By Duncan Strauss
I think it was Bruce Springsteen who famously sang “From small pigs, mama, big pigs one day come.”
Actually, as a magazine chiefly devoted to roots music, we should quickly point out that: (a) Dave Edmunds wrote the song (Bruce covered it), and (b) We’ve taken some porcine liberties with the lyrics.
But I think Edmunds would forgive—heck, probably sanction—the modification, once he learned about the animal for whom his lyric was rewritten: Esther The Wonder Pig.
I know, I know: If someone includes the phrase “The Wonder” in their name, they had better have something pretty momentous to back it up.
Esther has that covered, pal.
Celebrating Esther the Wonder Pig’s second birthday
She’s a bona fide social media phenomenon with 770,000 Facebook followers, and the multiple posts each day on her page typically generate a few thousand “likes,” sometimes several thousand. Too, she’s a major presence on Twitter and Instagram.
This is not to suggest that Esther looks down her snout at more traditional forms of storytelling.
She’s published a book, Esther The Wonder Pig: Changing The World One Heart At A Time, that, as of this writing, sits at Number Two on The New York Times Best Sellers list of animal books.
Now, of course, Esther didn’t actually write the book—she’s not that much of a Wonder. Besides, hooves on a keyboard yield too many typos.
The book was primarily penned by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter, the couple that adopted Esther when she was a three-pound piglet and look after her today as a 650-pound marvel.
The story of how Esther entered Jenkins and Walter’s life involve a big heart and a big lie, Jenkins recalled in a May 24 Talking Animals interview.
“My partner, Derek, and I have always been big animal lovers,” said Jenkins, an ebullient man who often punctuates his comments with deep, hearty laughs.
“And I had an opportunity come, via Facebook of all places, from an old friend to adopt a micro-pig, which is what I was told she was–a micro-pig, and she would be 70 pounds full grown.
“I was immediately infatuated with the idea, and things moved super fast. Later that night, I was told someone else was interested, that I needed to decide right away, and I jumped on it.
“So I brought her home without previously discussing it with Derek, showed up at home with this little, three pound, adorable, tiny little piglet that has become Esther.
Meet Esther the Wonder Pig
“It happened really quickly. At three in the afternoon on a Friday, I had never, ever considered owning a pet pig, and by 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, I had one. [Big laugh.]
The book makes it clear that Jenkins’ Facebook friend knew he was a longtime animal lover, and a soft touch—so that’s why this piglet S.O.S. was directed at him.
“Yeah, “ he said, “I was always the one to bring home the baby bird or the injured squirrel-–I was a magnet for animals. And I always, always loved animals.
“So it was just natural for me to be intrigued. I think she knew I was intrigued. I think most people would be—but who would actually follow through?” [That rib-rattling laugh again.]
In following through, he gleaned in fairly short order that this micro-pig that had been promised to tap out at 70 pounds was actually a commercial pig heading toward nearly 10 times that weight.
This might be the moment to point out they were living in an 1100-square foot bungalow in a suburb outside of Toronto.
But Jenkins wasn’t steamed. Indeed, I’d be hard pressed to think of someone who ended up more delightfully duped. When I suggest this to Jenkins, he agrees, mostly by way of another peal of laughter.
Not that the initial months of life with Esther were dreamy. In Esther The Wonder Pig, Jenkins and his co-authors recall all sorts of mischief made by the titular pig, including tipping over the stove after her Dads left groceries sitting there too long before getting around to putting them away.
She seems to be deft at getting out of the doghouse. Beyond her industrial-strength charm, Esther projects a magical quality that prevents the guys from getting angry with her, no matter how major the misdeed.
“She does, “ Jenkins quickly confirmed.
“There’s a personality and a character in her, and I think, in all pigs. We had never experienced anything like that before. We’ve always had dogs, and cats, I had a snake in school—we’ve always had animals as part of the family.
“But never, ever had either of us met an animal that had such—this is going to sound really weird—human qualities to her, just in the personality and the character. And her eyes. Her eyes are unbelievable. “
Esther’s human quality, her singular personality and impalpable magic figured into the winsome amalgam that helps account for her explosive rise as a social media pig prodigy.
It’s pretty remarkable, particularly the way Esther’s Facebook page soared past three-quarters of a million followers. Even now, Jenkins seems hard-pressed to explain it.
“Yeah, it’s crazy, and it’s getting crazier,” Jenkins said in our May conversation. “The page almost doubled in followers since April, and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people in the last few months. I mean, it’s just been crazy.
“I really don’t know why, to be honest. I think there are so many different parts that add up for different people. We noticed the first real wave of Esther support was absolutely the animal rights community.
“I think there’s a very obvious reason she’s popular in the animal rights community: because it was a chance for people to see a pig living a happy life, where a lot of people in the animal rights community see very, very sad and troubling imagery all the time.
“So to see a pig like Esther, in the complete opposite situation, it’s a bright spot in the day of some people who do really, really tough work.
