Happily Ever Esther

Two Men, a Wonder Pig, and Their Life-Changing Mission to Give Animals a Home


By Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter

By Derek Walter

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From the New York Times bestselling authors and loving owners of Esther the Wonder Pig, comes a memoir about their new life on the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, which is anything but boring.

Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter, had their lives turned upside down when they adopted their pig-daughter Esther–the so-called micro pig who turned out to be a full-sized commercial pig growing to a whopping 600 pounds–as they describe in their bestselling memoir Esther the Wonder Pig. The book ends with them moving to a new farm, and starting a new wonderful life where they will live on the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary to care for other animals and just live happily ever after…

Or so they thought. People often think about giving it all up and just moving to a farm. In theory it sure does sound great. But as Derek and Steve quickly realized, the realities of being a farmer–especially when you have never lived on a farm let alone outside of the city–can be frantic, crazy, and even insane. Not only are they adjusting to farm life and dutifully taking care of their pig-daughter Esther (who by the way lives in the master bedroom of their house), but before they knew it their sanctuary grew to as many as 42 animals, including: pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, cows, roosters, a peacock, a duck, a horse, a donkey, and a barn cat named Willma Ferrell.

Written with joy and humor, and filled with delicious Esther-approved recipes dispersed throughout the book, this charming memoir captures an emotional journey of one little family advocating for animals everywhere.



People often think about giving it all up and just moving to a farm. It’s an old cliché. Everything will be wonderful, they think. And in theory, sure—it sounds great. Waking to the melodious sounds of birds chirping, breathing in fresh air as you sip your morning coffee on the porch and watch the livestock frolic. (Here’s where the comedic record scratch would sound, to emphasize how wrong your theory would be.) The realities of actually closing up shop on the life you’ve always known and moving to a farm—when, by the way, you have never actually been a farmer—are frantic, crazy, and potentially insane.

So, of course, that’s what we did.

At first, none of the realities had sunk in quite yet; that would take a few more hours. And then deeper realities about the magnitude of what we’d committed to would sink in over the next few days, weeks, and months. But they couldn’t possibly set in yet, because there was still no normalcy. So we were just going with the flow, moment to moment, not even in the same area code of realizing what we had just done.

There we were, being greeted by friends and strangers, in the middle of an extremely surreal situation. I mean, let’s be real, how many people move into their new home with a party for them already taking place? That was us. (We rarely do things without some sort of flourish.)

When we first arrived at the farm, we had tons of guests on our property, milling about with wide eyes and big smiles, all there to welcome us to our new home. While we’d never moved to a farm before, we had previously changed homes, and that change had certainly never come with an army of well-wishers.

All the fanfare and excitement made it impossible to really think about anything but what was happening in the moment. And that first moment was all about introducing Esther to her new home: a seemingly immeasurable farm.

But let’s pause to set the scene: It was the first time Esther had been on the farm, finally getting her first look at this enormous playground. Esther was no longer our (admittedly poorly kept) secret, hidden away in a suburban home. Now she finally had some room to move, to get her groove on. We just hoped it wasn’t too much for her. (Or us.)

While Esther was a bit shell-shocked at first, the comforting presence of Shelby, who helped guide her off the trailer and into her new pasture, seemed to put her at ease. We took Esther on a full-perimeter tour of the pasture, Shelby and our other dog, Reuben, on either side of her. And even though we were surrounded by all those guests, in that moment it felt like it was just us. Our little family of five: Derek, Esther, Shelby, Reuben, and me. (And of course the cats, but they weren’t going to tour the farm; they still had their knickers in a twist about the move. Something about the feline disposition doesn’t immediately take well to being uprooted.)

I remember searching Esther’s face to see if I could read her mind or know what she was thinking. Was she happy? Did she like the pasture? Had we done well? There was definitely a spring in her step and that familiar smile on her face, which comforted me no end. After all, this whole venture was entirely for Esther’s sake. We really needed her to like it. And she seemed to, which was a relief.

