“We want people to build a relationship with Esther, and we hope that opens the door and makes them start questioning everything else.”
Have you heard of Esther the Wonder Pig? I hadn’t until Jo-Anne Guimond of Ottawa, Ontario nominated Esther and her “two dads” as Kickass Canadians. A quick visit to her website introduced me to a charming pig who stares right back at the camera, and who has a fan club and a kitchen and a store all her own. So what’s it all about?
Esther came into the lives of her fathers, Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter, in August 2012, when she was a wee piglet weighing less than 4lbs and barely clocking 12 inches long, from tail to snout. She was a mini-pig, or so the story went, and Steve was determined that Derek would come around to seeing the benefits of having her—once he came to terms with Steve’s decision to bring her home without consulting him. (“It was one of those things where it seemed easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission,” says Steve.)
Funny thing is, Esther the mini-pig, who was promised to wind up weighing around 70lbs, grew and grew until she reached her current weight: 650lbs. No mini-pig at all, but rather a full-size commercial hog, Esther was destined to wind up on someone’s dinner plate, until Steve and Derek changed her fate, not to mention their own.
By the time Steve and Derek realized there was very little about Esther that was, well, little—from her full-size personality to her giant appetite, not to mention her girth—it was too late; they’d fallen madly in love and couldn’t imagine parting with the pig. So they did what any new parents would do: they re-arranged their lives to accommodate her needs and build a supportive, nurturing environment (in their case, that included giving up meat and going vegan); potty-trained her; and of course created a Facebook page for their friends and family.
But in keeping with the trend of everything-Esther being anything but ordinary, the page they created in December 2013 went on to become much more than a typical new parent’s Facebook page. It quickly amassed a huge fan following, proving to Steve and Derek that there was indeed an appetite for farm animals—one that was all about relating to them as living beings rather than as products for our consumption.
In the months that followed, the page, and the pig, evolved into a massive undertaking, involving a two-month Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for Happily Ever Esther – Farm Sanctuary, a safe haven in Campbellville, Ontario for abandoned farm animals in need of a home. All because of the mighty power of one “mini” pig.
Pulling back the curtain
It seems hard to believe now, but Esther wasn’t always the focus of her dads’ lives. Growing up in Hagersville, Ontario, Derek showed an early interest in magic and started conducting his own magic shows when he was only 12. He trained through the co-op program at Hagersville Secondary School, earning credits to learn from magician Tim Hannaford. After graduating in 2001, Derek launched a successful one-man show that has enabled him to earn a living as professional magician.
“As a kid, I loved magic because it’s all about suspension of disbelief,” he says. “We live in a time when everything has to be explained. So when you can look at somebody and say, ‘How’d you do that?’ and the answer is just ‘It’s magic,’ as a kid, it just seemed really cool. But once you figure out that it’s trickery and gimmicks, you have to realize that you’re an actor playing the part of a magician. That’s basically what it all comes down to.”
Derek was happy to master the trickery that goes on behind the curtains (where he says the real magic happens). But when Esther entered his world, he was no longer willing to indulge the trickery in his everyday life.
With Esther the Wonder Pig, he says, “what we’re trying to do is pull the curtains back and show everybody exactly what’s happening with regards to factory farming and how animals are treated. In essence, it’s sort of like the Wizard of Oz, where big companies tell us one thing and then if we pull the curtain back, we see the direct opposite.”
That’s not to say Derek isn’t applying any lessons learned in the world of magic to his approach with Esther. In performing his one-man show at private parties, reunions, birthdays and holiday parties (in short, “a little bit of everything”), he realized it was better to keep his act focused on comedy.
“There’s nothing serious or scary in my shows, because people just want to laugh,” he says. “I found that if I tried to do something serious or pretend like I had psychic powers, people just didn’t want that.”
So with Esther, Derek and Steve are using that same logic. Instead of bombarding people with gory images of animals being slaughtered, or lectures about the benefits of giving up meat, they prefer to introduce people to Esther the Wonder Pig, letting them form their own connection with her. And in Esther’s Kitchen, instead of labeling food vegan, they call it Esther-approved (Esther herself being vegan) to avoid scaring people off.
“Vegan, to some people, can still have a stigma attached to it,” says Steve. “The minute non-vegans hear it, they tend to get defensive. We’re trying to take that out of the equation. When people hear that something is Esther-approved, it tends to pique their interest, and that works for us, because we’re trying to start a conversation with people.”
Times they are a-changin’
That savvy approach isn’t surprising, coming from two entrepreneurs who have run their own businesses for most of their working lives. (After Steve graduated from Georgetown District High School in 2001, he moved back to his hometown of Mississauga, Ontario and became a real estate agent.) But it’s not all about business strategy—far from it.
