Es­ther, the Pet Pig That Grew and Grew

THE STORY OF HOW A PIG TURNED OUR LIVES – AND HEARTS – UP­SIDE DOWN

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - FROM THE BOOK ES­THER THE WON­DER PIG BY STEVE JENK­INS AND DEREK WAL­TER, WITH CAPRICE CRANE © 2016 BY ETWP, INC. REPRINTED WITH PER­MIS­SION OF GRAND CEN­TRAL PUB­LISH­ING, NEW YORK

She was maybe 20 cen­time­tres from tip to tail, with chipped pink pol­ish on her lit­tle hooves

One night about five years ago, I was on my lap­top in the liv­ing room when I re­ceived a Face­book mes­sage from a woman I knew from school, some­one I hadn’t spo­ken to in 15 years: “Hey Steve,” she said. “I know you’ve al­ways been a huge an­i­mal lover. I have a mini pig that is not get­ting along with my dogs. I’ve just had a baby and I can’t keep the pig.”

It’s true that I’ve al­ways loved an­i­mals. My very first best friend was my child­hood dog, Brandy, a shep­herd mix, brown and black with floppy ears and a long, straight tail. So I was in­trigued. A mini pig sounded adorable. In hind­sight, of course, the whole sit­u­a­tion was bizarre, but I’ve al­ways been a trust­ing per­son.

I replied with a ca­sual, “Let me do some re­search and I’ll get back to you,” but I knew I wanted the pig. I just had to fig­ure out how to make it hap­pen.

I lived in a three-bed­room sin­gle-level house in On­tario, Canada. It’s tricky enough bring­ing a pig back to the house you share with two dogs, two cats, your long­time part­ner, your two busi­nesses, plus a room­mate. But on top of that, only nine months ear­lier, I’d brought our cat Delores home with­out talk­ing to Derek about it. He didn’t re­act well.

So I had to plan this right, to make it look as if I wasn’t do­ing some­thing be­hind Derek’s back, even though I was do­ing some­thing be­hind Derek’s back.

A few hours later, I got an­other mes­sage from the friend:

“Some­one else is in­ter­ested, so if you want her, great. If not, this other per­son will take her.”

You’re prob­a­bly smart enough to recog­nise this as a ma­nip­u­la­tive tactic, and nor­mally I’m smart enough too. But I was not let­ting that pig go. So I told my for­mer class­mate that I’d take the an­i­mal. I gave her my ad­dress, and we agreed to meet in the morn­ing.

I knew noth­ing about mini pigs. I didn’t know what they ate; I had no idea how big they got. Once I started

do­ing some in­ter­net re­search, I found a few peo­ple claim­ing that “there’s no such thing as a mini pig” but I was blinded by my sud­den ob­ses­sion and my faith in my one-time friend. She had said the pig was six months old and spayed and that she’d had her for a week, hav­ing got her from a breeder. It seemed this mini pig would grow to be about 30 kilo­grams, max­i­mum. That was pretty close to the size of Shelby, one of our dogs. That seemed rea­son­able.

WHEN WE MET the next day, I watched the woman han­dle the pig, and I could tell there was zero at­tach­ment.

The pig was tiny, maybe 20 cen­time­tres from tip to tail. The poor thing had chipped pink nail pol­ish on her lit­tle hooves and a tat­tered se­quinned cat col­lar around her neck. She looked pa­thetic yet lov­able. I’d met the pig 12 min­utes ago, and I al­ready knew she needed me. Ready to drive home with the new­est mem­ber of our fam­ily, I had only a few hours to fig­ure out what to tell Derek.

The pig sat in the front pas­sen­ger seat, skit­tish and dis­ori­ented. I talked to her and pet­ted her while we took back roads to our house and I planned my ‘please for­give me for get­ting a pig’ din­ner for Derek. (The likely menu: ba­con cheese­burg­ers and home­made gar­lic fries.)

When we got home, the cats were their typ­i­cal cu­ri­ous but un­in­ter­ested

selves when faced with the pig. The dogs are ex­citable around baby an­i­mals and chil­dren, so they whined and jumped. I held on to the pig se­curely and let them sniff her a lit­tle be­fore I hid her in the of­fice. I thought I’d bet­ter get Derek in a good mood be­fore spring­ing the new ar­rival on him.

WHEN I LED HIM to the of­fice and re­vealed my sur­prise, Derek stood in the door­way like a statue. Every emo­tion other than hap­pi­ness flashed across his face. It didn’t take more than half a sec­ond for him to know what I had done and what I wished to do next.

He was fu­ri­ous. He ranted about how ir­re­spon­si­ble I was. He in­sisted there was no more room in the house. The only pos­i­tive thing I could say was, “She’s a mini pig! She’ll stay small!”

I knew that what I’d done was wrong, but I hoped I could smooth things over. Soon enough, the lov­ably adorable pig did the smooth­ing for me. One night we were hav­ing din­ner, and Derek started talk­ing about where the pig’s lit­ter and pen would go. You don’t “build a pen” for some­one you’re get­ting rid of. Within two weeks, we chris­tened her. We wanted to evoke a wise old soul. The name Es­ther felt right.