In a heartfelt if slightly awkward speech, Derek and I thanked everyone for being there. We were truly grateful for the support, but, to be honest, we also wanted the party to be over. I know that sounds terrible; people had come a long way to “see us in.” (Is that the correct term? I know when you’re going away, people “see you off,” but this was the opposite of that.) They’d all traveled from far and wide, and we certainly appreciated it. But there we were, checking our watches and waiting for them to leave. It sounds a bit harsh, but I think anyone in our situation would have felt the same. This whole process was incredibly overwhelming. We had a lot to do. Derek even had to make one last trip back to our former home, in Georgetown, to get the last of our belongings, and he couldn’t leave until all these people did.

Granted, this had been our idea. We’d welcomed people to witness our first day really taking over the farm, particularly Esther’s first steps at her new home. But if you’ve ever made a big move, you know how physically and emotionally exhausting it can be, and that feeling was (at least) tripled for us. We needed time to ourselves, to get centered, to get our plans together and figure out what we’d gotten ourselves into.

By the time it was just us again, it quickly became just me. Derek was en route to Georgetown, and I was at the farm virtually alone. When we moved from Georgetown, we planned to let Esther decide whether she’d continue to sleep in the house or become a barn pig, and Esther had made her decision clear: she and the dogs had fallen asleep in the house. So I was free to explore the new place entirely by myself. It was a very rare moment of total solitude, and it was amazing. I had time to really take in the day and (of course) overwhelm myself with my own thoughts. Things got more and more frightening as I let my mind wander, so I poured myself a glass of wine and took a few deep breaths, trying to remain calm and visualize what this new life would be.

I walked out to the barn and around the silo. After a while of fantasizing, I realized it hardly seemed fair for me to just be relaxing at the farm while Derek was working like crazy at the Georgetown house. So I went back into the house and tried to put some boxes away. It was the least I could do.

When Derek returned, he somehow found the energy to unload the rest of our stuff from the truck. We put our mattress in the sunroom and tried to move the boxes to the locations where we’d be unpacking them, to make life easier. (You know the feeling on the back end of a big move: you just want to drop every box in the closest open space. Tempting, sure, but it just makes things much more challenging later on.)

By the time we finished moving the last box, Esther was already on the mattress, happily snoring away. Can’t say we were surprised.

It was tough winding down from such an excitement-filled day. We didn’t have TV or internet service yet. It was just us, our dogs, and our cell phones on the couch, a pig in our bed. Our property had come with a mobile home where the daughter of the previous owner had lived with her husband, and we had put the cats in there for the day, because we knew people would be going in and out of the house, moving in the boxes and furniture, and the doors would be constantly open. We figured it would be safer to tuck the cats over there, so they could at least be out of their travel crates and explore the mobile home. When we finally decided to go to sleep, I wound up sharing the bed with Esther, while Derek slept on the couch.

Waking up the next morning was surreal. For starters, I was in a sunroom on a mattress with a pig. But it was my first morning in these new surroundings, and I was startled when I opened my eyes. It took me a minute to regroup and remember: Oh yeah, we bought a farm. We live here now. There’s Derek with one leg hanging off the couch. This is our new life.

When we woke Esther up, we already had breakfast (pig kibble and fresh produce) waiting for her in the kitchen. Once Esther was satiated, the three of us went for a walk. It was our first walk as a family without crowds of well-wishers watching Esther’s every move, and she had a real jump in her step. We didn’t go too far, but enough to let Esther wander. It was all so new, and she wanted to dig up everything in sight. We let her go places we hadn’t gone the day before, such as into the field and into the forest. That’s where she was really excited to dig. It was pretty special just watching her explore, imagining all the things we’d do and build. The future.

But the fantasizing was short-lived. We brought the cats into the house, and they were skittish. We’d see a blur of orange every now and then as a cat ran past. They might have thought we were going to catch them and take them away again. They were exploring every nook and cranny of the house, but the minute you walked into the room they’d duck and run for cover. It took them awhile to realize this was their new home and everything was okay. Our dogs get separation anxiety, so they stuck by us at all times for the first week.

