Very Im­por­tant Pig

What a 650-pound celebrity an­i­mal teaches us about our­selves

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Ja­son Mcbride

The Hap­pily Ever Es­ther Farm Sanc­tu­ary, about six­ty­five kilo­me­tres south­west of Toronto, is home to around sixty-five res­cued farm an­i­mals, in­clud­ing pigs named Her­cules, April, and Len, a goat known as Di­ablo, and a cow whose moniker, Pouty Face, per­fectly matches her cud­dly de­meanour. These an­i­mals have come from a va­ri­ety of places: some are from pet­ting zoos, some have lit­er­ally fallen off of trucks, and one was aban­doned at the sanc­tu­ary’s front gate, pre­sum­ably be­cause its own­ers could no longer care for it. Other an­i­mals hadn’t been cared for at all — two of the sanc­tu­ary’s eight sheep were found, still squirm­ing, on a farm’s so-called dead pile, where castoff ca­dav­ers are heaped. Many of the an­i­mals at the sanc­tu­ary are fac­tory-farm refugees, raised ex­pressly to be con­sumed. At Hap­pily Ever Es­ther, they will in­stead live out their nat­u­ral lives in com­fort and safety. The an­i­mals, or “res­i­dents,” as the own­ers of the sanc­tu­ary pre­fer to call them, in­habit the twenty-hectare farm: the pigs stay in the main barn plus one fenced-in hectare of roam­able for­est and one of pas­ture; the chick­ens overnight in a sun-dap­pled en­clo­sure also in­hab­ited by two Mus­covy ducks and a cou­ple of gar­ru­lous pea­cocks; a few cows, a horse, and a don­key oc­cupy a four-hectare pad­dock; and a colony of rab­bits lives in a condo-like com­plex known as Bunny Town. But Hap­pily Ever Es­ther’s epony­mous res­i­dent lives in nei­ther barn nor pad­dock. Rather, Es­ther, a 650-pound, six-year-old pig, shares a farm­house with the sanc­tu­ary’s pro­pri­etors, Steve Jenk­ins and Derek Wal­ter. She has her own bed­room, just off the en­trance to the house, though the room has be­come a bit dingy — the broad­loom is stained, the cup­cake-pat­terned wall­pa­per peel­ing — as a ren­o­va­tion, which will open her room to the back­yard, is im­mi­nent. But Es­ther usu­ally prefers the sun­room, where she can snooze on a tat­tered, queen-size mat­tress. The first floor of the house could, in fact, be called Es­ther Town — paint­ings and pho­to­graphs of the pig cover ev­ery wall, and porcine sculp­tures and other tchotchkes oc­cupy most cor­ners. On a shelf above Es­ther’s mat­tress are copies of the books that Jenk­ins and Wal­ter have writ­ten about her, as well as a throw pil­low em­bla­zoned with “CHANGE the WORLD.” In many ways, Es­ther ex­ists far be­yond her faded room or even the sanc­tu­ary it­self. On­line, she is known as Es­ther the Won­der Pig. Close to a mil­lion and a half peo­ple fol­low her on Face­book, about half a mil­lion on In­sta­gram, and 50,000 on Twit­ter. On so­cial me­dia, Es­ther’s life is doc­u­mented in de­tail, even if her life pretty much con­sists of sleep­ing, sleep­ing, palling around with a turkey named Cor­nelius, wear­ing silly wigs and out­fits, sleep­ing, snug­gling her dads, and sleep­ing. Her Youtube chan­nel, on which Wal­ter and Jenk­ins also host an oc­ca­sional low-tech cook­ing show, whip­ping up “Es­ther-ap­proved” ve­gan dishes, has more than 22,000 sub­scribers. She is the Kim Kar­dashian West of the hog world, mak­ing ap­pear­ances on, among other shows, ABC’S Night­line and the CBC’S The Na­ture of Things. In early March, Wal­ter and Jenk­ins re­leased their first chil­dren’s book, The True Ad­ven­tures of Es­ther the Won­der Pig. In July, they pub­lished Hap­pily Ever Es­ther: Two Men, a Won­der Pig, and Their Life-chang­ing Mis­sion to Give An­i­mals a Home, with a fore­word by ac­tor Alan Cum­ming, a se­quel to their 2016 New York Times best­seller, Es­ther the Won­der Pig. An Es­ther store, housed in a grey-and-pink trailer on the sanc­tu­ary grounds, sells Es­ther-themed jew­ellery, T-shirts, one­sies, cal­en­dars, and toques. An au­to­graphed photo of Es­ther — signed with a rub­ber stamp of her hoof­print — goes for $20. In 2016, Wal­ter and Jenk­ins be­gan an an­nual Es­ther Cruise, a week-long Caribbean cruise dur­ing which the cou­ple re­gales pas­sen­gers with mul­ti­me­dia pre­sen­ta­tions about the sanc­tu­ary. (As peo­ple-friendly and house­bro­ken as she may be, Es­ther does not go on the ship.) For sev­eral years, an­i­mal shel­ters and res­cue cen­tres have used so­cial me­dia to find homes for pets, and most farm sanc­tu­ar­ies now have at least a rudi­men­tary on­line pres­ence. Hap­pily Ever Es­ther, how­ever, was cre­ated in re­verse: Es­ther was a so­cial-me­dia phe­nom­e­non long be­fore she in­spired Wal­ter and Jenk­ins to open the sanc­tu­ary. “So­cial me­dia al­lowed us to in­tro­duce an an­i­mal like Es­ther to peo­ple in a way that was pre­vi­ously im­pos­si­ble,” Jenk­ins says. “We’re just two peo­ple that started in a house in Ge­orge­town that are now able to reach be­tween 4 and 7 mil­lion peo­ple ev­ery week on Face­book. And we didn’t spend a dime to do it. Fif­teen years ago, none of this would have hap­pened. We would still have Es­ther, but no­body would have known about her.” And with that un­prece­dented aware­ness came an un­ex­pected re­spon­si­bil­ity — if peo­ple cared this much about one funny pig, couldn’t they, shouldn’t they, care about the wel­fare of all pigs? And, by ex­ten­sion, all an­i­mals? Es­ther’s hardly the only an­i­mal celebrity on the in­ter­net. You might have heard of, or just as likely thrilled to, the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of Doug the Pug, Grumpy Cat, Ce­cil the lion (RIP), or the adorable an­i­mals that end­lessly pop­u­late the pop­u­lar In­sta­gram ac­count @chill­wildlife. So­cial me­dia high­lights our con­fused, cu­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship to an­i­mals — both ob­ject of wor­ship and ob­ject of scorn, just like us and ab­so­lutely for­eign to us, dis­ap­pear­ing and al­ways present — but it also ful­fills the fun­da­men­tal hu­man de­sire to some­how col­lapse the wall be­tween their world and ours. Vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ences of the nat­u­ral world al­low us, in an un­ex­pected way, to forge re­la­tion­ships with an­i­mals that zoos and cir­cuses and sa­faris can’t al­low: in­ti­mate, fan­tas­tic, and shame­lessly an­thro­po­mor­phic. Es­ther’s so­cial me­dia knocks down that wall al­most en­tirely — with her bizarre, pam­pered, highly vis­i­ble life, she is re­shap­ing how hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, if not more, see an en­tire species. The para­dox is that the more Es­ther lives like a hu­man, with all the con­tra­dic­tions that en­tails, the more she re­minds hu­mans that an­i­mals are de­serv­ing of lives as rich and full as our own.

