PINE RIDGE, Ark. — 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."
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.
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.
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.