The Turnbull family

Photo provided

MAHASKA COUNTY — A 12-year-old girl named Stella Turnbull showed her goat, Lou, during the Southern Iowa Fair, winning supreme doe in the meat goat class.

Stella, like any exhibitor, was excited to show her goat. Unlike most exhibitors at the fair, though, Stella was in a wheelchair. She was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at one month of age.

Stella's mother, Sarah Turnbull, described spinal muscular atrophy as a childhood form of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease). Stella's mind is completely unaffected, Sarah said, but has muscular limitations.

Stella can move her fingers, Sarah said, with the help of medicine.

"She is receiving the first-ever FDA-approved medicine to help the disease," she said. "It does stop the progression, which is exciting and it also helps to strengthen some of the muscles that she still has."

Sarah said Stella's fingers have gotten stronger, which has given her the ability to operate her chair using proximity switches.

"The reason she never showed until this year - she's 12, she could've shown for a couple years - but the reason she didn't is she wasn't able to. She lost her ability in her fingers to operate her chair," she said. "So the fact that she was even able to show her goat this year is an absolute miracle. It was very exciting that she was able to do that."

The letter

After the fair, on Saturday, July 27, an unsigned, hand-written letter arrived in the Turnbull family's mailbox

The anonymous letter writer complained about Stella showing the goat and claimed it was unfair to other children showing their goats. The writer was angry that Stella was assisted in the ring, said she didn't do any work with the goat and claimed PETA would be contacted because of the way the goat was shown.

Sarah said at first she did not want to tell Stella about the letter.

"I just wanted her to be happy about what happened. And you know what maybe this isn't something we'll do in the future because of the negativity," she said. "We just wanted it to be a positive thing for her because that's what she wanted to do."

People are not seeming to understand, Sarah said, that just because Stella can't physically do something by herself, it does not mean that she was not involved.

"So, that's very frustrating. Because she was very much involved every step of the way and if people only knew how much effort it is for her to do those things, I think they would reconsider their statements," she said. "Just to get her out of the house on a hot day and leave the AC, just like any kid, 'oh do I have to go do my chores,' 'yes, you have to go and work with your goat.'"

The anonymous letter writer suggested Stella's parents, Sarah and Travis, let Stella show for their own "glory."

"That part is really frustrating to us because we didn't do this for our 'glory,'" Sarah said. "We have enough on our plate."

Sarah said it has also been asked how Stella is able to communicate and how she indicated her wish to participate in the goat show.

As Stella cannot speak, she uses an eye gaze system – a technology that tracks eye movements. The user is able to use their eye movements to control a computer or tablet. Sarah said Stella used the technology to express the desire to participate.

"It wasn't for our glory," Sarah said, "it was merely to give her the experience she wanted just like any kid when they express that they would like to try something."

Showing Lou

There was nothing inhumane about the way the goat, Lou, was shown, Sarah said. The goat's front feet were placed on a wheeled platform attached to Stella's wheelchair. 

"She didn't just drag an animal around with its front feet on a cart. Her goat is so happy about being shown in this way that she literally sometimes will even put her own feet up on the cart," she said. "And is cool as a cucumber while she's on it. She loves to go for walks with Stella."

Sarah said the family was worried about making sure both the goat and Stella were safe.

"We were worried about the goat's feet getting caught in her tires," she said. "So what we thought was humane and appropriate and safe was then called out for being the opposite."

Yes, Stella won, Sarah said, but ultimately, the judging is done on the goat itself.

"They aren't judging how Stella showed the goat. We filled out special accommodation forms well in advance with the state to indicate that this is how she would be showing," she said. "Because we can't do it in a normal way, whatever 'normal' is. That word has come out a lot lately."

Meat goats are judged upon the degree of muscle, the soundness and structural correctness of the goat, the amount of fat, capacity or volume, balance and style, according to the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Department of Animal Services.

The show ring itself became a challenge for Stella, Sarah said.

"She had practiced and practiced driving her goat, showing it, but when it comes down to woodchips and sawdust, she attempted and kept getting stuck," Sarah said. "So I had to intervene in the show ring to unstick her many times."