Steve Jenk­ins nar­rates Es­ther the Won­der Pig and, in the book, comes off as self- dep­re­cat­ing, sen­ti­men­tal, and un­abashedly corny. In per­son, how­ever, both he and Wal­ter

are thought­ful and clearly de­voted to their work. The two met in 2001 at a res­tau­rant in Mis­sis­sauga, On­tario, where Jenk­ins worked as a bar­tender and Wal­ter a ta­ble­side ma­gi­cian. Jenk­ins was not quite out then, but they started dat­ing and have been to­gether ever since. Jenk­ins, thirty-six, is lean and dark haired, with the perma-grin of a por­poise; Wal­ter, a year older, has red­dish-brown hair and a fond­ness for jaunty neck scarves. In the few times we met over the course of a month, they were usu­ally dressed in Es­ther­branded mer­chan­dise, like T-shirts that read, “Peace. Love. Es­ther.” or free­bies from the likes of Amy’s Kitchen, a vege­tar­ian food com­pany. Three years af­ter they met, the two moved to Ge­orge­town, a small com­mu­nity about an hour’s drive from Toronto, where Jenk­ins be­came a real es­tate agent. They were typ­i­cal an­i­mal lovers, with a hand­ful of dogs and cats, un­til 2012, when Jenk­ins re­ceived a ran­dom Face­book mes­sage from a friend try­ing to off-load a twenty-cen­time­tre, six-mon­thold mini pig she said she’d bought off Ki­jiji that wasn’t get­ting along with her dogs. Jenk­ins jumped at the op­por­tu­nity. “A mini pig?” he thought. “That sounds adorable. Who wouldn’t want a mini pig?” But Es­ther, as it turned out, was not a mini pig. There’s no such thing as a mini pig breed, even though breed­ers use the terms mini pig or mi­cro pig or teacup pig to pass off young and un­der­fed pot-bel­lied pigs as a smaller, cuter pet. And af­ter Jenk­ins had per­suaded Wal­ter to keep her, af­ter they had house-trained her, sort of, af­ter they had con­vinced their re­spec­tive fam­i­lies that they weren’t in­sane, sort of, only then did they re­al­ize that their new pet was, in fact, a com­mer­cial pig that could eas­ily reach 700 pounds. But they didn’t want to give her up. Es­ther was play­ful, cud­dly, and as af­fec­tion­ate and smart as their dogs (she could open any locked cup­board, for one thing, and, when be­ing house­bro­ken, quickly learned to pre­tend to pee in or­der to get a treat). They fell in love with her, and af­ter just a few weeks, she had taken over their lives. They stopped eat­ing pork and, a few months and a cou­ple of doc­u­men­taries later, gave up eat­ing meat en­tirely. They also, as re­counted in ex­haus­tive, comic de­tail in Es­ther the Won­der Pig, pig-proofed their house. It ba­si­cally meant re­order­ing their lives around Es­ther — rarely leav­ing her alone, re­mov­ing any and all food from the kitchen (if she didn’t eat it, she’d hap­pily re­dis­tribute it, be it bas­mati rice or canola oil, all over the house), and clean­ing up, in Jenk­ins’s words, “prodi­gious amounts of piggy pee and poop.” They also started post­ing pic­tures of Es­ther on Face­book. Cute, sweet, funny pic­tures. Es­ther curled up with