Also, the work had to start. There’s so much to do when you move to a new space—especially one that’s been unloved for such a long time, as our new home had been. The barn was filthy and needed to be addressed, but the most pressing issue was that the farm had no adequate fencing. There was an existing electric fence, but it didn’t work. We knew we would be getting a horse and a donkey soon, and we had to have fences in place by then.

This was all new to me. I’d never built a fence before, let alone an electric one, but Derek seemed to understand what was going on. We made a Hail Mary plea to a couple of friends to help us, and with their assistance we replaced the existing electric fence with new and working materials. Luckily, the property had come with a couple of rolls of heavy-gauge wire, which got us started. We had to use T-bars to mount the fence, because we didn’t have time to get wood posts into the ground. The sellers had also told us that digging would be difficult because of all the rock. So using the metal T-bars was the quickest and easiest way to get something up rapidly.

I know the idea of an electric fence might sound cruel at first, but it doesn’t hurt when you get shocked. Believe me: I’ve tried it. Imagine one of those gag-buzzers that you get as a toy to zap someone. It’s just surprising, not painful. It scares you, but it doesn’t hurt. I’d never put my animal family through anything I wouldn’t do myself. We’d truly never do anything that might hurt one of our animals. And they learn really quickly; after they’re zapped once, they don’t try their luck again. The fence exists for their protection, to keep them from wandering off to somewhere dangerous. I’m thrilled that we found a process that worked well and was, and is still, completely safe for everyone.

The barn was a disaster. We had known that going in, but knowing it doesn’t make you feel any better when you consider the work ahead of you. We would have more animals arriving soon, and we had to get the barn ready right away. So the fence and the barn were our top priorities—our house would wait.

There were spiderwebs in the barn that were so thick you could jump on them and they’d hold you like a net. It looked like a horror movie set. I’ve never seen anything like it. Taking down those spiderwebs was the stuff of nightmares.

Upstairs in the hayloft, there was a ton of old hay with burrowed tunnels through it. We didn’t know what lived in there. Raccoons? Possums? The ghosts of farmers past? So we were slowly and carefully rooting through that, unsure of what or whom we might find. We fully expected that a raccoon might jump out and latch onto our faces, but all we found was a big pile of poo. This all had to go, so we could get fresh hay ready for the animals.

Oh, and you know how we mentioned we had a horse and a donkey arriving soon and thus the need for the fence? Now, we were also expecting four new pigs and needed a place to secure them—and fast. We were literally twisting the last piece of wiring on their fence as the trailer transporting the new arrivals (Bobbie, Dan, Leonard, and Bear) pulled into the driveway.

But let’s back up. How did we go from a horse and a donkey to four more huge commercial pigs in the time we were still building a fence? Good question. We’re glad you asked it—or, at least, we’re going to pretend you did.

We’d been contacted by a woman named Mary who ran a rescue organization in Ontario. Mary was friendly with a lady named Tara, who ran a sanctuary on the border of Quebec. Tara’s sanctuary apparently had fallen on hard times, mostly because Tara was in her late seventies, and she was having trouble managing it all. She might have had a smoothly running operation at some point, but she’d been doing this for thirty years, her husband had passed away, and she was now totally on her own. She didn’t have regular help or any kind of volunteer base.

Tara, however, wasn’t ready to admit it was time to hang it up. It was other people in the rescue world who were complaining to animal control about her, which rang alarm bells for Mary. If animal control got involved, Tara’s animals would either go to market or be killed. So Mary was desperate to find a new home for four pigs and three cows. (Oh, right. We’d also be getting three cows. This is apparently how things go.)

Mary found us online, as most people do, and sent us an email via our website. At the time, our website was still directly connected to my phone, so I got her email right away. If that email came in today, we’d go through a series of questions first: Is it a farmed animal? Whom else have you spoken to? Are we the last resort? Is there anything we can do to fix the situation so the owners don’t have to get rid of the animal? If after that, all answers still seem to point to us, the decision then goes to the board. They have to give their final blessing before we agree to take the animal.

