- Callie Peterson
- Shortly after winning, Spot was stripped of her state fair title when traces of performance-enhancing drugs were found in her system.
The hog's blood was dirty.
Spot, a portly blue-ribbon pig, was crowned a winner at the 2015 Utah State Fair, earning a fast-track to the auction block and prize money and praise for her youth handler. One of more than 100 hogs in the junior livestock show, this pig walked away the reserve grand champion.
But Spot was stripped of her accolades after traces of dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory, were discovered in her system. Veterinarians detected the banned substance—sometimes known as dex—and notified fair administration about a month after the September event.
And with that, Spot shares a commonality with the likes of Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds—besmirched competitors who took performance-enhancing drugs. Unlike Spot's human counterparts, the animal here, of course, is not to blame.
But the unfortunate reality is that the person who took the fall for this doping scandal could be as innocent as the swine. She is a child, now 13 years old, and the daughter of Delta pig farmers. She's frequently participated in livestock shows, and dedicated hours of work to raising pigs, according to her family. To prepare, the youth rose at 5 a.m. each morning and took the pig on a 3-mile walk; she capped the day with another walk in the evenings. Spot's test results jeopardized the student's eligibility to compete in livestock shows for the remainder of her junior career.
Consequently, the girl—who City Weekly chooses not to identify because she is a minor—is blacklisted from entering any other state-sponsored livestock show. This blanket ban is the same for any person caught showing livestock aided by performance enhancers. It's a lasting punishment for young livestock raisers, who in all likelihood didn't obtain the drug themselves, probably didn't inject it and, frankly, might have been completely oblivious to the scandal.
Normally, youths can continue to show livestock until they are 18 years old or have graduated from high school. But with half a decade of competitive years left, Spot's handler will have to watch junior livestock shows from the bleachers.
The youth forfeited about $2,600 in prize money and a belt buckle. But being barred from competition hurt the most. Initially, the family says they tried to shield their teen from the news. When she found out, she burst into inconsolable tears.
Harsh as it may be, a lifetime ban is a necessary deterrent, Utah State Fair Director Judy Duncombe says.
"I think that to lessen the penalty would up the chances that somebody might be willing to [inject livestock]," she says. "I think that the majority of people recognize the severity of the penalty and say, 'Hey, it's not worth it.'"
The family denies pumping the pig with drugs. And the teen's mother, Callie Peterson, lambasted the fair board for refusing to find an agreeable outcome.
"The state fair ... has been complete dicks about it," she writes in an email. They asked for a partial, one-year ban.
Junior livestock show market animals—steers, hogs, lambs and goats—are judged on market readiness and showmanship. Scrutinized by judges, livestock trot about in an arena, and the more graceful the movement, presumably the higher the marks. A hog on dex might exhibit a more pleasant temperament. And Duncombe supposes dex helps alleviate pain or discomfort related to the aches and stiffness that typically accompany travel. (Legal counsel for the Peterson family argues that dex doesn't give any boost to the pig except, perhaps, in weight gain.)
Sparhawk Laboratories Inc., a manufacturer of dexamethasone injections, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The fair board enforces lifetime bans, but it's not the body that governs them. That responsibility falls upon the Utah State Junior Livestock Show Association—whose president, Clay Nielsen, says the hardline, punitive approach is twofold.
Not only does dex taint the integrity of the competition, it isn't approved by the Food and Drug Administration for consumption. "That's as big a reason for the ban as anything," Nielsen says. "These are meat animals. They go to slaughter and they are used in the food chain."
FDA spokeswoman Juli Putnam affirmed the ban in animals harvested for meat but notes that dexamethasone is permitted in horses.
An FDA database shows that dex can be prescribed to treat primary bovine ketosis in cattle. Whether for cattle or horses, federal law requires the drug to be prescribed by a veterinarian, who can permit others, such as an animal owner, to administer it.
Reports of livestock doping are peppered across the country. Taken together in a broad view, it would imply a spreading epidemic. Duncombe, however, believes cheaters amount to a distracting but tiny blemish. Since 2003, the state fair has tested the first-place winners and runners-up, and never found a positive test until 2013. Only four instances—Spot among them—have emerged in 13 years. But as recently as last October, the fair's grand champion goat was busted for the same substance.
The problem could be happening under the radar on a much bigger scale. Nielsen, who also sits on the Utah State Fair Corporation board, says some livestock showings don't test for drugs or test randomly. When an animal is caught, though, the reputations of meat producers are scarred.
"It gives the industry a black eye and it could potentially be harmful to someone that consumes that meat that might have an allergy," Duncombe says. "It's far-reaching, so we take a no-nonsense stance."
But those accused of doping Spot's blood cry foul. The Petersons filed a civil suit against the Fair Board Corporation in June 2016. The Petersons don't deny that the pig's sample came back dirty. In fact, they say, they suspected something was fishy before the showing. Having returned from lunch, the Petersons discovered a small speck of blood on the hog's neck. They alerted fair staff immediately afterward, according to court documents.
"We raise show pigs," Callie Peterson tells City Weekly. "We know what it looks like when pigs have been given a shot. We knew that it had been given a shot."
Fair officials respond that this line of protection would open a door to abuse. And more importantly, they don't believe another person drugged the Petersons' prized pig. "It really isn't too plausible," Duncombe says.
Declining to wade into specifics regarding the Peterson case, Duncombe reasons that a livestock breeder has little motivation to inject a competitor's animal with drugs that could up its likelihood of success. "How would giving your [opponent's] hog a substance that would give it an advantage benefit me? Why would I do that?" she says. Unless it didn't give them an advantage but instead an automatic disqualification.
The Petersons suspect their reputable success at livestock shows was motive for someone to sabotage the contest. "Someone got sick of us winning and shot our pig up with dexamethasone while we were not right by our pen," Callie Peterson says.
The fair board says it explicitly lays out in its rules that contestants are responsible for the welfare and security of their animals. And in many decades of experience on the fair board, no member had seen evidence of competitors drugging another's livestock. Peterson argues that it's impossible for participants to guard their animals at every moment.
The Petersons sought unspecified damages connected to suffering from both the teen and the family business. But the case was dismissed and both sides were ordered to pay their own attorney's fees.
During a recent state fair board meeting, members described the owners of the disqualified grand prize goat as "prominent, vocal" members of the local livestock community—ones who might also resort to litigation.
"We might need to get some more appropriations for legal funds," a member half-joked.
As for Spot, Callie Peterson says the hog was purchased to live out her days as a sow—a pig that breeds litters of piglets that might boast the genes of a champion.