You may not yet know much about “Esther the Wonder Pig,” but odds are high that you will soon be hearing a lot more about her. When she was a three-pound piglet, she was represented to realtor Steve Jenkins and his partner, professional magician Derek Walter, as a “mini-pig,” and they adopted her as a pet. As Esther grew from three pounds to 30 pounds, then to 300 pounds and eventually to her current weight around 450 pounds, her "personality" blossomed as did Steve and Derek's recognition that she had been bred to become bacon. They soon experienced discomfort over treating Esther as the newest member of their family while treating the members of her past family as breakfast. And so began their quest to start, in Esther's honor, a sanctuary for animals rescued from factory farms.
A motivating factor behind Steve and Derek’s transformation is surely cognitive dissonance. When Esther first entered their lives, Steve and Derek enjoyed eating bacon as much as the next guy. Then Esther’s veterinarian informed them that Esther had been destined to become food—her tail had been docked as are the tails of pigs raised on factory farms. The fact that their beloved Esther could easily have become their own meal was disturbing to them. While they certainly would want no harm to come to any member of their family, including Esther, they recognized that by eating meat they were implicitly endorsing the pain and suffering endured by animals raised to become food, including Esther's kin. Where some people might tuck that discomfort away, Steve and Derek used it as the impetus to make a profound change in their lives, and the lives of many others.
Steve and Derek decided to become vegan, eschewing not only the meat of pigs and other animals, but also eggs, dairy products, leather, and fur. They started a Facebook page to chronicle their adventures with Esther, and to their utter surprise, the number of Esther fans grew rapidly. They decided to use Esther’s budding fame to help even more animals by creating a refuge for other castaways of the factory farming industry. They identified a property suitable for building a sanctuary and launched a campaign to raise the necessary funds. Contributors have come from around the world, so far chipping in amounts ranging from $10 to $7,500 toward the ultimate goal of $400,000. Many have themselves vowed to stop eating animals.
We have all heard the expression, “The thing that separates humans from (other) animals is …” That defining characteristic has variously been asserted to be the ability to use tools, the ability to use language, recognition of one’s self in the mirror, and the ability to grieve or feel emotions in general, among other characteristics, but over time researchers have identified cases where animals exhibit each of these “distinctively human” traits. And so animals are increasingly being recognized for their similarities to humans, which makes it increasingly difficult to justify the many ways in which humans use animals for their own purposes.
People who ascribe "human" traits to other animals are often accused of exhibiting anthropomorphism. Is Steve and Derek's embrace of Esther's human likeness mere anthropomorphism? Or are they the logical continuation of a progressive movement Charles Darwin began when he wrote, in The Descent of Man, that the difference in the minds of humans and other animals "is one of degree and not of kind"? With increasing attention to animal rights in our communities and in the media, I suspect the latter. Consider, for instance, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's efforts to relieve horses from pulling carriages along city streets, lawyer Steven Wise's efforts to grant legal personhood to a chimpanzee named Tommy, and researcher Gregory Berns' finding that "dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child," which "suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs." People appear to be increasingly confronting their cognitive dissonance by accepting non-human animals for the human-like beings that they appear to be.
Perhaps that spreading acceptance will have implications for other widespread animal-based practices, including the use of sentient non-human beings for medical research, clothing, and entertainment. Meanwhile, we can revel in the wonder that someone like Esther originally intended to end up at the slaughterhouse has ended up changing hearts and minds.