But that wasn’t enough. We felt compelled to let others know about all of this. Virgil never knew that other people didn’t know about these things—but I did. After all, I had been as ignorant as most people are about factory farming. He also wrongly thought that people wouldn’t care, but I assured him that they would, if they only knew. Even many activists were ignorant of a lot of the specifics of what happened in those slaughterhouses. We were being flooded with questions from many organizations. We finally got to where when we answered a question that one person asked, we simply sent a copy of the answer to everyone. And then, after reading the blogs of Iraqis and soldiers fighting in Iraq, we decided to start our own so that we could put all of the information in one place where all of the activist organizations could find it, and hopefully a few members of the public would stumble over it. Obviously, it worked. We have reached many people and have a whole folder of people who have written to tell us that they have quit eating meat after reading what Virgil had to say on that blog.
VB: When we first started this I told Laura, no sanctuary. We will absolutely not start a sanctuary. But if you build, they will come. Every time I build a new yard or fence so that we have an extra pen, someone comes along who needs it. I mean you’re driving and you see this poor little chicken sitting by the side of the road looking all confused, starved half to death and god only knows what else. What do you do? You don’t just drive by and leave it there. You’re going to take it home and take care of it. And so we have chickens, and we had a couple of roosters. Both of them died of what the industry calls flip-over syndrome, the latest on Christmas Eve. They aren’t really certain what exactly that is, but I think it is more of a heart attack myself.

I’ve got to ask…what is it like living in Arkansas after all you have been through?
VB: Well, we are pretty isolated. Being vegans...there is no going out to eat. I mean there is no place around where a vegan can go. We stay at home. We have friends on the computer. Laura’s mom, believe it or not, was vegetarian before we ever started, so we have a little companionship there. It gets pretty hairy at times. There are those here who are really mad at me for coming forward and speaking out. They feel violated somehow I guess. I actually have members of my own family that won’t speak to me anymore. I have members of my own family that still work for Tyson. It gets bad, but there is no way that I would leave. Here is where I am needed.

What is the most important thing you hope people learn from your journey?
LA:
That anyone can change and that no one is irredeemable or so lost that they can’t be helped to find their way. If someone like Virgil, who used to hang and kill chickens for years, can change and become who he is now, anyone can.
VB: The only part I would add is that I feel that it is so strange that so many people, even activists, are so ignorant about what really goes on in this industry. I have been asked so many questions from people who I thought should know the answers, especially since they were fighting the industry. I guess this just reflects the depths to which the industry goes to keep what happens behind those closed doors. They are, after all, trying to keep cameras out of places like that by making it a criminal offense to bring one in there, aren’t they? If they are so proud of what they do, then what do they have to hide?

Most people that work in a chicken plant don’t eat chicken, even though they are meat-eaters. I was one of those people. It’s been years since I ate a piece of chicken. I can’t even stand to smell it cooking without wanting to throw up. That ought to tell you something.

My point is that if these people that work in there can’t stand to eat chicken, that if the average person knew what happens in there, that they wouldn’t be able to eat it either. People need to become more informed.

Read Virgil and Laura’s blog and other Tyson whistleblower accounts at www.Cyberactivist.blogspot.com.

 


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