Day 6

How Esther The Wonder Pig and her legion of fans crowdfunded a life-saving CT scanner for large animals

In 2012, Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter adopted what they thought was a micro pig. Esther turned out to be 300 kilograms and has taken the world by storm. They share their story in their second book, Happily Ever Esther.

Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter describe running an animal sanctuary in their new book, Happily Ever Esther

Esther 'The Wonder Pig' is a star on social media and in the hearts of her owners Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter. (Esther The Wonder Pig/Twitter)

Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter's lives changed when their pet pig, Esther, rocketed to social media fame in 2012.

When they first met Esther, she was a 1.8-kilogram (four-pound) piglet. The couple thought she was a teacup micro pig, which meant she would grow to anywhere between 30 to 90 kg by adulthood.

But they soon realized she was a commercial pig, with a much larger ceiling. She now weighs about 300 kilos, or 650 pounds.

So Jenkins and Walter decided they'd need to move to a farm, and they chronicled their journey in their book Esther the Wonder Pig, which took social media by storm and became a New York Times bestseller.

Their newest book, Happily Ever Esther (co-written with Caprice Crane), chronicles how Jenkins and Walter decided to open the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, or HEEFS, on the property.

"I didn't think she would be this big, never mind the story," Jenkins told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Now Esther could be the catalyst to helping animals around Canada, after a crowdfunding campaign raised more than $700,000 to buy a CT scanner big enough to fit her — the first of its kind in the country.

Mysterious illness

When Esther fell ill last fall, Jenkins and Walter turned to her legion of fans to help with a Herculean crowdfunding task, one that they hope can help many other large animals in Canada.

An unknown health condition caused her to have seizures and hyperventilate.

"Her hind end turned all blue, and her nose turned blue, and she was having these ataxic back pain issues," said Walter. "When we took her to the hospital, they did not have diagnostic equipment that was large enough to accurately see what the problem was. And so that created a big problem for us."

Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter spend time with their pig Esther at their animal sanctuary in Campbellville, Ont. (Hannah Yoon/Canadian Press)

The couple took to social media to fundraise a CT scanner large enough to fit Esther. They eventually raised more than $508,000 US, allowing them to buy an Italian-made Pegaso CT scanner.

It's the largest scanner of its kind in the world, able to fit a horse. They donated it to the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) at the University of Guelph, and used the extra money from the crowdfunding campaign to help other sanctuaries and rescue organizations pay for the cost of using the scanner in an emergency situation.

Getting Esther scanned is still months away, however, as the machine is so big that the OVC have to renovate their facilities just to properly install it.

The college projects that will cost an additional $500,000.

Esther's symptoms aren't as severe now compared to last year, but she still hasn't fully recovered.

"We are looking forward to getting her scanned still, because her activity has plummeted. She's not very active right now," said Walter.

Animal sanctuary

Jenkins and Walter have described the past few years with their "pig daughter" as life-changing.

As she grew to nearly equine proportions, the couple left their jobs in Georgetown, Ont. (Jenkins a realtor, Walter a magician) and bought a farm in Campbellville, about 30 km to the southwest.

They're now the heads of a team taking in neglected or abandoned animals, sometimes from other animal-friendly families who are no longer able to care for them.

"It's living the dream, and sometimes it's a nightmare," Walter said about running HEEFS. "It's an awful lot of work, but we get to witness a lot of change from the residents as they come in."

Current residents include 10 other pigs; lifelong companions BJ the donkey and Escalade the horse; and Catherine, William and George — a family of goats nicknamed "The Royals."

They're all given regular health check-ups and personalized treatments, such as monthly hoof trimming for the goats.

"They're quite often in a bad state when the residents arrive and we get to see them come out of their shell and get to see them heal and get to see them be themselves. So it's a very rewarding experience," said Walter.

As for Esther, she sleeps in a queen-size bed on the first floor of Jenkins and Walter's house. The other in-house residents include two dogs, a cat and an assertive turkey named Cornelius.

Esther-approved veganism

Jenkins and Walter have adopted a vegan lifestyle since taking in Esther, forgoing any meat-based foods or other animal products.

In fact, Happily Ever Esther also includes an appendix of vegan, "Esther-approved" recipes.

The pair decided to make the change to veganism in steps.

"You know, you drop one ingredient, [then] you add another … and then suddenly you're no longer eating meat or dairy or eggs and you've got all these other food options," explained Walter.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC Kitchener-Waterloo and The Canadian Press. This segment was produced by Laurie Allan.