(A brief aside: I’m on the board, so I get a say, but ultimately Krista and Susan can outvote me anytime.) We’ve known Susan for years, and she’s married to another good friend of ours named Ray, whom I first met when we started working in real estate together. Susan is a businesswoman in her own right, and she had spent a ton of time volunteering for various organizations and sat on other boards. This would be her first farm sanctuary, but she had all kinds of experience that Derek and I didn’t. That’s the kind of person we knew we needed to surround ourselves with, so Susan was a natural choice. Krista had come into our lives only after Esther burst onto the scene in 2014. She works for Mercy for Animals, one of the largest animal rights organizations in the world. She’s got a larger-than-life personality, and she’s ridiculously knowledgeable in all things animal rights. We quickly became great friends with Krista and her husband, Nigel, so she too was a natural choice when it came time to create our own board of directors.

But back then, during the Tara situation, we hadn’t put any processes in place. So I emailed back and said we could talk about it. After a few exchanges, I said, “Okay, we’ll make it work.” I’d never even met a cow before, so I was excited about that. Of course, we weren’t settled or organized, and we weren’t equipped for more animals. But we had a farm, and dammit, I wanted to take the animals.

As soon as people got wind that we were taking these new animals—this is a very gossipy business, and word gets around fast—people started sending us messages about how terrible they believed this Tara person to be. It was upsetting, to say the least. We weren’t hearing from a bunch of people rallying to support this poor woman who had dedicated her life to helping animals—they were attacking her behind her back, and it struck us as really mean.

At some point Derek and I will need to retire, and I know running a sanctuary is a double-edged sword. For now, I love helping animals so much, I can’t imagine wanting to stop. But there are days when Derek and I are exhausted. I do want to walk away at some point and know that we have a retirement fund, and I hope we can do that while we’re still young enough to enjoy it.

Presumably, this woman didn’t consider or plan for her retirement. She’d just kept on trucking along until she couldn’t anymore. People who run animal sanctuaries can forget that at some point they’re not going to be able to do all the things they need to do. It’s all fine and good to dedicate your life to saving animals, but everybody needs an exit plan. And if they don’t have one, they just become part of the problem they dedicated their life to fixing. All of a sudden there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of animals that need a home urgently, all because the sanctuary where they live is closing unexpectedly. It can happen for any number of reasons. Sometimes it’s poor financial planning, underestimating the costs involved. Or it can be an inability to do the labor required to maintain the farm and its residents. Or sometimes the caregiver/owner passes away, leaving an unwilling family member to take over.

When these things happen, remaining sanctuaries are often called upon to step in and take the animals, but sometimes that’s not possible without putting their own farms in financial peril. It’s a vicious cycle, and, sadly, not every displaced sanctuary animal finds a new home. Sometimes they end up back where they came from, at an auction on their way to market.

Derek and I are unwilling to let ours become one of those sanctuaries, so we began putting the pieces of our eventual “Departure Plan” in place the minute we arrived on the farm. We hope it’ll be decades before it needs to be put into action, but it’s really nice to know there are plans in order in the event something unforeseen ever happens.

So, we understood the strong feelings about the Tara situation, but we weren’t going to get caught up in the gossip and bad-mouthing. And we were going to take those animals off her hands.

We used Esther’s Army, our web page for activism, to recruit some help. Esther’s Army had started out as a page to promote our crowdfunding campaign, but by now we’d morphed it into our home base for a more direct form of activism (to rehome animals, campaign against pig-wrestling events, and so on). We posted about the animals needing rescue and asked if anyone could help transport the pigs. One supporter offered a trailer and then coordinated the pigs’ transportation, picking them up from Tara’s place and bringing them to our farm. It was a long drive, something like seven hours, which was amazing of the volunteers to do, and it was also hard on the pigs.

We decided to keep Esther in the house during their arrival so she wouldn’t see what was going on. She was already a bit out of sorts from our move—she was in a new space and had no idea what was happening or why we were there—so the last thing she needed was to see four interloper pigs on her new turf. Esther’s sweet as can be, but all animals (including humans—humans most of all, one might argue) have their territorial moments.

