A PIG CELEBRITY named Esther (formally, if playfully, known as “Esther the Wonder Pig”) lives in the home of Derek Walter and Steve Jenkins in Ontario, Canada. The pair bought Esther in 2012 when she weighed four pounds and was touted by the seller as a micropig, predicted to top out at about seventy pounds. Esther wasn’t a micropig then, and she certainly isn’t now at 650 pounds. As the British newspaper the Daily Mail, not known for nuance, shouted in its headline, “The Giant Porker Is Now the Size of a Polar Bear!” Esther nonetheless fits comfortably into the Walter-Jenkins family, where she can be seen in photographs and videos sleeping in her own bed or joining the familyâs two dogs in the kitchen for treats.
When I show these images to friends, inevitably they are startled by Esther’s size. The dogs who bed down in our living rooms or rush to the kitchen with us for a snack, even quite large dogs, make for fabulous but familiar moments; the sight of Esther doing the same produces a jolt. Based on my friends’ responses, I would predict Jenkins and Walter are asked more often than they care to count, “Is it normal for a pig to grow that large? And by the way, how and where does Esther go to the bathroom?”
Esther has no control over her growing girth, the men note, and they vow to keep her with them as long as she lives. Esther makes it relatively easy on them. When toilet needs arise, she simply opens the back door on her own, trots outside, and relieves herself. (She can close the door too.) And yes, domestic pigs do run large: over six hundred pounds is far from unusual. Wild European boars may reach seven hundred pounds, but generally it’s pigs specifically bred for size who achieve this heft.
Esther’s daily routine gives us a window on the nature of animal sentience. Jenkins and Walter note Esther’s quickness in learning how to unlock doors throughout their house—including the freezer door. Given a “treat ball,” a mini-mental puzzle that challenges the receiver to extract peanut butter, Esther succeeds more rapidly than do her dog companions. More than formal problem-solving, though, it’s Esther’s vivid presentation of self that clues us in to her mental life. She’s keenly attentive to people and events around her; often she makes direct eye contact with the camera when being photographed. She loves frozen mango smoothies, bagpipe music, trotting around the spacious orchard outside her house, and cuddling with her dog and human companions.
A pig farmer named Bob Comis wants Esther’s thousands of fans to note a central fact: “Esther is not cute, lovable and loving, smart, playful, mischievous, gentle, well-mannered, mirthful, gregariously snuggly and fastidious because she is special,” Comis writes. “She is all of those things, so powerfully all of those things, because she is a pig. That string of adjectives does not describe Esther alone. It describes the very heart and soul of every pig on the planet.” Comis’s sentiment, recently published in Salon, is well-intentioned, but not grounded in a good grasp of intraspecific (within a species) variation in animal behavior. Not every pig is gentle and smart, just as thereâs no essential “cat” nature expressed by each of the six indoor cats with whom we live. No need to discard Comisâs central point, though, because it conveys a vital truth: the pig destined to become bacon or barbecue might, with the right rearing conditions, have lived a life as thoughtful and sweet as Esther does now.