AS SOON AS THE vet­eri­nar­ian saw Es­ther, he shot me a be­mused look.

“What do you know about this pig?” he asked. I gave him the story, or at least the one I’d been told.

“I al­ready see a prob­lem. Look at her tail. It’s been docked,” he said.

“Is that why it’s a lit­tle nub?” I asked.

“Ex­actly,” he said. “When you have a com­mer­cial pig – a full‐size pig – the own­ers will gen­er­ally have the pig’s tail cut back. This min­imises tail bit­ing, which oc­curs when pigs are kept de­prived in fac­tory farm en­vi­ron­ments. If Es­ther re­ally is six months old, she could be a runt. If that’s the case, when fully grown, she could be about 30 kilo­grams.” “OK,” I said. No news there. “But if she’s a com­mer­cial pig and not a runt­– well, I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

The vet ex­plained that the only way to know any­thing for sure would be to weigh and mea­sure Es­ther and start a chart. Pigs have a very spe­cific rate of growth.

He was fu­ri­ous. The only pos­i­tive thing I could say was, “She’s a mini pig! She’ll stay small!”

On our next vet visit, a few months af­ter we’d adopted Es­ther, I had to ad­mit that she’d been grow­ing quickly. Over that short time, she’d started clos­ing in on 36 kg. It was be­com­ing clear that I’d prob­a­bly adopted a com­mer­cial pig – and she was go­ing to be enor­mous.

I HADN’T KNOWN I’d wanted a pig, but the joy I felt once I knew I would al­ways be go­ing home to her made me smile. Ev­ery­thing about Es­ther was pre­cious: the way she shuf­fled around, the way her lit­tle hooves slid along the floor when she ran, the funny lit­tle click­ing noise she made when she pranced. She’d also nuz­zle our hands to soothe her­self, lick­ing our palms and rub­bing her snout up and down on us as she fell asleep. And she stayed pre­cious, even as she ap­proached her full-grown weight of 300 kg.

Now, I ad­mit there’s noth­ing all that peaceful about be­ing star­tled awake at 3am by a 300-kg pig bar­relling down a hall­way to­wards your bed­room. It’s some­thing you feel first: a vi­bra­tion that rum­bles through the mat­tress into your con­scious­ness. You have only mo­ments to re­alise what’s hap­pen­ing as you hear the sound of hooves rac­ing across the hard­wood, get­ting louder by the sec­ond.

Within mo­ments, our dar­ling pig, Es­ther, comes crash­ing into the room, most likely spooked by a noise. She launches onto our bed much the same way she launched into our lives. And while it might be a mad scram­ble to make space for her­– there are usu­ally two hu­mans, two dogs and

two cats asleep there­– it’s worth it for the ex­cite­ment she has added to our world.

One thing I hadn’t ex­pected was just how many be­hav­iours Es­ther would share with the dogs. She’d play with a Kong toy as they would, shak­ing it back and forth. She’d want to chase the cats and cud­dle when she was tired, climb­ing into our laps to ­nuz­zle – even as she out­grew the dogs by 5, 10, 15 kg and more.

And just like the dogs, she of­ten wanted our at­ten­tion. She started play­ing and do­ing hi­lar­i­ous and clever things on her own. (She can open the fridge!) So we treated her like one of the dogs. And that struck us to our cores.

What made pigs dif­fer­ent? Why were they bred for food and held in cap­tiv­ity while dogs and cats were wel­comed into our homes and treated like fam­ily? Why were pigs the un­lucky ones? Why hadn’t we re­alised they had such en­gag­ing per­son­al­i­ties and such in­tel­li­gence? And where would Es­ther be now if she hadn’t joined us?

AND SO A FEW WEEKS af­ter get­ting Es­ther, we re­alised we had to stop eat­ing ba­con. Shortly af­ter that, with some dif­fi­culty, we cut out meat en­tirely. And a few months af­ter that, dairy and eggs fol­lowed. We were ­of­fi­cially ve­gan – or ‘Es­ther-­ap­proved’, as we like to call it.

In 2014, we moved half an hour’s drive from town, where we founded a farm where we care for aban­doned or abused farmed an­i­mals – so far, six rab­bits, six goats, two sheep, ten pigs (not in­clud­ing Es­ther), one horse, one don­key, three cows, three chick­ens and a pea­cock.

Es­ther has changed our lives – that’s ob­vi­ous. And now it’s our turn to try to change the world for other an­i­mals. The name of our farm? The Hap­pily Ever Es­ther Sanc­tu­ary.

BY STEVE JENK­INS AND DEREK WAL­TER, WITH CAPRICE CRANE FROM THE BOOK ES­THER THE WON­DER PIG

Al­ways ea­ger to help, Es­ther checks on what Steve’s got cook­ing. (No, it isn’t ba­con)

Steve (left), Derek and their menagerie try to pose for a fam­ily photo

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