Esther strolls the grounds of the farm sanctuary named in her honor often sporting a handmade caftanesque garment and a bonnet tailored to slide over each of her pink fuzzy ears. Cornelius the turkey and the dogs, Shelby and Reuben, accompany her on the jaunt, as do the family’s dads, Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter (the family cats stay behind).
Esther's dads have chronicled the adventures of "Esther the Wonder Pig" and their found family since mid-2013, well after they realized the micro-pig they’d adopted would grow to be nearly 10 times what they’d anticipated.
The family has become a social media phenomenon, with Esther’s Instagram page boasting more than 455,000 followers and her Facebook presence bursting at more than 2 million likes and followers. Fans scroll the Instagram feed for Esther’s latest outfit, her escapades with getting into the family’s food, opening the door to the house and the fridge with her snout, her adventures with Cornelius and the other pets, and the funny, uplifting captions that inevitably accompany each post.
But beyond the average cute animal meme, Esther has offered social media users a glimpse into a nontraditional family that embodies love and acceptance. Since Esther’s rise to social media fame, she’s inspired a book, Esther the Wonder Pig: Changing the World One Heart at a Time; a vegan cooking show on YouTube that Jenkins and Walter host; and the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.
Now, as of early March, there’s an Esther-themed children’s book — The True Adventures of Esther the Wonder Pig, which tells of how, in 2012, Jenkins and Walter thought they'd adopted a micro-pig that would possibly grow to be 70 pounds but soon outgrew her cat bed as a piglet, then her dog bed, and then her children’s mattress. The book from Jenkins, Walter, and Caprice Crane, with illustrations from Cori Doerrfeld, relates how Esther’s dads’ expectations of her changed as she did. As she grew, so did their love for her.
The story of Esther and her dads is also a tale of acceptance; readers of the books will flip through to witness Esther’s dads sharing a bed in a room with their pets, giving her a bath, and hugging and weeping together when they think they’ve lost her.
“One of the primary messages we want to get through to readers of all ages is that families come in all shapes and sizes,” Jenkins told The Advocate. “It’s OK to be different too because that’s what makes your family special. That goes for animals too. We want them to realize how important it is to be kind to all kinds of people, and of course, all kinds of animals.”
The family's story began when the dads were living in a three-bedroom ranch-style home in the small town of Georgetown in Ontario, Canada, and Jenkins received a Facebook message asking if he’d like to adopt a micro-pig to add to their ever-growing brood, which included dogs, cats, turtles, and a koi pond. As their children’s book depicts, Esther outgrew her beds and their house, and Jenkins and Walter moved the family to a farm that is now Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, which provides a safe haven for farm animals that would otherwise meet with an unsavory end.
These days, Jenkins, a former real estate agent, and Walter, a professional magician, devote all of their time to Esther and her benevolent empire, with Jenkins handling the bulk of her social media and Walter in charge of operations on the farm. But Esther’s world was not always intended to be a full-time gig. The men initially began a Facebook page with the simple idea of sharing Esther's life, especially since Georgetown had laws against keeping pigs as pets. They thought they’d distance themselves from breaking those laws by creating a community page. But like all things Esther, her social media presence soon blossomed into something outsized.
“We thought a dedicated page could allow us to show everybody what she was up to without drawing attention to us personally. It didn't work out the way, though, because we didn’t anticipate the page going viral,” Jenkins said. “As Esther’s fans increased, we realized we could shed some light on the use of pigs in the agriculture industry.”
Soon after adopting Esther, the pair gave up pork, and then meat altogether, adopting what they have deemed an “Esther-approved” diet that spawned their YouTube cooking show. Beyond the impression Esther made on their eating habits and their increased awareness of the food industry, they noticed that she simply made people feel good.
“Inexplicably, people started noticing Esther’s smile and her capacity for love. And now, for that reason, she has become a ‘happy place’ for a lot of people,” Walters said. “Somewhere they come to laugh along with her, be reminded to smile on a sad day. They see what could be seen as a very unusual family at first glance, but quickly realize we’re not really that unusual at all. We might not look the same, but we love each other just like any other family does.”
Certainly, the theme of Esther’s children’s book is that love is love.
“We started receiving so many daily messages from adults telling us that Esther’s antics and smiles were able to help them with life's challenges, and that when they shared a video or picture with their children, that they too in turn smiled and laughed,” Jenkins said of writing the book. “So it was just a natural fit for us to expand our reach to a whole new generation.”
While the comments on Esther’s page are primarily messages of joy, there have been some naysayers.
“We have received some negative mail about our relationship. We thank people for their comment and explain to them that we are about kindness and compassion,” Walter said. “And if they are followers, they’ve obviously missed something, as they aren't getting the message. Because, despite their opinions, at the end of the day, we’ll still be gay. ... We have heard from parents who say that they were able to show their child that it was OK to have same-sex parents, that ‘Esther has two dads too.’”
As Esther’s world has been an entry point for fans to discuss love in many forms, Jenkins and Walter have also learned from her and the family they’ve created, like when Cornelius the turkey adopted Esther and then the rest of the family as his flock.
“Esther taught us that all beings just want to be loved, even those that most people just view as food. That pigs are no different from our other pets, that they crave attention, will both give and receive affection, and that all animals, especially farmed animals are so deserving of our love and compassion and should not be treated just as a commodity for man’s insatiable appetites,” Jenkins said.
Learn more about how you can get involved with Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.