“So I think that’s why she became very popular with them so quickly. But then, as they started sharing that stuff, their other circle of friends started to see a different type of post coming from them.
“So rather than it always being this doom and gloom stuff, occasionally they’d share happy posts from Esther that would draw somebody else in. A post that they might have ignored in the past, that was much more graphic or direct, they’d see this come across [their Facebook feed], and it would be intriguing.
“It’s not very often that you see a 500-pound pig sprawled out on a loveseat in a living room, right? [big staccato bursts of laughter!]
As the popularity and sunny appeal of that pig’s page broadened out, there was another significant transformation happening inside Esther headquarters.
Longtime, devoted meat eaters, Jenkins and Walter started to become troubled by the practice. Mainly, there was the nagging cognitive dissonance of having fallen in love with this sweet swine, while still chomping on pork chops and bacon.
Esther the Wonder Pig: A loving tribute video
Jenkins outlined the light bulb moment that happened one day when Walter was cooking bacon.
“Esther was at his feet, bacon was sizzling on the stove, and the smell was in the house, and it was too much. I looked at him and said, ‘Derek, I don’t think I can eat that.’ He said, ‘I don’t think I can, either.’ That was it. He shut if off.”
In a long, peppy narrative—laced with more than a little self-mocking (and that signature laugh)—Jenkins described the journey the couple embarked on from that bacon revelation, gradually making further changes toward veganism, spurred in part by Netflix viewings of such acclaimed documentaries as Vegucated, Forks Over Knives and Cowspiracy.
One running theme of his saga is that he’s never taken kindly to the use of graphic imagery to educate people to the horrors of factory farming, or persuade them to ponder going vegan.
Another, related one is that he and Walter have never appreciated a preachy approach, which they consider ineffective and often alienating.
So as they were undergoing their transformation, they were especially conscious of ensuring the messages they posted in Esther’s social media were light, understated and likely to encourage dialog, rather than squelch it. They even tend to avoid the word “vegan.”
“We call it ‘Esther approved,’” that’s the term we use on Esther’s page,” Jenkins said. “Then, they might ask ‘Well, what is that? What does that mean?’ Rather than ‘Oh, God, they’re vegan, I know what that means, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
Jenkins goes on to describe how despite the gentle tone of their posts about “Esther approved” topics, some ugliness—and what he called head-butting—broke out on her page.
This squabbling boiled down to some folks commenting, for example, that inspired by Esther, they too had given up eating pork products, to which some Esther devotees—sometimes including Jenkins and Walter—would reply with warm, congratulatory messages.
But others, Jenkins recalled, would respond with disappointment, saying this was hardly enough, issuing aggressive challenges to also forsake chicken, beef, and more.
Given the men’s personal journey and philosophical stance—not to mention the warm, welcoming, friendly vibe they’ve cultivated on Esther’s Facebook page—they found this counter-productive and infuriating.
They set down some ground rules for these types of exchanges, and occasionally had to implement some punitive measures for those who broke those rules.
“It sounds so strange,” Jenkins said, “but we’ve had to block and ban more of what we call angry vegans from Esther’s page than we’ve had to remove bacon trolls.
“Because they come in guns blazing, and just tearing people apart–or tearing us apart, because we congratulated somebody or encouraged somebody for taking that step.
“Our comment is always ‘Good for you. If you ever need any help, go check out Esther’s Kitchen. It’s full of Esther-approved recipes we think you’ll like.”
This sort of kerfuffle has largely disappeared, owing both to the further evolution of the Esther page and attendant universe, and that there are now moderators who keep an eye on the comments, flagging for Esther Headquarters any pugnacious posts or inappropriate video clips.
Over the years, there have been other, more overtly tangible changes in the Esther realm, most notably that Jenkins and Walter have moved from their home to a sprawling, 50-acre old farm in Campbellville, Ontario that’s been repurposed as a farm sanctuary, Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.
One thing that’s remained constant, even in the wake of this ever-expanding phenomenon and now the demands of operating a sanctuary that requires the care and feeding of 40 animals: Jenkins still handles all the Esther posts—several daily–himself.
Early on, he gave Esther a voice, so the posts read as her observations and commentary. Truth be told, there are really only two or three themes—involving her eating, involving her sleeping, involving her eating (again)—yet the posts are consistently witty and engaging.
And the not-so-secret weapon is the imagery: The posts always present excellent, appealing photos, and sometimes, at least equally irresistible video clips.
Jenkins recalled that one day, because he didn’t want to have three posts in a row lying down in her bed, he decided to feed her cantaloupe.
The clip “went nuts,” he said. “I think it’s up to 148 million views or something outrageous like that. That week alone, the page jumped hundred-something thousand followers in seven days. It just ignited.”
(I remember being struck more by a similar clip of Jenkins spoon feeding Esther from a carton of Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice cream.)
But even as the Esther Empire expands its holdings, Jenkins pledges to always be the post-er behind the Pig.
“I will never let go of the captions and the photographs of Esther, because nobody knows her the way we do,” he declared, adding one more hearty laugh for good measure.
About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.