When the planet's most famous pig had a bit of a health scare, it seemed the whole world held its breath.
Legions of fans, numbering some 1.3 million people on Facebook alone, were probably a lot more distraught than Esther the Wonder Pig — who aside from a sloping back end, went about her leisurely business of being a very happy house pig.
That business included supping on vine-ripened tomatoes, curling up beside the dog in front of the TV. And, of course, cupcakes.
Esther — a 650-pound animal who shares a house outside Toronto, Canada, with her human family — had no idea how many people were pulling for her.
But she also had no idea a world of red tape was piling up against her, making every health issue a matter of life and death.
You see, unlike dogs and cats, when a pig starts acting strange, things don't get remedied by an easy ride to the veterinary clinic.
The rules are different
Her "dads" — as Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter like to call themselves — noticed Esther moving oddly last year. At first, they thought maybe she was having a heart attack. Or was it a skeletal-muscular issue?
How could they find out? At her size, Esther wasn't going to be scanned by a local veterinarian. In fact, the only equipment Jenkins and Walter could find that could accommodate her was in the United States.
And that's where the line between Esther and her dog and cat friends was sharply and painfully drawn. Under federal laws, Esther couldn't travel to the U.S. without meeting a battery of criteria — rules and regulations that effectively barred her from the country. She would also have to trade in her plush family home for a quarantine facility at the border.
Because Esther, contrary to what she may believe, is not a dog or a cat. Under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, Esther isn't even a pet.
She's a "food animal."
Fans to the rescue
Regardless of what ailed Esther, she wasn't going to make that trip. That's when her army of admirers stepped in.
Esther's fans pitched in the $650,000 needed to buy the scanner outright and have it installed at the local university in early August.
"Believe it or not, the easier thing for us to do was raise the money and buy the scanner," Jenkins tells MNN.
All for just one scan.
But it probably saved Esther's life, as another disturbing diagnosis suddenly came to light.
"There was nothing really wrong with Esther's back end," Jenkins explains. "But it was having her in the hospital at that time that helped us find the breast cancer."
Esther's family had to move to a farm outside of Toronto — dubbed Happily Ever Esther — to accommodate their pink-skinned pal, as well as many other animals in need of sanctuary. (Photo: Esther the Wonder Pig)
And, once again, Esther found her life hanging by a bureaucratic thread.
"As she's classified as a food animal, there's a whole list of medications that she's not allowed to have — chemotherapy being one of them," Jenkins says.
Esther, like so many non-traditional pets from chickens to cows to llamas, seemed doomed to die not so much from disease, but a killing stroke of bureaucratese.
The poster child for a bigger problem
Indeed, during Esther's health saga, Jenkins heard from people who had lost their furry friends to disease because they were barred from treatment.
"Diagnosing them is hard, finding vets to do it is hard and getting access to the medication is also hard," Jenkins says.
One kind-hearted veterinarian had to list a woman's chicken as a parrot in order to save its life.
"The rules and regulations are in place, but they're confusing," Jenkins says. "Even veterinarians aren't able to follow them and understand and therefore implement them. There's no allowance in these regulations at all for non-traditional companion animals.
"Even pot-bellied pigs, believe it or not, in Canada, are just classified as 'swine' and, as such, are considered food animals and subject to all the restrictions that come with it."
Luckily for Esther, she didn't end up needing chemotherapy. The tumors were removed from her breast, and medical reports declare her cancer-free.
What makes any animal a pet?
Along the way, with her customary obliviousness, Esther has become an unlikely hero for countless people and animals.
Esther has sparked an important conversation about what makes a dog a pet and a pig, food.
"We've been put in a really unique position to help show those characteristics because — and only because — we happened to get screwed into raising her in the house," Jenkins says with a laugh.
"If you take her and put her in a sanctuary settling, like all the other pigs we have here, it's amazing to get to know them. But actually seeing a pig in a house, living with humans, with a dog, elevates them to the same standard and same position. More so than any happy pig running free."
But Esther ambles along a different road in this life. And, although it may be paved in cupcakes, it's still a hard road — and one that many more animals like Esther may someday follow.
"She's kind of paying a price and paving the road at the same time," Jenkins says. "We were able to get this scanner, which is great. It's going to make things easier for other animals going forward."
Indeed, part of the funds collected for the scanner — about $100,000 — will be used to help other non-conventional animal companions access the equipment.
Treating and diagnosing them, on the other hand, is shaping up to be an even tougher task in both Canada and the U.S.
"While we faced these roadblocks, we also had the audience and the will and the desire and quite frankly, the will to do something about it," Jenkins notes. "I can't imagine how many people have been in our situation before that couldn't do anything about it. They got told, 'No' and that was the end of the road for them.
"I cannot imagine if we were told 'No' and that was the end of the road with Esther."
Instead, Esther's army — a force powerful enough to buy up $650,000 in medical equipment and have it transported to Canada — will fight this battle too. And it will be a fight for every pig, chicken, goat and cow that's ever been loved by a human — so that they can all live Happily Ever Esther.
"That's really why we're fighting as hard as we are," Jenkins says.
And it will all have been started by a pig who loves pool parties. And, did we mention cupcakes?