the dogs! Es­ther scarf­ing down cup­cakes! Es­ther in a dress in a kid­die pool! Like any proud par­ents, Jenk­ins and Wal­ter wanted to share with far-flung rel­a­tives im­ages of their new­est fam­ily mem­ber. But, in­stantly, the pig’s page started at­tract­ing fol­low­ers they didn’t know. The page was shared by Toronto Pig Save, an an­i­mal-rights or­ga­ni­za­tion that holds vig­ils for pigs on their way to slaugh­ter. Other an­i­mal-rights and ve­gan groups like­wise shared it. The gen­eral pub­lic got wind of it, and as noted in Es­ther the Won­der Pig, ten days af­ter Jenk­ins posted his first pic­ture, Es­ther’s Face­book page had more than 6,000 fol­low­ers. A month later, it had 30,000. “It was just happy mes­sag­ing,” Jenk­ins says of the re­ac­tion. “Ev­ery­body’s used to see­ing, in the ve­gan world, when you’re try­ing to ad­vo­cate for pigs, pigs up­side down with­out any heads, stuff like that. And here was a full-sized pig in the house, sleep­ing on the couch.” Wal­ter and Jenk­ins en­cour­aged plant­based eat­ing and an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy on the page but es­chewed hard-nosed ac­tivism or any whiff of con­fronta­tion or ex­trem­ism (as­sid­u­ously avoid­ing the word ve­gan, for one thing). Their mes­sage was two pronged: it pro­moted an­i­mal rights, and com­ing from a gay cou­ple, it also cel­e­brated tol­er­ance in gen­eral. Jenk­ins quotes the hu­man­i­tar­ian Paul Farmer in the epi­logue of Es­ther the Won­der Pig: “The idea that some lives mat­ter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” This kinder, softer ap­proach seemed to work: Jenk­ins and Wal­ter were over­whelmed by peo­ple who told them how just see­ing Es­ther, a happy pig hang­ing out with happy hu­mans, had led them to stop eat­ing meat, or opened their eyes to how in­tel­li­gent pigs re­ally were, or even, in the case of one sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian in Mon­treal, helped them learn English. Less than three months af­ter the cou­ple had launched Es­ther’s Face­book page, she had over 100,000 fol­low­ers. An­i­mal ac­tivism has al­ways had a mar­ket­ing prob­lem, but Es­ther is, un­de­ni­ably, asolid brand. The at­ten­tion was dizzy­ing. But it also posed a threat. Jenk­ins and Wal­ter sus­pected that they couldn’t legally keep a com­mer­cial pig in their 1,000-square­foot home in sub­ur­ban Ge­orge­town. (They were right — it is, in fact, il­le­gal to keep “swine” on non-agri­cul­tural-zoned land in the area.) But, now fully ve­gan and far more aware of an­i­mal-wel­fare is­sues than they were pre-es­ther, Jenk­ins and Wal­ter had an idea. They knew from Face­book that there were hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, and prob­a­bly many more, who sup­ported them, their pig, and the ideals they es­poused. The “Es­ther Ef­fect,” as Jenk­ins had termed her lifechang­ing im­pact, could be even big­ger.

“Any­body that helps an­i­mals, in my eyes, is do­ing it out of love. But love doesn’t pay the bills.”