Esther’s dads have been animal lovers since childhood. Derek grew up with cats and dogs as pets, and of course a rabbit because “it seemed like a magic show wasn’t complete without a rabbit,” he says. His family has a long history of hunting, but he always knew he didn’t have it in him to shoot an animal.
Steve also had cats and dogs around the house, as well as a pet snake. Before setting his sights on real estate, he had dreams of becoming a veterinarian or marine biologist. “I was the kid who brought home an injured squirrel or a bird who had fallen out of a tree,” he says. “That was me; rescuing turtles off roads, all that sort of stuff.”
The pair met in Mississauga in 2001, when both were working at Montana’s Cookhouse Restaurant—Steve as a bartender/waiter, Derek as a magician. They quickly became a couple, bonding in part over their shared love of animals. (To this day, Esther shares the house with two dogs, two cats, three rabbits and “a handful of minnows.”) But since bringing Esther home, their animal love has grown into a deeper respect for the role animals have in their lives, and how they want to treat all living creatures.
Not that Esther’s homecoming was without its challenges. In fact, Derek and Steve advise others not to bring a pig into their home, both because of the headaches it brings and also because of the great need among other pigs. “If people want a pig in their life, we recommend they contact their local sanctuary and adopt a pig that way,” says Derek. “Just Google animal sanctuaries in your area. You can adopt a pig by paying for its food and upkeep, and you can visit the pig any time; it’s an open door when you sponsor an animal at a sanctuary.”
Once the duo definitively decided to keep their “mini” pig, and replaced Derek’s nickname for her (Kijiji) with a “comfortable, old-fashioned” name that seemed to suit Esther, they launched into a “nightmarish” eight months. To start with, about a month after they brought her home, a vet “rang the alarms” that Esther might not truly be a mini-pig.
“It was all speculation, at first,” says Derek. “The vet pointed out that Esther’s tail was cut, which no breeder would ever do, and she also had a scar that was consistent with spaying.” Still, without confirmation that Esther wasn’t a mini-pig, her dads started charting her growth—just to be sure. “Esther went off the growth chart page immediately. At our next vet visit, she was about 60lbs, and we still were holding onto the fact that she might just be a big girl.”
Her dads kept up that hope until she was about 250lbs. Finally, they realized it was time to ditch the plan to train her to use a giant dog crate as a litter box and start re-training her to do her business outside. It was a long haul. But in spite of the many hassles, Esther stole her dads’ hearts, forcing them to re-evaluate how they lived their lives and reconsider what really matters.
Before meeting Esther, Steve and Derek were animal lovers, but they also loved their steak. “Derek’s family is hard-core meat-eaters, and I used to think a burger wasn’t a burger unless it had bacon on it,” says Steve. “I am the fussiest and pickiest eater that you could ever imagine; I admittedly don‘t like vegetables. But we became vegans, and we’ve never looked back. If we can do it, anybody can.”
The pair started by going vegetarian, but within a year, they’d fully committed to being vegan—in their diets, and also in the clothes they wear and products they buy. “Anybody can change, you just need to want to,” says Steve. “You can’t be forced to. Nobody will ever be able to force you to make a change like that; you’ve got to do it because you want to. But the minute you actually make that decision and say, ‘You know what, I can do better,’ whether it be because of your own health or because of a relationship with an animal like Esther or for environmental reasons, whatever it may be, once you make that commitment and that decision, it’s so easy.”
Derek and Steve’s plans for Esther’s Kitchen are to make veganism more accessible, featuring recipes for “familiar, home-style stuff” that people may not even realize is vegan. “We’ll post pictures of pizzas, and people still comment sometimes, ‘I thought everything was vegan,’” says Steve. “They don’t realize there’s dairy-free cheese available. So it’s all about drawing people in, in recognizable ways. Showing them a vegan burger and fries, chili—things they’re already making and eating at home that can just be tweaked a little bit to be made Esther-approved.”
Steve says he feels healthier since going vegan, and that both he and Derek have lost a few pounds. But for Derek, it was losing a different, much heavier weight that has improved his well-being. “It’s my spiritual health that feels better,” he says. “I don’t feel like I have this heavy burden on me anymore, like I’m fueling animal exploitation and promoting perpetual every time I hand down money at the grocery store. I don’t feel that way anymore; I completely feel that that weight is gone.”
“But I don’t think you know you have that burden until you decide to do this,” says Steve.
“That’s exactly it,” says Derek.
“Once you decide to go vegan, you feel like you’ve got this weight lifted off your shoulders,” says Steve, “even if you hadn’t realized before that the weight was even there.”