Before the pigs arrived, we took Esther on her walk, fed her, and got as many chores out of the way as we could. That meant cleaning stalls, finishing fences, and doing whatever else we could with the time we had. Having cleaned out the mess of all the old hay that came with the farm, we had bought new hay, and we needed to put it away. We plugged in the hay elevator and were astonished to find that it worked. We managed to get all the hay in place before the pigs arrived.

When the trailer pulled up and we opened the door, all four pigs were scared and hiding at the other end of the trailer. We quickly realized that there was no ramp, and a frightened pig was not going to step down a foot and a half into unknown territory. How do you build a ramp? We weren’t quite farmers yet. And we certainly had no ramp-building experience. We were two guys from the city, faking it as we went along. So we “built” a makeshift ramp using a bale of hay, some plywood, and a wood crate (and hoped to God it would work). Seeing the pigs all terrified and huddled as far back as they could go in the trailer, we just felt awful. I loved them already—you fall in love with them the minute you meet them. And you know they’ve arrived in the best place they could possibly go, but in the moment, they don’t know that. They have no idea what the hell is going on.

Once the ramp was set up, we coaxed them out one by one. Bear, the black-and-white pig, was the first to venture forth. He tentatively stepped onto the ramp, one leg, then another, then the back legs. But one of his back legs fell through the plywood! (These are not lightweight animals.) Fortunately, Derek and I were standing on either side of Bear, so we lifted him back up. He’d fallen only about six inches, but to a pig on a ramp in an unknown space, it might as well have been three floors. He briefly got stuck and panicked, but we got him down and soothed his nerves with treats.

Once Bear was out, the rest followed suit. (We’d put down a few more layers of wood in this learn-as-you-go experiment.) Then we just let them walk around and get comfortable. We gave them all treats, then got them into their stalls.

We noticed Bear was having trouble with the back leg, and we felt terrible. Here we thought we’d injured him in the first five minutes!

We later learned that we had misread the situation, but the reality still turned out to be concerning. About two weeks after Bear and his buddies arrived, we noticed he was still sitting outside when the three other pigs had come back in. Obviously, something was wrong. We wanted to close the barn for the night and were trying to force Bear to get up, but he just wouldn’t stand. Once he finally did, it was clear he was having a really hard time walking.

The next morning our vet came to see Bear and diagnosed him with what seemed to be a terrible case of arthritis. The vet said, “He’s gone lame.” It was a failure in the back end, and both legs gave out. We put him on pain meds, but it kept progressing to the point where he wouldn’t get up at all. The last time he went down, he (thank goodness) happened to be in the barn. He just lay down and has never gotten up again.

While that might sound sad, he has a TV in his stall (yes, really), and a masseuse visits him once a week. I know that sounds quirky. It wasn’t that we thought, Oh, we must hire a masseuse for this pig! It just worked out that way. My mom’s neighbor has a daughter who did equine therapy, and she mentioned that maybe she could help the pig. To be honest, it hasn’t done anything to help the issue, but who wouldn’t want a weekly massage? I know I’d like one! So we keep it up. Derek spends three hours a day with Bear. He’s in great spirits. He’s got his favorite TV shows. Sedentary life for Bear is still pretty good.

The emergency fencing worked until spring, when the pigs started lifting the entire fence and T-bars right out of the muddy ground. At that point, we realized we’d eventually have to put wood posts into the ground no matter how hard it was to dig. But we weren’t there yet. We’d just gotten the new pigs settled, and now we had to take a look at our house.

We loved the farm and the idea of what it would become, but truthfully, when we purchased it, the house was a disaster. It had hideous wallpaper, a slope in the floor (you could put a bottle down on the floor on one side of the room and it would beat you to the other side), and the staircase was no more than two feet wide. It was basically a ladder. And there was old teal-blue carpet that was just… tragic.

When we moved in, we were between seasons—not quite winter yet, but not quite still fall. It would snow, then melt, then rain, then get cold, making the surrounding terrain a sludgy mess. People were in and out during the move, animals were in and out as they explored their new digs, and all of this activity was tracking in mud. Mud + ugly teal carpet = a very bad situation. Granted, this might have been a nice touch from Esther’s point of view (“Love the new place, Dads!”), but living in a pigpen was not part of our plan when we bought the farm.

