CAMPBELLVILLE, Ontario — When I walked into Esther’s house for the first time, I expected she’d be up and about. After all, she’s awfully busy on social media.
Instead, the 600-pound pig, with 10 social media accounts and more than 2 million followers in 43 countries, was sound asleep on a mattress. Phil, her dog companion (a boxer mix), was snoozing next to her, folded into the curve of her belly. Cornelius, an adult Tom turkey in a diaper — yes, you read that right — trotted in absently and let out a gobble or two.
A modern fairy tale?
Nope, just another day in the exceptional life of Esther the Wonder Pig, a house pig who lives with her two dads — Steve Jenkins, 36, and Derek Walter, 37 — at Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, about 40 miles west of Toronto.
A pig who, by dint of her cuteness and shenanigans — and a constant stream of videos on her Facebook page — has become an international poster pig for meatless diets, animal rights, diversity, even gay parenting. It’s hard to resist a pink pig who sleeps with her head on a pillow, dons a psychedelic wig, and chomps sloppily on Jujubes even when she’s asleep.
She’s so smart she can climb stairs, operate a lever-style door handle, hold a grudge, and once even lifted a sofa with her mighty snout to reach some Cheerios underneath it. “And we were on it,” said Jenkins.
And she’s only 6.
You’re welcome to visit the farm in this rural community, provided you sign up for a tour or do volunteer work. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot Esther as long as she’s not sleeping, which she does up to 18 hours a day. But keep in mind that she is a willful pig, and there are no guarantees she’ll come out of the house.
“The thing about a sanctuary is that animals do what they want, when they want,” Jenkins said. “We don’t make them do anything, though 95 times out of 100 Esther comes out and snacks, pees, and goes in her kiddie pool.”
The extraordinary is ordinary here at this peaceful 50-acre farm inhabited by some 80 farm animals, including a fresh crop of piglets and a peacock. Signs dot the property with messages to visitors such as “KEEP GATE CLOSED No matter what the Chickens say.”
But it’s not all amusement here. There’s a dark subtext to the farm, since most of the animals were rescued from near-certain death. They include a pair of sheep named Moose and Yammy who were extracted alive from a “dead pile” of discarded farm animals. A commercial turkey named Dolly who fell off a transport truck on her way to “processing.” Rabbits — they live in “Bunny Town” — were nabbed by animal control officers but managed to escape.
Now they’re out of harm’s way with all of their needs met, and then some. Leonard, a pig who can’t move his back legs, has a TV in his stall for “visual and audible stimulation,” Jenkins said, and a masseuse visits him once a week. A goat named Diablo came from a zoo that had a fire. Now he lives in a section of the farm that has a goat trampoline.
It’s fitting that this sanctuary is located in Canada, a kindly country that welcomes outsiders and underdogs and favors diversity, and where earnestness sometimes gets mixed in with the absurd. (Just think of curling.) But Jenkins swears it was all inadvertent.
“I don’t think anybody of a reasonable mind sets out to do this,” said Jenkins, meaning adopting a pig with Walter switching careers, selling their house, moving to a farm, converting it to a sanctuary, and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for it all by crowdfunding.
The story began in 2012. As Jenkins tells it, he and Walter were just two normal working guys living in a small house, if you can consider Derek’s profession — magician — to be normal. Jenkins ran a real estate business. They had two dogs and two cats. They ate meat: “As far as I was concerned, a sandwich wasn’t a sandwich without bacon,” Jenkins said.
Out of the blue, a former acquaintance contacted him and asked him to take her baby “mini pig” off her hands, because it didn’t get along with her dogs. It would be only grow to 70 pounds max, she said.
Jenkins knew nothing about pigs, but couldn’t resist Esther. She was 8 inches from tip to tail and fit in a shoe box with room to spare. “Who wouldn’t want a mini pig?” he said to himself.
But she didn’t stay mini for long. She grew and grew, gaining a pound a day at one point. She weighed 600 pounds in three years.
Steve had been duped; Esther was in fact a commercial pig. And commercial pigs were illegal in their town, which banned animals with hooves. They considered getting rid of her, but knew if they off-loaded Esther to a farmer, she’d be somebody’s bacon.
Besides, they’d fallen in love with Esther, who played with their dogs’ toys, reached out for cuddles, even had tantrums like a toddler.
Jenkins created an Esther Facebook page so family and friends could follow her antics, and posted photos with captions like “What, you’ve never seen a pig in the house?” They dressed her in pig-size dresses and accessorized her, capturing her stumbling out of bed or lumbering around the house.
In less than an hour she had 100 Facebook followers. There were 6,000 fans in a week and half, and 30,000 in a month and a half. News crews showed up. They were showered with mail and presents for the pig. Now that the secret was out, they had to move — but where? They found a farm nearby but it seemed out of reach: They needed $400,000 to secure it but had just $5,000 between them.
So in an extraordinary leap of faith, they launched a crowdfunding campaign. Esther’s digital army came through, contributing $404,000 for the farm. It’s now a registered charity dedicated to rescuing abused, neglected, and abandoned farm animals. They fund-raise to keep it going.
And it’s spiraled into a full-on Esther movement. Esther’s the subject of two biographies, “Esther the Wonder Pig” and “Happily Ever Esther.” A cookbook is in the works featuring “Esther-Approved Recipes.” (Her dads prefer “Esther-Approved” to “vegan,” which they feel is preachy and divisive.) Her story’s been optioned for a feature film. There’s Esther merch galore.
She still gets loads of snail mail, e-mail, and social media comments, an outpouring that only accelerated recently when Esther was operated on for cancer. (She’s fine now.) Artists send original Esther portraits, which hang on a wall near her mattress — which is itself a gift, from a Canadian mattress company called Endy. She burns through four or five of them a year.
“We are a Canadian sleep company and Esther is a Canadian wonder pig,” explained Endy spokeswoman Sarah Feldman. “Part of our mission is to help all Canadians sleep better. We heard she had health problems and couldn’t sleep.”
She added: “We love Esther’s story. People love Esther because of the message her dads put out in the world about treating people equally and with respect.”
Esther fans have told them that giving food a face has encouraged them to stop eating meat. A mother from down south in the United States thanked them for showing her son that it’s OK to have two dads. A daughter wrote to say she showed her mother, who had dementia, a video of Esther. It was the first time in months she’d seen her mother smile.
No one’s been as affected by Esther as her dads, who now no longer eat meat. It’s a big sacrifice for Jenkins, who hates vegetables, but says when he looks at bacon now he sees Esther. He also sees as a cruel global agriculture industry that damages the environment.
But day to day? He sees a pig that knows and feels more than he ever could have guessed and who has her priorities straight. “She wakes up every day, thrilled it’s a new day,” Jenkins said.Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.