A question of intelligence
When Esther comes up, in print and in conversation with her dads, there’s a lot of talk about her intelligence. Steve and Derek marvel at her ability to open cupboards and remember their contents. Or how she mastered those peanut butter-filled treat balls, even when her dog brothers, Shelby and Reuben, couldn’t keep up.
“When she was little, she’d go back and forth, running straight lines across the living room and dining room,” says Steve. “She’d get everything out of that ball, whereas the dogs would get bored of it or give up on it or lose it within a couple of minutes.”
For all Derek’s magic training, they never had to teach Esther any tricks. Even learning to sit on command came about almost accidentally. When Steve discovered that Esther would fall back on her behind if she reached too high, he pounced on the opportunity; he told her repeatedly to “sit” and then gave her a treat. After only one try, she was able to repeat the action on command, much to her other proud poppa’s surprise and delight. “It was just unbelievable how quickly she picked stuff up,” says Steve.
They also talk lovingly about how hilarious, affectionate and endlessly curious Esther is. “Anything that comes into the house that’s out of place, or if she’s been outside and she comes in and there’s something in the house that wasn’t there before, she’s gotta go explore it and figure out what it is,” says Steve.
With so much emphasis on Esther’s intelligence and disposition, it begs the question: Does it matter? Aren’t all animals worth respecting and protecting, regardless of their IQ or friendliness?
“This is about animal rights in general,” says Steve. “But I think the thing for us is that before Esther came along, we had the same wall up that I think a lot of people have, which is that there’s two different groups of animals: there’s warm, fuzzy, cuddly animals we love, and dolphins; and then there’s farm animals, and they’re held on a totally different level. When we met Esther, it was her intelligence and seeing her beside the dogs that made us think, ‘They’re not really that different at all; they’re only different because we see them differently.’ So it was her intelligence that triggered us.”
While they were still meat-eaters, Steve and Derek found it easy to scroll past graphic videos and images of animals being slaughtered. But when Esther put a face to it all, they were unable to ignore it any longer. “Once we realized that Esther is as intelligent and loving as our dogs, we automatically thought about all the other farm animals,” says Steve. “So we’re promoting Esther because we want people to build a relationship with her, and we hope that opens the door and makes them start questioning everything else. We call it the Esther Effect.”
Happily Ever Esther – Farm Sanctuary
The Esther Effect should kick into high gear once her sanctuary opens. In the coming months, Steve and Derek (and their animal children) will move in and start inviting volunteers to sign up for work days at Happily Ever Esther. Their hope is to open the sanctuary to the public on Esther’s third birthday—Canada Day 2015, a fitting birthday for such a Kickass Canadian.
A big part of the sanctuary will be about showcasing animals in a new light. “We want to level the playing field between animals we see as companions vs. those we see as products,” says Steve. “We want to take down that wall between regular animals and farm animals, and we know we can’t do that with goats or cows, because we can’t train them in the same way. So a big focus will be on the pigs. We want to show the pigs in a much more at-home setting.”
The idea is to house the pigs (except Esther, of course, who will live in the main house with her dads) in a place with hard surface floors and blankets for bedding and mattresses—the kind of things you’d see in a dog kennel, not in a barn—so people will realize that pigs are as clean as their environment. Derek recalls introducing Esther recently to a contractor who had been replacing their windows, and the first thing the worker said when he found out a pig lived with them was that it didn’t stink in the house. “A stinking pig is what everyone always thinks and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. “Esther smells amazing.”
In addition to the pigs, the sanctuary will house a range of animals, including chickens and goats, plus the porcupines and raccoons who have made the place their home while it’s in development. And Steve and Derek already have a horse and donkey lined up to join them when they start living in the sanctuary this autumn. “A woman was driving by them every day and she fell in love with them,” says Steve. “When she stopped to feed them, the owner told her they were going to auction, and she was just heartbroken. So she sought sanctuary for them.”
But “the only home she could find for her animals was a slaughterhouse,” says Derek. “The majority of people will rescue a horse or a cow or a pig and then take it and go slaughter it. People are looking at these animals as food and not as sentient beings.”
“They’re worth money dead,” says Steve. “They cost money alive.”
The idea for the sanctuary didn’t come about solely because of Esther. Her dads always planned to have a retirement property (“our own sanctuary”) where they could rescue animals. It’s just that they envisioned it as more of a hobby farm than a public enterprise. But because of the platform Esther has provided—the Esther Effect—things have taken an unpredictable turn for the better.
Earlier this year, when Steve and Derek truly acknowledged that Esther was a commercial hog and no overgrown mini-pig, they figured they had two options: put her in a sanctuary or sell her back to auction. “Being sold to auction would never have happened, because we love her so much,” says Derek. So they looked into sanctuaries. But they quickly realized that they were all “full, overloaded and under great duress. And we didn’t want to be part of the problem. So we decided instead to be part of the solution.”
