Since December, 11-year-old Sinclaire Peeler has been raising a market hog for the upcoming Hernando County Fair and Youth Livestock Show.
But Sinclaire is not just any girl, and the pig not just any pig.
At birth, Sinclaire, the daughter of Laura and Brian Peeler, was found to have a twisted gene, resulting in delayed development with autistic tendencies. Her cognizance and speech are severely limited.
Yet the bright-eyed tween is blessed with the most pleasant of dispositions, and an uncanny ability to communicate with her 4-H Club porker. Even before selecting the shoat, Sinclaire had selected its name: Belly Rub.
She wanted a pig that would bear such loving attention because over the past two years she had loved petting the 4-H project hogs her sisters Delaney, 16, and Madison, 18, cared for. Giving an animal a belly rub was the next step up from petting, she seemed to be saying.
When fellow members of her sisters' 4-H Club, All Creatures Great and Small, learned of Sinclaire's wish, they designated the "club pig" as Sinclaire's project.
Club leader Shannon Mobley explained that a club pig is one purchased with club funds, then turned over for care and management to a worthy young stockman.
"It means keeping the pig at Sinclaire's, but the whole club can come over and help her. She can have help with the pig whenever," Mobley said.
As for her daily chores, Sinclaire gave a smiling and emphatic nod when asked if she feeds him.
"Dinner," she said, pleased with her effort.
More than that, her mother added.
"She likes to feed the pig flowers," Laura Peeler said.
Indeed, on the short walk from the Peeler home to their hog pen, Sinclaire dashed off to pick a bouquet of wild flowers. Belly Rub bellied up to the fence to chomp up the offering. All three pigs — one each per Peeler sister — vied for Sinclaire's handful of additional treats, a trio of sugarcane stubs.
Due to her autistic tendencies, however, Sinclaire is not consistently loving with the porcines.
"She's rough," her mother said. "We like the pigs because they're tough. She's pulled on their ears. They think it's playing, and they love it. It's a perfect fit."
Delaney, dubbed manager of the family's hog endeavor, said she has introduced Sinclaire to the basics of show ring performance for competition at the fair, which opens Thursday.
"We're working with the cane," by which a pig is directed, Delaney said. "She's got the idea, but she gets distracted and wants to pet them."
Sinclaire and Belly Rub have bonded beyond the petting. Mom showed off a photo on her cellphone of Belly Rub posed in an unlikely sit, a satisfied Sinclaire squatting beside him, giving him a belly rub.
Still, in keeping with a 4-H axiom, "To Make the Best Better," Belly Rub and his pen mates are more than pets. After raising what Delaney called "mutt pigs" for two years, she set about obtaining project hogs from a commercial producer who selected stock with muscle and meat qualities sought by packers, consumers and show judges. The family found Delaney's aim in an offering by Juan Ortiz of Inverness, a producer of crossbred hogs with hybrid vigor.
Looking over the trio of hogs recently, Mobley, the 4-H leader, estimated the heavy-hammed, long-loined animals will be competitive if they reach the preferred and likely weight of 230 pounds to 275 pounds by show day, April 7.
Laura Peeler observed that Belly Rub is "tasty looking."
While assigning a club project to a developmentally challenged member marks a first for All Creatures Great and Small, the 4-Hers have gone a step further, voting to allow Sinclaire to keep any profit after selling her hog at the fair's junior livestock auction. Normally, the profit goes back into club coffers.
The Peeler family, however, will build on the club's generosity. It will donate returns on Belly Rub to Autism Speaks, a national organization researching a cure and treatment for the affliction.
Also, Duke Energy, for whom Brian Peeler is employed as a project engineer in Crystal River, will match the buyer's winning bid with a donation to Autism Speaks.
Mobley hopes the giving spirit exemplified by the 4-H members, the Peelers and the power company will prompt buyers to attend the April 10 livestock auction.
Added Laura Peeler: "And we hope it will make other clubs aware they can do this, too."
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]