The animal rights movement pays special homage to people who once made their living by abusing animals, stopped what they were doing, repudiated it, and spoke out. It is usual for such people to confess that before whatever it was that changed them, they had accepted, without question, the animal suffering they caused.
Readily to mind come Donald Barnes, a former Air Force radiation experimenter on chimpanzees turned antivivisectionist, Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher turned vegan activist, Eldon Kienholz, a professor of poultry science at Colorado State University who resigned his tenure and spoke out against the terrible things he did to turkeys and chickens – and Virgil Butler, who quit slaughtering chickens and risked his life by taking a stand.
All of these men came from agricultural backgrounds. Don Barnes, Eldon Kienholz, and Howard Lyman grew up on family farms, and each has described how far from humane and idyllic the family farm really is. In an exchange of letters, Don Barnes and Eldon Kienholz discussed how easy it was to graduate from animal farmer to animal experimenter. Howard Lyman went from being a family farmer to a factory farmer without losing sleep.
Virgil Butler grew up in rural Arkansas, dominated by the chicken industry. He worked for a while as a chicken catcher before going to work for Tyson as a chicken hanger and throat-cutter. He writes: “I hung live chickens in the shackles and worked on 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. . . . You stand there with a very sharp 6-inch knife and catch as many birds as you can that the killing machine misses because the ones you miss go straight into the scalder alive.”
More even than Don Barnes, Eldon Kienholz and Howard Lyman, Virgil Butler was steeped in violence and cruelty his whole life long. That he emerged to become a passionate and articulate voice for chickens is nothing short of amazing.
Fortunately, Virgil will not vanish. Luckily for us, Virgil wrote everything down. A compulsive chronicler, he committed his precious experience to print before passing away. I have a three-ring notebook filled with Virgil’s detailed responses to my incessant questions about the chicken slaughter process and culture. And then there is his blog at www.cyberactivist.blogspot.com, a treasure house of testimony. And we have him on videotape speaking at our conference, in 2004.
Tyson tried to suggest that Virgil made things up. However, nobody could fabricate the precise account that Virgil has left us of “just a part of a regular night’s work” at Tyson: the way the chickens “hang there and look at you while they are bleeding,” how “they will try to hide their head from you by sticking it under the wing of the chicken next to them” on the slaughter line, how he transformed himself from “slaughterer” to "savior.”
When I invited Virgil to speak at our “Mad Cows to Mad Chickens” conference in Norfolk, Virginia in August of 2004, I had never even heard his voice, until I phoned him a few days before the conference to confirm his arrival at the airport, where I would meet him and his beloved Laura, and drive them to the hotel. And this is how I see them: I am standing at the bottom of the escalator watching people come down, down, down, waiting and waiting, and suddenly, there they are! Virgil Butler and Laura Alexander. And they are radiant.
Next day, Virgil took command of the lectern like a veteran, and held us all in thrall with his talk. His articulate description of what takes place inside a chicken slaughter plant, his fielding of questions from the audience, his authoritative presence without pretense – here was a speaker as well as a writer, an authentic voice for the birds and a better world.
Virgil Butler had charisma, “gift of God’s grace.” How fortunate for us that he passed our way.
For those wishing to contact Virgil’s partner, Laura Alexander, to express sympathy, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(Tribute to Virgil Butler, Who Died December 15)