|Special Enews • February 26, 2003|
Even after many years as activists, we can still be shocked and appalled at what goes on in modern agriculture. We hope you will also find this a motivation to redouble our efforts to promote veganism.
Signed statement of Tyson employee, Virgil Butler
January 30, 2003
My name is Virgil Butler. I worked at the Tyson plant in Grannis, Arkansas from July, 1997 until November 12, 2002. I worked on the night shift in the Receiving department as a live-hanger as well as on the kill-floor.
I personally witnessed many acts of cruelty toward the chickens by employees of the plant on a nightly basis:
One of the most recent problems that I observed was the night shift superintendent, Richard Frasier, turning down the stunner and ordering the employees to leave it down. This machine is the device that is supposed to stun chickens before they are killed. Turning it down results in the chickens missing the killing machine and evading the killer behind the machine, so that they end up being scalded to death by water in the scalding tank. The scalding tank loosens up the feathers so that they can be picked out. The chickens are supposed to be dead before they reach this point. I, as well as Ed Taylor (my immediate supervisor), Troy Shepmann, and Aron Harris (fellow employees) argued this action with Richard, who refused to stop doing this. We were not given a reason behind Richard's decision.
The expected percentage that the killing machine was supposed to kill by slitting throats was 86%. On an extremely good night that percentage was accurate. The remaining chickens would miss the blade altogether. Most nights the percentage would fall to the high 70's. Some nights, even worse.
I was responsible for trying to slit the throats of the chickens the machine missed on the nights I worked the killing room. Our line runs 182 shackles per minute. It is physically impossible to catch them all. Therefore, they are scalded alive. When this happens, the chickens flop, scream, kick, and their eyeballs pop out of their heads. Then, they often come out the other end with broken bones and disfigured and missing body parts because they've struggled so much in the tank. Sometimes, when we had a line broken down, they would be left hanging upside down in the stunner in the water to drown. In the stunner, the water is cold and salted to better conduct the electricity. I have personally seen them hang in this position for hours.
One night in early spring last year we lost hydraulic pressure. Perhaps 300-400 chickens missed the stunner because the line slowed down so much that the birds could avoid it while those who were stunned were able to recover by the time they reached the killing machine-which was only working sporadically. The live birds were left hanging upside down in the scalders while the machinery was being fixed. We could have quit hanging more chickens at this point and let the line run empty while the killing machine was off-line. Instead, we were ordered by Richard Frasier and Ed Taylor to continue to hang the chickens, while Aron Harris was required to kill all of them by hand. This could not be done by one person, even at half the speed and it was clear to everyone there that birds were going by untouched. Several hundred chickens were scalded to death by this decision.
Most of my fellow employees were extremely abusive to the chickens. Our job was simply to pick the chickens up off of the belt and hang them upside down into the shackles. This could rarely be accomplished without problems, due to several reasons.
We were extremely shorthanded, due to the horrendous working conditions. This led to a high turnover rate with inexperienced, frustrated, workers under pressure to keep the production numbers up. If production fell, it would mean overtime work, so the belt speed was turned up. This resulted in the belt becoming overloaded in the area where the chickens awaited shackling, which ended up smothering hundreds of chickens a night. I heard Richard Frasier say, "I would rather smother a few hundred goddamned birds, than to lose time because of empty shackles." (This was said in late July, 2002 when temperatures in the hanging cage were exceeding 100 degrees in the middle of the night.)
The absence of climate control is another cause of unnecessary suffering that results in death to the chickens. The heater in the "cage," which is the area where birds are hung, worked less than half of the time I worked there. Many times the temperatures would be well below freezing. This resulted in the chickens freezing to the belt last winter and the winter before. They froze to death this way inside the building, where the temperature was below freezing. I and my co-workers complained about this to Richard Frasier, but to no avail. He would just turn and walk away. The reverse of this problem happened in the summer time, where there is no adequate air conditioning. Most of the time, it doesn't work at all, and blows hot air. This results in the chickens dying of heat stroke, heart attack, and suffocation.
When the plant breaks down or when there are too many chickens on the kill schedule for the shift, they are left over for the next shift. For the night shift, this is not as bad in the summer time as it is in the winter, because the chickens are forced to sit out in the cages on the trucks. In the summer on day shift, though, when they leave birds, they sit from 3:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. under a tin shed roof with no water and no food. I have seen hundreds die of dehydration from this practice. This could be remedied by simply stopping the catchers from catching any more until the problem in the plant is resolved or by not scheduling as big a kill to begin with.
These uncomfortable conditions, coupled with the unrelenting pressure to keep the shackles filled at all costs, lead to much frustration and outright rage among the employees.
I have witnessed Troy Shepmann build dry ice bombs (made by putting dry ice and a small amount of water in a plastic Pepsi bottle and screwing the lid down tight) and putting it on the belt with live chickens during break time. This results in a high pressure explosion that rips the chickens' bodies apart and scatters them all over the room. This occurred numerous times, but the one I remember the most was one night last June when he made a small dry ice bomb by shoving a piece of dry ice up a live chicken's rectum, then plugging it with a wooden cork. It built up enough pressure inside the chicken to blow it apart.
I have also seen Aron Harris rip the heads, legs, and wings off of live chickens, or just stomp them to death on the floor because he was aggravated. This occurred on a regular basis for about the last year and a half that I worked there.
I have also seen George Watson, a forklift driver, run over the chickens on purpose, then laugh about it. These kinds of incidents were ongoing and repetitive–just a part of a regular night's work.
Other problems that came up when I worked there were a result of mismanagement. One, in particular, happened several times when we would get orders for bigger birds. The worst was in the week ending on September 14 of last year. In this instance we were given thousands of chickens to hang that were above the size limit we were used to. The shackles were not designed to fit the oversize legs of the chickens. They were too small for their legs to fit into. In the process of hanging the live birds, we were forced to break their legs to get them to fit into the shackles. This was unnecessary. The shackles could have been spread out to fit the larger-sized birds. It would only have taken about an hour for two maintenance personnel to accomplish this. However, Richard Frasier decided that it wasn't necessary and didn't want to lose the production time to do it.
According to published plant progress reports, most of the chicken run by this plant is destined for shipment to Kentucky Fried Chicken. We processed deboned thigh and leg meat and boneless, skinless split breasts. Most of the deboned meat is shipped to a further processing plant where it is made into chicken nuggets for KFC.
I am writing this letter because I want to see something done about this cruelty. I don't wish to be a part of the nightmare any longer and am willing to speak out about this to anyone at any time.