Man asked about cruelty to a pig at the Iowa State Fair. He was ejected for life

Lee Rood

DES MOINES – Wheaten Mather and a friend had just walked the Iowa State Fair midway on Aug. 9 when they decided to have a look at the animals.

Mather, 40, said he took a few pictures with a calf inside the cattle barn when he turned outside and heard a commotion. Next to them, he said, was a pig outside the swine barn making a “crazy squealing noise” while being prodded by a boy who appeared to be about 11 or 12. 

Hearing the animal in distress, Mather began recording with his cellphone. The boy, accompanied by a man, was hitting the animal with a show stick in the face, trying to compel the pig to get onto a trailer, Mather said.

Wheaten Mather, 40, of Des Moines, just before he says he saw a pig being abused by a competitor at the Iowa State Fair.

“When that pig turned around, I could see he had lash marks on his face, and my heart just absolutely sank,” Mather said.

Mather, a Michigan native who moved to Des Moines from Los Angeles two years ago, said he wasn't familiar with what children are taught about using show sticks, also called hog whips, at the fair. But he did want to raise concerns to fair officials about what he saw.

Mather said he's never been an animal rights activist. But he brought concerns to Reader's Watchdog about the State Fair's treatment of his concerns as more fairs and farmers across the country are being challenged by animal rights groups to treat farm animals more humanely.

Mather said after he took video Aug. 9, he approached someone wearing an Iowa State Fair shirt and asked to speak to someone in authority. That person told him to talk to the people sitting on horses in the livestock barns.

He said he asked one of those people if striking pigs was standard practice at the fair. The woman said, "Yes."

Now more upset, he showed her the video. “Is hitting a pig in the face with a whip – is this (expletive) standard practice?” he said.

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Mather eventually left the fair that night and later consulted family and friends about what to do. 

On Sunday, Aug. 18, Mather returned to the fair and said he wound up running into fair CEO and manager Gary Slater. Slater was wrapping up a KCCI news interview next to the fair’s marketing director, Mindy Williamson. 

“I said, ‘All I’m asking for is a meeting, so I can share the video with you, and find out what would you put in place to prevent this from happening in the future,’” Mather said.

Mather said Slater was tolerant of his questions at first, but then became perturbed the more he pressed for specific answers. Slater, he said, repeatedly deferred questions about the fair's responsibility to police animal cruelty, saying he should have addressed the treatment of the pig with the boy's family, or 4-H and FFA.

Mather said he didn't feel the boy could be blamed for what he was taught but that fair employees should have stepped in if an animal was being abused.

“I was not at all aggressive, but very firm in my stance,” he said. “I told him, 'You run the fair, so I am hoping to find someone who is compassionate and will listen to me, or I will post the video.'

"(Slater) said, 'Do what you need to do.'"

Mather's friend Matt West, who was there Aug. 18, backed Mather's description of what transpired with Slater.

"Wheaton's a very passionate guy when it comes to stuff like that. He's just got a big heart," West told Watchdog. "But it seems like (Slater) just didn't want to engage with him."

West said he saw Mather's video from the first Friday of the fair and agreed the pig was being abused. "I understand pigs are livestock – they're food – but you can at least treat them with decency," he said.

Minutes after the discussion, Mather and West said, Slater summoned fairgrounds police. An officer approached Mather, West and another friend and told them they were being ejected – for life.

“I said, ‘That sounds pretty harsh.' And the officer said, ‘You’re harassing people.’" Mather said. "I said, ‘I was having a conversation.’"

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Mather said he resisted giving the officer – listed on his citation as Funk, Badge 784 – his identification.

When the officer checked West's identification and began searching him, Mather and his friend questioned whether that was legal.

Both men said the officer told them they had no constitutional right against illegal search and seizure on the fairgrounds.

Mather said he later asked Cmdr. Doug Phillips, who runs security at the fair, if there was a handbook outlining safety procedures and policies at the fair. He said he was told they don’t share their policies and procedures.

He said Phillips told him, “‘When you are in my house, you do whatever the (expletive) I say.'"

On Sunday, Mather posted the video of the distressed pig on Facebook and later contacted Watchdog. Mather showed Watchdog paperwork confirming he was ejected from the fair for life.

A fair police office wrote Wheaten Mather a citation Aug. 18 banning him for

Fair: He was being combative

Youth who compete in livestock competitions at the fair through 4-H and FFA sign a disclosure statement relating to vaccines and other animal health care, and agree to follow fair rules.

The Code of Ethics for 4-H and FFA youth says: "I will treat all people and animals with respect. I will provide appropriate care for animals."

The 2019 livestock competition rules say: "The use of showing and/or handling practices or devices such as striking animals to cause swelling, using electrical contrivance or other similar practices are not acceptable and are prohibited."

Those who violate the rules "forfeit premiums, awards and auction proceeds and shall be prohibited from future exhibition. ... Exhibitors who violate this code of ethics demean the integrity of all livestock exhibitors and should be prohibited from competition."

Williamson, the fair's spokeswoman, characterized Mather's exchange with Slater as more combative and said: "It was not a situation where he was looking for input or listening to the policies and protocols we have in place. It was a little threatening."

Mather, she said, told Slater that people tend to hide behind policies and procedures and that Mather seemed to want Slater to take immediate action. She said they agreed that perhaps signs at the fair would help people know what to do if they saw an animal being mistreated.

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"We talked about signage, and we asked why he took video and then held onto it," she said. "We've had instances where (video) can be brought to public safety so it can be properly vetted. He didn't do that. He kept circling back to the same thing, saying he wanted to plan a meeting."

Williamson said the fair has an animal care committee, and that animal abuse would be cause for removal of a competitor and cause for action by the Iowa State Fair board. She said any person who has concerns about how an animal is being cared for could go to the office in any livestock barn or speak to an animal care committee member.

She said the livestock control person Mather spoke to was probably not responsive because he used "swear words." 

The fair posts signs that say all bags are subject to inspection and that it enforces state and local laws. 

Williamson said all police who work the fair, whether full or part-time, are sworn officers, and each has discretion to ban a person from the premises for different lengths of time. 

But a Des Moines attorney said any sworn officer working at the fairgrounds still has to abide by the state and federal constitution. 

"The Fourth Amendment and Article I of Iowa's Constitution apply anywhere on public or private property," said Keith Rigg, a Des Moines defense attorney.

While the fair has the right to eject people, Rigg questioned why officials wouldn't pursue anyone seen abusing an animal.

He also questioned how it could enforce banning someone for life, since more than 1 million people may visit the Iowa State Fair each year.

Follow Lee Rood on Twitter at @leerood.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Man ejected for life from Iowa State Fair for reporting cruelty to pig