Accommodations for exhibitors

Mahaska County Youth Coordinator Amy Brainard said there is a special accommodations process for people with any type of need or disability.

"Sometimes we've even had children who have gotten broken ankles or broken arms before fair and they aren't able to lead their animals in the show ring, they have that accommodations process," she said. "It's a form that was developed by our Equal Opportunity Office on Iowa State's campus and then each Extension Office has access to those for the 4-H exhibitors that are participating in the fair."

Brainard said Stella exhibited her goat in the meat goat show and did have an accommodation form on file.

"She had approved measures to be able to have an experiential learning process," she said, "which is what we have for all of our youth that participates in the county fair."

Brainard said the Turnbull family followed every single process that they needed to in order to allow Stella to participate in the fair.

"The biggest thing is we want those kids that are participating in our fair and in our programs to have an experiential learning process," she said. "And so by having that, then they went through every single step that they needed to take to have that process and that opportunity available to her."

Brainard said the same is true for any other child.

"If there were any time any other child would need that, then they could definitely fill out an accommodation form and we work with the family in the best way possible," she said, "and then we also work with the Equal Opportunity Office on campus as well."

Addressing the accusation of cruelty, Brainard said the goat was shown on a mount that was pre-approved and had wheels.

"In our opinion, it was fine. I'm definitely not a veterinarian," she said, "but from what we are aware of, everything was fine with it."

Hitting the news

The letter was posted on Facebook, along with a response from Sarah. News organizations became interested in the story. From there, Sarah said, it's been a rollercoaster of emotions, dealing with both positive and negative comments.

What the family had hoped to be a fun 4-H experience Stella wanted to do, Sarah said, has turned into an attack on their character.

"Anybody that knows us knows that we would never treat an animal inhumanely, that we would never put a kid in a ring if she had not been involved in the process," she said. "If anybody is going to claim that family members are not assisting them with grooming or whatever when it involves an animal, they are fooling themselves. Because 4-H is all about learning how to do. So those parents are involved every step of the way, just like Stella was involved every step of the way."

Sarah said when news stations started asking if they could do stories, she was hesitant.

"Because we honestly went into this just because of the experience Stella wanted to have. And so to receive the attention, we were a little uncertain to responding in the form of an interview, but we thought 'you know what, maybe something positive will come out of this.' And so that's the reason we did it. Unfortunately, any time you do an interview, things can be misinterpreted," she said. "And I just need to get a thicker skin, I guess. But we only did this so that Stella could have the experience she wanted to have. We didn't do it to win ribbons. That turned out to be the icing on the cake."

One of the biggest criticisms Sarah has seen in comment sections of news reports is that Stella did not feed or groom her goat.

"Just because she is unable to lift a bucket does not mean that she is not involved in the process," she said. "And I think that's a really important thing to note, because it's not that she just stayed behind and somebody else did the work for her."

Sarah said that is very aggravating to her, having grown up as a 4-Her herself.

"There was no way my father was letting me get out of work," she said. "It just so happens I was an able-bodied person and could do the lifting of items or whatever it was to take care of my animals. So I think that's one of the misinterpretations."

"Stop trying to make your child normal"

In a final, vitriolic statement, the author of the letter wrote "stop trying to make your child normal! If she can't do something on her own, let it be!!!"

Sarah shared what her response to the letter writer would be.

"I would just say that I am very sorry that they are misinformed about the care and time that Stella put into her project and that we didn't do this for our glory, it was simply because a child wanted to do a project," she said, "and that the animal was safe the entire time, and that unfortunately, everybody's version of normal is different."

That was the line that affected the Turnbulls the most, Sarah said, "stop trying to make your child normal."

"I guess I would say what is normal, anyway? Because everybody has their own sense of normal," she said. "Our normal is constantly trying to find ways that [Stella] can lead her life in a positive way and be able to do the things that she wants to do. And isn't that what we all want for our children?"

Managing Editor Angie Holland can be reached at aholland@oskyherald.com and followed on Twitter @OskyAngie.