What if they left Ge­orge­town, bought a farm, and opened a sanc­tu­ary for other res­cued farm an­i­mals? It had been done be­fore and with great suc­cess. In 1986, in Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware, the young an­i­mal-rights ac­tivists Gene Baur and Lorri Hous­ton res­cued a sheep from a stock­yard’s dead pile in Lan­caster, Penn­syl­va­nia, and be­gan Farm Sanc­tu­ary, an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic about fac­tory farm­ing. It later grew into a home for res­cued farm an­i­mals, in­clud­ing “down­ers,” those that can’t stand on their own and are of­ten put down. In its early days, Farm Sanc­tu­ary bankrolled its op­er­a­tions by sell­ing veg­gie hot dogs at Grate­ful Dead con­certs. By 1990, with more di­verse fundrais­ing ef­forts, Baur and Hous­ton moved to a run­down, sev­enty-one-hectare farm in up­state New York, where an am­bi­tious cadre of vol­un­teers took care of around 150 res­cued an­i­mals. Farm Sanc­tu­ary now runs three sanc­tu­ar­ies (the two oth­ers are in Cal­i­for­nia) that are home to about 1,000 an­i­mals in to­tal, with the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ex­pan­sion par­al­lel­ing the rise in pub­lic aware­ness of an­i­mal wel­fare and plant-based di­ets. In 1999, out­side of Strat­ford, On­tario, Siob­han and Peter Poole opened Cedar Row Farm Sanc­tu­ary, Canada’s first farm sanc­tu­ary, res­cu­ing hun­dreds of ne­glected, abused, and un­wanted an­i­mals. (They cur­rently take care of eighty.) An ac­cu­rate, up-to- date count of sanc­tu­ar­ies in North Amer­ica is hard to come by, but the Global Fed­er­a­tion of An­i­mal Sanc­tu­ar­ies cur­rently lists 145 that pro­vide homes for farm an­i­mals and also chim­panzees, ele­phants, and tigers that have had pre­vi­ous lives in labs, en­ter­tain­ment, or the ex­otic-pet trade. Sanc­tu­ar­ies are meant to be homes for an­i­mals rather than places for hu­mans to come and gawk. While tra­di­tional zoos and aquar­i­ums still like to think of them­selves as agents of con­ser­va­tion and ed­u­ca­tion, cre­at­ing oth­er­wise im­pos­si­ble con­nec­tions be­tween hu­man and crea­ture, sanc­tu­ar­ies sug­gest a dif­fer­ent les­son: an­i­mals should be pre­served for their own sake, not ours. Nei­ther Jenk­ins nor Wal­ter had ever worked on a farm be­fore or even knew how a sanc­tu­ary might work. But they had never owned a pig be­fore ei­ther. And, with Es­ther, they never had to con­sider sell­ing veg­gie dogs: four months af­ter the Face­book page be­gan, and two years af­ter they’d adopted Es­ther, they launched a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign that raised al­most half a mil­lion dol­lars in two months. In 2015, they pur­chased twenty hectares of fields, for­est, and farm build­ings called Cedar Brook Farm and re­named it Hap­pily Ever Es­ther Farm Sanc­tu­ary.

Aro und one in the af­ter­noon on a cold day in early March, Wal­ter wel­comes me into the farm­house and leads me through a dark foyer fur­nished with car­pet mats, a wood-burn­ing stove, and var­i­ous ar­ti­cles of foul-weather gear, which are scat­tered about. We walk through the small kitchen, where a half-eaten