The house had apparently been built in stages, which resulted in a plethora of issues we would soon discover. The layout of the house includes the “older than Christ” main house, which is where the dining room, master bedroom, and bathroom are; the upstairs, which is where we’d end up running the Esther Store that first winter; the kitchen, with stairs to the cellar; and a door to an attached (uninsulated) shed that has become the laundry room.

Additionally, there is a sunroom (where our mattress was) and a living room off the kitchen, each room clearly having been added at different times, like a haphazard (emphasis on “hazard”) patchwork quilt, with no central heating system at all. And then, as luck and winter would have it, we had our first snow. Pipes froze. The dishwasher froze. We froze.

To heat the place, the previous owners had used big electric radiators that looked like white suitcases, along with two fireplaces, neither of which were up to code. Even with the radiators cranked, the house was still freezing, bringing back memories of the most brutal winter storms on a full-time basis. This was the only time in my life I hoped to be the “second man in” for the bathroom in the morning, for no reason other than that the toilet seat wouldn’t be a rind of ice. (I love many more obvious things about Derek, but warming up the loo for me—intentionally or otherwise—is right up there.)

The house was glacial. It got so bad we considered moving everything to the mobile home and just living there, because it at least had a furnace. Imagine that for a minute: two guys, two dogs, two cats, and a 650-pound pig living in their mobile home on the farm. Classy.

Ultimately, it got so cold that we started to use one of the fireplaces, even though our insurance company had told us not to. Esther quickly realized that when the fire was lit, it was the warmest place in the house, so the floor in front of the fireplace became her favorite place to sleep. Once we realized she’d abandoned her bed for this new location, we moved her blankets and mattress over there.

We were starting to settle in. Then, a pipe burst. Of course it did. Why should we have a single moment of peace, albeit freezing peace? The pipe was at the exterior wall of the basement, and to fix it would require someone to brave the crawl space, which no one wanted to do. It was a shallow, messy, terrifying, claustrophobia-inducing area—I was half-convinced bodies were buried under there. “It’s like a scene out of a horror movie,” I told Derek. “Dirt floor, wild rodents, and spiderwebs that rival the human-catching ones in the barn!”

Derek braved the crawl space. (Let’s add that to the many reasons I love him. Better put it even higher on the list than toasting up the toilet.) But this wasn’t a one-time event. The pipes burst again and again. So while Esther was still out of sorts from the move, now we were also feeling out of sorts. (The cats and dogs were fine. The cats were skittish at first but got used to the new place, and the dogs were already thriving.) So each time a pipe burst, we gritted our teeth and made another temporary fix—once we’d decided whose turn it was to confront the Crawl Space of Certain Death. We started using heat-trace tape on the pipes to faux-insulate them, but we finally wound up running two space heaters in the crawl space for the rest of the winter.

By the way, if you’re thinking,


  • "Alternately heartwarming and hilarious, earnest and absurd...a testament to how the idealism, perseverance and activism of ordinary people can actually change people's minds and change the world for the better."—Winnipeg Free Press
  • "Using his trademark self-deprecating humor, Jenkins...chronicles the zany misadventures...Jenkins is refreshingly candid...this is essential reading for [Esther's] many fans."—Library Journal

On Sale
Jul 10, 2018
Page Count
224 pages

Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter

About the Author

In just two short years, Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter have cemented a place for themselves among the worlds most well-known and successful animal activists, accumulating hundreds of thousands of followers from all over the world. In 2014, Steve and Derek founded the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary in Campbellville, Ontario, where they continue to rescue and rehabilitate abandoned and abused farmed animals.

Learn more about this author

Derek Walter

About the Author

In just two short years, Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter have cemented a place for themselves among the worlds most well-known and successful animal activists, accumulating hundreds of thousands of followers from all over the world. In 2014, Steve and Derek founded the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary in Campbellville, Ontario, where they continue to rescue and rehabilitate abandoned and abused farmed animals.

Learn more about this author