Sometimes, people cry when they arrive at the farm sanctuary in Canada because seeing 650-pound Esther the Wonder Pig in real life is just too emotionally overwhelming.
Esther is a house pig who has about a million and a half followers on her social media accounts. She owns trunks full of clothing, including coats, bonnets and several handmade evening gowns, all sent to her from fans around the world.
Just to repeat, she’s a house pig. And she weighs about the same as three football linebackers put together.
“It’s very surreal,” Steve Jenkins, who adopted Esther in 2012, said about the pig’s celebrity.
Esther is one of countless domestic pigs around the world. But she’s arguably the most revered swine on the planet, a sow with a following so large that on any given day, a hundred thousand people might swoon online over a single photo or video of her.
The story of how a tiny piglet became Esther the Wonder Pig started in 2012 when Jenkins got a message from an acquaintance on Facebook saying she had a five-pound micro piglet but couldn’t care for it anymore because she just had twins. She asked whether Jenkins wanted the pig. It shouldn’t grow to more than 70 pounds, she told him.
“I said, ‘Yes, of course I’m interested, I love animals,’” Jenkins recalled.
At the time, Jenkins, 34, and his partner Derek Walter, 35, lived in a three-bedroom ranch-style house in Georgetown, a small hamlet in Ontario, with two dogs, three cats, two turtles and a koi pond in the back yard. They both worked from home, Jenkins as a real estate agent and Walter as a professional magician.
Jenkins said he figured the pig would be like a third dog. But he knew adopting her was risky for two reasons: He hadn’t talked to Walter about it yet, and having hooved animals was not legal in Georgetown, a small community of about 40,000 people.
The acquaintance delivered the sow to Jenkins wrapped in a blanket and tucked in a laundry basket. Walter, as predicted, was unhappy when Jenkins arrived home with her, but the tiny, snugly pig soon grew on him.
“The first couple of weeks, we had this baby animal in our house,” Jenkins said. “Anybody that has a bleeding heart loves baby animals; you can’t help but fall in love.”
They named her Esther because they thought it was a sweet, old-fashioned name, and decided to take her to the vet. That was their first clue Esther wasn’t going to stay tiny. Right away, the vet noticed her cropped tail, a sign that she was livestock.
“He told me, ‘I’m pretty sure you’re dealing with a commercial pig here,’ ” Jenkins recalled. “She could get to be 250 pounds.”
Jenkins tried to reach out to the woman who gave him Esther to find out more about where the pig had come from, but she didn’t respond to messages. Jenkins said he’d already become attached to Esther, making her a bed in the living room, and figured she’d be larger than the dogs. Not ideal, he thought, but manageable.
But soon after, Esther started eating like, well, a pig, sometimes gaining as much as a pound a day. Her diet consisted of pig food bought in a store and was supplemented with tomatoes, cucumbers and whatever Jenkins and Walter were eating. They stopped eating bacon, for obvious reasons, then cut out all meat and became vegan.
Esther impressed them with her smarts. She figured out how to open the refrigerator, the cabinets and lever-handled doors using her snout. She would quietly sneak food when she thought they weren’t paying attention. They trained her to go to the bathroom either in a litter box or outside. They rewarded her with a cookie when she’d relieve herself outside, until they figured out Esther was tricking them by making a squatting stance, even if she didn’t have to go, just to get the cookie.
“She was incredible from the day we brought her home, super clever,” Jenkins said. “We’d see an intelligence in her we didn’t even see in our dogs.”
Esther kept growing at an alarming pace. Three months after they got her, she was 70 pounds. By the first year, she weighed 250 pounds. They learned from the Internet that it would probably be the second year when she would fatten herself up and get really big.
She had a litter box in Jenkins’s home office that at first was the size for a cat. Eventually, they bought a kiddie pool to replace it. Even that wasn’t large enough.
“It was hard on us. At our lowest point, I’d be in tears thinking we had to get rid of her,” Jenkins said.
But they couldn’t find a suitable place to send her. All the sanctuaries they found were at capacity. The more time they spent with her, the more they became attached to her. The dogs accepted her as one of their own, chasing and playing with her.
When Esther was about 18 months old, she tipped the scales at 420 pounds.
She made them laugh so often, Jenkins created a Facebook page for Esther in December 2013 to show friends and family their crazy situation. The page got 100,000 likes in 80 days. People loved her, it seemed, just as much as they did. Handmade clothes for Esther started arriving at their house.