pizza rests on acut­ting board. Nearby is a small ta­ble and desk­top com­puter, from which Jenk­ins runs Es­ther’s var­i­ous so­cial-me­dia ac­counts. And then, there, right next to Jenk­ins’s makeshift of­fice, is Es­ther her­self, sprawled on her side on her sun­room mat­tress. A red rub­ber dog toy and larger plush dough­nut lie be­side her. Even though I’ve read all of Es­ther’s books and seen count­less pho­tos and videos, I’m still not quite pre­pared for meet­ing her in the flesh. I might well have walked in on Cleopa­tra re­clin­ing on a di­van or stum­bled across an alien life form ac­ci­den­tally left be­hind by her space­craft. She re­ally is enor­mous, as big as a couch. Paler than ex­pected, too, less pink than white, an ef­fect of the light-coloured bris­tles that cover her en­tire body. I’m less sur­prised to see that she seems to be asleep. I in­stinc­tively bend down to hold my hand to her nose, fig­ur­ing that, like a dog, she’d want a sniff. “No, I wouldn’t do that,” Wal­ter says. “Let her come to you.” Es­ther doesn’t move. I pull my hand back. While her size is star­tling, even more so is see­ing such an an­i­mal loung­ing around the house like a sit­com teenager. But the real weird­ness comes less from any­thing an­i­mal­is­tic and more from the fact that she is a celebrity. I feel that same stupid shiver of recog­ni­tion and mild awe that some­times ac­com­pa­nies the pub­lic sight­ing of a fa­mous movie star or mu­si­cian or ath­lete. Later, I sit next to her, some­what war­ily, as Wal­ter takes my pic­ture. I want to touch her, and he tells me where to put my hand, about mid­way up her side. I place it there gin­gerly, as if about to get a man­i­cure. It’s like rest­ing my hand on the side of a 650-pound hot­wa­ter bot­tle, if that hot-wa­ter bot­tle were wrapped in a wire-brush wel­come mat. Es­ther smells faintly, mys­te­ri­ously, of maple syrup — some­thing I later learn is a com­mon odour of some pigs. Even when I sit in the liv­ing room to talk with Wal­ter, I keep glanc­ing at Es­ther across the room like I’ve spot­ted An­gelina Jolie at lunch in Man­hat­tan. She still doesn’t move. But now, I think, it isn’t be­cause she’s a pig who needs to sleep all day; rather, it’s be­cause she’s a diva who can sleep all day. When Jenk­ins and Wal­ter first moved to the farm, they gave Es­ther the choice of where to sleep, think­ing that, with all this new space, she might choose the barn. But, aside from the brief mo­ment on the fac­tory farm where she was ap­par­ently born, Es­ther has never lived among pigs and has had no de­sire to live among pigs; aside from Cor­nelius the turkey, she barely con­sorts with the other res­i­dents. Jenk­ins and Wal­ter, along with the cats and dogs she grew up with, were her herd. She chose the house. Star­ing at Es­ther and talk­ing about the strange twists her life has taken, I find it im­pos­si­ble not to think about my own some­what ec­cen­tric, ar­guably sen­ti­men­tal, re­la­tion­ship to an­i­mals.

I’ve never hunted, never farmed, haven’t been fish­ing in decades. But I’ve lived my life among an­i­mals, many of them pets, many oth­ers ran­dom crea­tures who took up res­i­dence in my brain and never left. I was named, the story goes, for my fa­ther’s friend’s pet para­keet. When I was in my early twen­ties, liv­ing near San Fran­cisco with my par­ents, we had a chick named Henry that grew into a hen, and a de­light­ful one at that. She perched on the kitchen counter while we made din­ner. You could stroke her beak, right be­tween her eyes, and she would top­ple over to sleep in your lap. Then there’s our runty, neu­rotic, ten-year-old tabby, Beans, whose skin con­di­tion once left her nude as a newt; my cousin’s pit bulls, Gaia and Nova, so abused by their for­mer own­ers that they’d trem­ble if un­fa­mil­iar peo­ple so much as stood next to them; the sad-eyed orang­utan who posed with my seven-year-old self in a Sin­ga­pore zoo, his arm draped heav­ily around me; the day­old kit­ten I res­cued from a dump­ster but which was ac­ci­den­tally smoth­ered when the tiny thing crawled into bed; cows I’ve milked and lambs who’ve suck­led my fin­gers; and the dogs I’ve had to give up, the cats I had to put down, the fish I just didn’t “get.” Out­side of coun­try fairs, I never came very close to any pigs. I’ve read lots about them, though, and know that they’ve al­ways re­ceived a bad rap. “The 10,000-year history of the do­mes­tic pig is a tale of both love and loathing,” writes Mark Es­sig in Lesser Beasts, his cul­tural history of the an­i­mal. Peo­ple still think pigs are lazy, dirty, and glut­tonous. And so many of us re­ally, re­ally, re­ally love ba­con. I haven’t eaten meat in about twenty-five years, and I have been more or less ve­gan for the last eight. I’m not op­posed to killing an­i­mals for food per se, but I hate the hor­rific and un­nec­es­sar­ily cruel way most live­stock are raised, con­fined, and slaugh­tered. For all the bougie zeal for fam­ily-run farm­ers’ mar­kets and farm-to-ta­ble restau­rants, we still rou­tinely con­sume prod­ucts from in­dus­trial-scale fac­tory farms, or, as they’re called by the US De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, “con­cen­trated an­i­mal feed­ing op­er­a­tions.” I’m lucky. I live in a pro­gres­sive, cos­mopoli­tan, af­flu­ent coun­try with a his­tor­i­cally un­prece­dented amount of choice in what I eat. And, for me, those op­tions don’t have to in­clude an­i­mals like the pig peace­fully snooz­ing in the next room. This is cer­tainly the most tan­gi­ble part of the Es­ther Ef­fect — she’s made a lot of peo­ple feel the same way. Peter Wohlleben asks in his book The In­ner Life of An­i­mals, “Why isn’t the im­age of the smart pig pub­li­cized more? I sus­pect it has to do with eat­ing pork. If peo­ple knew what kind of an an­i­mal they had on their plate, many would com­pletely lose their ap­petite.” But pigs, as I’m learn­ing at Hap­pily Ever Es­ther, are ac­tu­ally ex­tremely clean, loyal, so­cial, and oc­ca­sion­ally ornery — and they firmly be­lieve in hi­er­ar­chies. They share a num­ber of cog­ni­tive ca­pac­i­ties with chimps, ele­phants, and dol­phins —in­clud­ing un­der­stand­ing sim­ple sym­bolic lan­guage, play­ing video games, hav­ing ex­cel­lent long-term mem­o­ries, and pos­si­bly ex­hibit­ing em­pa­thy. Pig lovers are fond of say­ing that pigs are as smart as three-year-old chil­dren. And, when you meet a pig, es­pe­cially one like Es­ther, when you ac­tu­ally spend some time watch­ing a pig, feed­ing a pig, and play­ing with a pig, their in­tel­li­gence and abil­ity to con­nect doesn’t seem far fetched at all. We some­times re­place valves in hu­man hearts with those from porcine hearts. Sup­pos­edly, hu­man flesh tastes an aw­ful lot like pork. Like celebri­ties, pigs are just like us. Celebrity pigs maybe even more so.

