A Killing Floor Chronicle

Times Staff Writer

In his dim trailer in the pines, Virgil Butler writes of killing.

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 keyboard.

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 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," Friedrich said.

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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 from life.

"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 said.

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," he said.

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.

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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 every e-mail.

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 writing.

"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 slaughterhouses.

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 Waldron.

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 a living."

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.

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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 you."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday December 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 110 words Type of Material: Correction Activist -- An article in Monday's Section A included incorrect information about animal rights activist Virgil Butler. It said that Butler took part in the U.S. invasion of Panama, where he recalled killing enemy soldiers, but the Army has no record of his service. The article stated that Butler shot a man to death in the parking lot of a bar and went to prison for manslaughter. In fact, he was convicted of felony burglary, and the shooting could not be confirmed. The article said Butler killed 80,000 birds a shift at a Tyson poultry plant. He did not slaughter every chicken personally but was part of a nine-person team.
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