Esther kept expanding, and so did her popularity. Jenkins and Walter realized they could not keep Esther in their house, both because she was way too big for it and because she was not legally allowed to be there.
By May 2014, she had 250,000 enthusiastic and exuberant followers. Jenkins and Walter were worried.
“We knew she was illegal. We were flaunting the fact we were breaking the law. She was 450 pounds, and we splashed her all over social media,” Jenkins said, adding that she was often wearing a housecoat or bonnet in the photos they posted. “We knew what we had to do. How we were living wasn’t fair to her.”
They thought only one solution would work: start their own sanctuary with a house where they could all live comfortably. That way, Esther would have space to roam, and they could rescue other animals. They didn’t have the money to buy a sanctuary, but if they could get Esther’s fans to help, they might be able to pull it off.
They found a 50-acre farm about 40 minutes’ drive from their house. The price tag was hefty at about $1 million. They put up their request on a crowdfunding site, saying they were hoping to raise $400,000 for a suitable home for Esther.
Within two months, they’d raised $440,000 from 9,000 people in 44 countries. The smallest donation was $5, and the biggest was $50,000.
“It was terrifying,” Jenkins said about how fast the donations poured in. “It was so much bigger than anything we’d ever thought of. It was a phenomenally overwhelming moment.”
In November 2014, they moved into the farm house in Campbellville, Ontario, less than a year after they started Esther’s Facebook page. They called it Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.
They consulted with animal experts and fixed up the sanctuary and their house on the property. Soon, they had a cow, horses, goats and a pregnant pig, in addition to Esther.
From there, things snowballed. They started selling Esther T-shirts and tote bags, offering vegan recipes and tours of the farm. They now maintain 10 social media accounts.
“It happened so fast,” Jenkins said. “It’s been the weirdest change of pace.”
In addition to Jenkins and Walter, there are three full-time staffers on the farm, two who live there and another who lives nearby. Then there are the volunteers. There are about 40 volunteers who work a regular schedule each week, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a whole day. They brush and feed the animals and sometimes scoop their poo. Several times a year, they’ll have an open “work day” when dozens of people come to the farm to lend a hand.
The farm offers tours on many weekends, bringing in hundreds of people each month for a suggested donation of $10 per person.
The farm has an operating budget of $350,000 and survives on donations. The Dixie Chicks visited last year. In July, Ricky Gervais donated more than $25,000 from one of his comedy tours to the sanctuary.
Jenkins said one reason people are drawn to Esther is simply that she makes them smile. Volunteers and tour groups come in large numbers, he said, because the farm has a positive, upbeat atmosphere. So does her online presence. Esther’s social media sites promote and celebrate veganism, but they are not critical of people who eat meat. Jenkins will take down comments he says are from the “vegan police.”
“We hide nasty comments,” Jenkins said. “We stick entirely to funny and relatable posts.”
One of the newer residents of the farm, a turkey named Cornelius has become online famous in his own right. Cornelius also has plenty of handmade outfits: Many of them match Esther’s.
But the heart of the empire that Esther built is still about Esther.
One night, she recently kicked Walter out of bed when she went to snuggle with Jenkins. Esther liked the bed so much, they just gave her the master bedroom after a few nights of Walter sleeping on the couch. Walter and Jenkins moved their room upstairs to the guest room. Esther has an additional day bed in the living room.
“She is a special pig — she’s very different from other pigs,” said Andrea White, who works full time as the farm sanctuary coordinator. “I’m not sure she realizes she’s a pig. She thinks she’s a dog.”
Jenkins and Walter have written a book about her and offer an expanding array of merchandise on the website, including Esther jewelry and artwork. The site invites fans to sign up for a seven-day Carnival cruise in the Caribbean, where they would be joined by like-minded pig lovers and served a customized “Esther approved” menu. Proceeds go to the sanctuary, which now has 50 rescued animals.
Jenkins said he’s not sure exactly why people love Esther the way they do. Every outfit she owns was sent to her. Jenkins was asked so many times for her measurements that he put them on the website.
“The more people look at her and watch her, they build a relationship with her,” Jenkins said. “She’s so relatable…and then they’ll see a video of her and think, ‘Oh I’d love to have a cupcake and a massage for breakfast like she does.’”
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Luis contributed to this report.