Tak­ing care of a 1-per­center pig is de­mand­ing enough. Run­ning a farm full of now priv­i­leged an­i­mals, all with their par­tic­u­lar needs and per­son­al­i­ties, is some­thing like host­ing a per­pet­ual telethon at a pet­ting zoo. It’s a unique job that is equal parts an­i­mal psy­chol­o­gist, tour oper­a­tor, and car­ni­val barker. The same day I meet Es­ther, Wal­ter gives me a crash course in farm-sanc­tu­ary man­age­ment. He and Jenk­ins ba­si­cally run two busi­nesses: Wal­ter is an em­ployee of Hap­pily Ever Es­ther Farm Sanc­tu­ary while Jenk­ins is a so­cial-me­dia man­ager and con­tent cre­ator em­ployed by Es­ther the Won­der Pig. The Es­ther merch helps pay the ex­penses of the farm. Wal­ter and Jenk­ins have divvied up the labour ac­cord­ingly. Wal­ter, who took the four­day course at the Farm An­i­mal Care Con­fer­ence at Gene Baur’s Farm Sanc­tu­ary and has learned much about farm life through trial and er­ror, man­ages the an­i­mal­care team. But he also takes care of Hap­pily Ever Es­ther and Es­ther ad­min­is­tra­tion, over­see­ing staff (nearly a dozen full- and part-time em­ploy­ees) and vol­un­teer teams, mon­i­tor­ing ten dif­fer­ent email ac­counts, co­or­di­nat­ing fundrais­ing cam­paigns, and man­ag­ing char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions. (Hap­pily Ever Es­ther is a reg­is­tered char­ity, though Es­ther the Won­der Pig is not.) Jenk­ins sits on the board of the sanc­tu­ary and spends his days writ­ing the books, tak­ing the pic­tures and videos, and run­ning the so­cial me­dia. Wal­ter es­ti­mates it costs about $1,000 a day to run the sanc­tu­ary, an amount which cov­ers, among other things, feed, med­i­ca­tions, vet bills, and staff salaries. Given that many of the res­i­dents’ lives pre–hap­pily Ever Es­ther were any­thing but happy, the an­i­mal-care staff spends a lot of time on the res­i­dents’ men­tal health. Each an­i­mal, when it ar­rives, is given what Wal­ter calls a “free­dom name,” and when Wal­ter takes me to meet the var­i­ous res­i­dents, he bel­lows these names with great en­thu­si­asm and plea­sure. The an­i­mals re­spond, pranc­ing or me­an­der­ing to­ward us, ea­ger for an ear scratch or belly rub. I’ve never seen farm an­i­mals so de­lighted by hu­man com­pany. I spend at least ten min­utes rub­bing the soft, de­horned head of a goat named Cather­ine, as if I were on ec­stasy. I re­turn to the farm the fol­low­ing morn­ing for a work­day. It’s un­sea­son­ably chilly, but none­the­less, about twenty-five vol­un­teers show up. Ev­ery­one gath­ers around a firepit in the mid­dle of the sanc­tu­ary, grip­ping cups of cof­fee and tea, and Wal­ter, wear­ing a flu­o­res­cent-yel­low toque, stands up to greet them. “Wel­come to the hap­pi­est place in the world,” he says. Af­ter a brief ori­en­ta­tion, the vol­un­teers fan out across the prop­erty to spend the next four hours re­mov­ing old, semifrozen straw from pad­docks,