The dads pitched the idea of opening a sanctuary to their Facebook followers, who numbered about 100,000 at the time, and “everybody immediately erupted into applause,” says Derek. Ever the consummate performer, Derek knew a great reaction when he saw it. He also knew in no uncertain terms what they were facing. “Opening a sanctuary is a show stopper,” he says. “It’s a life changer. Steve and I really thought about what it would mean to launch something this big.”
They decided to jump in with both feet anyway. When they found their dream property in Campbellville this April, they got the gracious owners to agree to take it off the market for 60 days so Steve and Derek could raise the funds for the $905,000 mortgage. They launched their Indiegogo campaign on May 1, 2014, and by the time it wrapped up on June 30, they had successfully raised $440,195—more than 100% of their $400,000 goal. (They’ll take care of the rest of the mortgage by selling their current home.)
As significant as their financial contribution is, Steve and Derek’s commitment to Happily Ever Esther is about more than just covering the costs. Steve will keep up his real estate work, but Derek’s magic has taken a back seat, and will continue to, given that it’s mostly weekend work (although they plan to find a way to incorporate his magic into the sanctuary). Esther’s dads field thousands of comments a day, from the Facebook page alone. The store, which sells Esther-inspired shirts, bumper stickers and jewellery, brings in enough money for them to pay a full-time Executive Assistant. But one thing they will never hand over the reins on is replying personally to every message, and selecting the photos and captions.
“That’s all Derek and me,” says Steve. “We’ll never let go of that stuff, because that’s Esther’s voice. That’s what this is all about.”
No small wonder
So they’re forging ahead with something that is, as Derek says, “bigger than us.” Even against all odds. “I surprised myself that I’m in this,” says Steve. “For both of us to dive in the way that we have, it’s so far from what either of us expected our lives to be. I don’t think we could be anything but surprised.”
Surprised or not, they have the best of intentions and the highest of hopes for the sanctuary. First and foremost, they want it to provide a place for people to make the same connection with animals that they did, so that it will lead them to start exploring alternatives and looking at other ways to be more sustainable and healthier.
“The more we learn about being vegan, the more we realize that, for us, it’s not just about the animals,” says Steve. “I mean that’s a huge part of it, but it’s also about our personal health and environmental health and world hunger issues. There’s so many reasons why exploring a vegan lifestyle is something that everybody really should take a very good, hard look at.”
But they also have a second overriding goal in mind for Esther’s sanctuary: that it serves as a model for other sanctuaries. “We’re not lifelong activists who have been working our whole lives toward opening a sanctuary,” says Steve. “I think we’re coming at it from a little bit more of a business point of view. As soon as we started visiting sanctuaries, they were all very quick to say how hard it is, and that money is a constant issue. So we asked ourselves, ‘Why is it a constant issue?’ Look at all these agrotourism companies that are coming up, the apple farms and the pick-your-own-berries places; these are solely businesses relying on people coming and buying things so they can be self-sustainable. So why aren’t sanctuaries modelling a bit of that aspect as well? You’ve got to have a reason for people to come to your sanctuary, and you’ve got to be open to the public.”
That’s the thinking behind becoming a registered charity, a process they’ve already initiated, and charging a suggested donation for every visit to the sanctuary. It’s also why they’re planning the Community Garden, both to show people how easy it is to grow their own produce at home, and to sell their fruit and veggies in the farm market.
“We want the sanctuary to be as self-sustaining as possible,” says Steve. “The Community Garden engages people to come back time and time again. We’ll also host family events; we’ll set up a screen and do outdoor family movie nights and charge a little bit of admission for that. There’s all kinds of different ways we want to explore to help the sanctuary sustain itself.”
With plans well underway for Happily Ever Esther, I can’t help but wonder how Esther herself is reacting to all of this. So I ask: What do you think Esther would say if she could talk?
“It’s really funny because it’s almost like she knows,” says Steve. “You’ll see it in her pictures; the eye contact she makes with the camera is mind-boggling. It’s almost like if you pull out a camera and you put it in her face and she looks at you, she’s got this little grin on her face. There’s part of me that feels like she knows what’s happening. I think if she could say something, she’d say, ‘It’s about time you noticed.’ Because we’ve ignored it for so long.”
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For the latest on Esther and her dads, visit estherthewonderpig.com, ‘Like’ her Facebook page, join Esther’s Army, follow @EstherThePig on Twitter and check out her YouTube channel. You can also help support the sanctuary by making a donation.
To adopt a farm animal of your own, please Google your local sanctuaries and find out how you can get involved.
Thank you to Jo-Anne Guimond for nominating this wondrous trio, and to Esther the Wonder Pig’s Executive Assistant, Gilda Berlingieri, for making this interview possible.