rak­ing dried ma­nure, and chop­ping down a few dis­eased trees. When they pass by the farm­house, I no­tice many of them cran­ing their necks to catch a glimpse of Es­ther in­side, some hold­ing up their phones to get a pic­ture. While most of the vol­un­teers are there be­cause they are an­i­mal lovers, their day ac­tu­ally in­cludes very lit­tle con­tact with the res­i­dents. In fact, Wal­ter says, they shouldn’t even make eye con­tact with one of the sows. “April’s in heat,” he says. “And it’s a rager.” Not that April would at­tack any of the vol­un­teers, but an un­fa­mil­iar hu­man could overex­cite her and cause her to ac­ci­den­tally tram­ple or butt one of the younger pigs that swarm around her. Even in this hog heaven, pigs will be pigs, and older and big­ger pigs eat first. There are ri­val­ries and oc­ca­sional dis­putes. One of those dis­putes, be­tween two male pigs, Cap­tain Dan and Len, both of whom came from a failed sanc­tu­ary in Que­bec, left Len un­able to walk — his back leg was torn open by one of Cap­tain Dan’s tusks. When we visit Len in the barn, I no­tice a flatscreen TV sus­pended above him. This, it turns out, is part of Len’s en­rich­ment pro­gram. Tem­po­rar­ily un­able to leave the barn — a new door is be­ing con­structed to al­low that — staff are try­ing to keep him as stim­u­lated as pos­si­ble. That stim­u­la­tion in­cludes sched­uled movie time, sto­ry­time (a box of chil­dren’s books is nearby), mas­sages, co­conut-oil brush­ing, toy time, for­age bucket time, song time, and snug­gle time. Since Len can only re­ally scoot around on his rear, he is also wear­ing di­a­pers, slipped over his rear legs, to pre­vent chaf­ing and sores. Last year, Es­ther her­self fell ill. Out of nowhere, she started to have breath­ing prob­lems. Her nose turned blue, her rear end pur­ple. Jenk­ins and Wal­ter thought she might be hav­ing a heart at­tack, and once they sta­bi­lized her, they loaded her into a trailer and high­tailed it to the an­i­mal hospi­tal at the Univer­sity of Guelph’s On­tario Vet­eri­nary Col­lege, the fore­most vet­eri­nary school in the coun­try. As soon as she got off the trailer, Es­ther had an­other episode. And then an­other. The vets could only hy­poth­e­size about her ill­ness with­out be­ing able to di­ag­nose her with a CT scan. And they didn’t have a CT scan­ner that was big enough. Wal­ter and Jenk­ins were in­cred­u­lous. If the OVC didn’t have a scan­ner large enough for a big an­i­mal, like a cow or a horse, what hap­pened to them? Some of them, it turns out, go to Cor­nell Univer­sity, in New York, which does have a suf­fi­cient scan­ner. Most of them are treated with the best care the OVC can pro­vide, but if that treat­ment doesn’t re­sult in a bet­ter qual­ity of life, the an­i­mals are typ­i­cally eu­th­a­nized. Out­side of sanc­tu­ar­ies, pigs rarely get to be as old as Es­ther is, and the ail­ments that might af­flict her are par­tially the re­sult of her age. Jenk­ins and Wal­ter kept Es­ther at the OVC, where she had blood work and uri­nal­y­sis done reg­u­larly, un­til she could be re­turned home to the farm. The cou­ple be­gan us­ing its net­work of sup­port­ers to raise money for a big enough scan­ner to do­nate to the OVC, with the pro­viso that any an­i­mal sanc­tu­ar­ies would be able to use the ma­chine at dis­counted rates. Less than a year later, the fundraiser sur­passed its goal of rais­ing $651,000. This ap­par­ent gen­eros­ity aside, not ev­ery­one loves Hap­pily Ever Es­ther or its pro­pri­etors. Wal­ter and Jenk­ins have been ac­cused of ex­ploit­ing Es­ther, crit­i­cized for dress­ing her up in de­mean­ing cos­tumes. They’ve been called glory hounds, just in it for the fame and money. Some think the cou­ple’s high-pro­file, me­dia-friendly suc­cess means other sanc­tu­ar­ies are be­ing de­prived of des­per­ately needed do­na­tions in the frenzy of fol­low­ing a celebrity. I was sur­prised by this, as­sum­ing that the sanc­tu­ary move­ment, given that it’s filled with pre­sum­ably al­tru­is­tic peo­ple all de­voted to a sim­i­lar cause, was happy and co­he­sive. When I men­tion this im­pres­sion to Wal­ter and Jenk­ins, they laugh, then shake their heads. “We came into this dif­fer­ently than other peo­ple,” Jenk­ins says. “We did not set out to be ve­gan ac­tivists. We called our­selves ‘ac­ci­den­tal ac­tivists’ very early on. We set out to show peo­ple how amaz­ing pigs are and what life with pigs was like and to help peo­ple re­late to them on

a dif­fer­ent level that would im­pact them in the same way she im­pacted our lives.” One of the big rea­sons they ended up start­ing a sanc­tu­ary in the first place was be­cause they learned how much trou­ble some ex­ist­ing ones were in. Not enough money. Un­able to keep the an­i­mals they sup­pos­edly res­cued. No suc­ces­sion plans. “We didn’t want to be one of those sanc­tu­ar­ies,” Jenk­ins says. “Which is, again, why we do things a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently.” Rather than those strug­gling sanc­tu­ar­ies ac­knowl­edg­ing Hap­pily Ever Es­ther’s suc­cess, Jenk­ins ar­gues, “they get pissed off that their sys­tem is still bro­ken.” “They’re all do­ing good,” Wal­ter says. “Any­body that helps an­i­mals, in my eyes, is do­ing it out of love. But love doesn’t pay the bills.”

Hap­pil y Ever Es­ther isn’t quite at ca­pac­ity. The sanc­tu­ary has enough phys­i­cal space and staff to take on more small an­i­mals. And Jenk­ins and Wal­ter get calls and emails ev­ery day. But Wal­ter is de­lib­er­ate about the process. Say­ing no to any an­i­mal in need is heart­break­ing, but he has to en­sure that tak­ing on an­other res­i­dent won’t up­set the ecosys­tem he and Jenk­ins have built. (There’s a cute young pig named Tammy B., for ex­am­ple, that has lived with the sheep be­cause the other pigs wouldn’t ac­cept her.) But equally as im­por­tant is en­sur­ing that the cur­rent res­i­dents con­tinue to re­ceive a con­sis­tent level of care and that the in­fra­struc­ture at the sanc­tu­ary re­mains in­tact and ef­fec­tive. If all goes ac­cord­ing to their plan, Wal­ter and Jenk­ins say, in a cou­ple of years, the or­ga­ni­za­tion will be sus­tain­able and suc­cess­ful enough that they can step away from the daily grind of the farm. They may still run Es­ther’s so­cial-me­dia ac­counts and ad­min­is­tra­tion, but they won’t have to muck out the barn. But how do you re­ally mea­sure suc­cess in this world? By the num­ber of an­i­mals res­cued, the num­ber of donors or vol­un­teers, the num­ber of Face­book fol­low­ers who bail on ba­con? No met­ric is re­ally ad­e­quate. Like cli­mate-change ac­tivism and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion, it’s heroic work that’s also in­escapably Sisyphean. I loved be­ing at the sanc­tu­ary and even ab­sently fan­ta­sized about open­ing my own. But it also made me feel some­thing I could only de­scribe as a hope­ful sadness. In his 1977 es­say “Why Look at An­i­mals?” John Berger writes that an­i­mals in the first stages of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion were used as ma­chines. Later, in post-in­dus­trial so­ci­eties, they were treated as raw ma­te­rial, with an­i­mals re­quired for food, in Berger’s words, “pro­cessed like man­u­fac­tured com­modi­ties.” If fac­tory farm­ing is cap­i­tal­ism in its purest form, the farm sanc­tu­ary is ar­guably one of the purest forms of resistance to cap­i­tal­ism. It res­tores to these man­u­fac­tured com­modi­ties their full, in­di­vid­ual lives. It chal­lenges the nat­u­ral or­der of the world. It’s a way to think against blithe bru­tal­ity, un­fet­tered con­sump­tion, con­form­ity, in­equal­ity. On my last visit, I sit with Jenk­ins and Wal­ter in their liv­ing room. Jenk­ins serves tea and cook­ies, rest­ing a tray on the red tickle trunk that con­tains Es­ther’s cos­tumes. I drink my tea out of a large ce­ramic mug shaped like a pig wear­ing over­alls. Es­ther is sleep­ing in her room, but a mutt named Alice, re­cently saved from a Korean meat farm, keeps her eye on me from the couch. A ques­tion still nags at me, and I pose it to the cou­ple: “You have about fifty-eight res­i­dents now, but there are bil­lions of an­i­mals that you can never save. Does this ever dis­cour­age you? Does it ever feel fu­tile?” Jenk­ins looks in­stantly pained. His eyes well up. “Yeah, it’s tough,” he says. “That’s the hard­est part. I try not to go there, be­cause it’s over­whelm­ing.” Wal­ter agrees. “We do feel help­less, if you step out­side this bub­ble. As soon as you get on the high­way, and the trucks are whizzing by, full of chick­ens and cows and pigs. Be­fore, I used to get su­per up­set and not even look. I’d just cover my eyes, pull the vi­sor down, and get around those trucks.” He pauses. “Now I look right in them and see what’s go­ing on.”

p. 28

PRE­VI­OUS Es­ther lounges in the farm­house sun­room. ABOVE Dolly the turkey (left), who was res­cued off high­way 401, with Nancy the rooster.

ABOVE Es­ther en­joys a bath in the shade on a hot sum­mer day.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.