The Esther Effect: How One Pig is Changing Grassroots Animal Rights Activism

Mira Lieberman, 1st year PhD candidate, Grantham Scholar, Management School

Strewn across her day bed, Esther is surrounded by family: Dads Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter are on her either side, with dogs Shelby and Reuben close by and semi-house turkey Cornelius fluttering about, showing off his feathers. This is the normal setting for Esther the Wonder Pig’s social media-based activism, raising support for their Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.

However, the roots (pun intended!) of what is now a strong activist platform for Esther the Wonder Pig do not originate in animal rights agenda, but rather in family, love and kindness: “There is shock in recognizing that it is possible, perhaps morally obligatory, to care about these others. It is as if one suddenly realizes that sitting in the next room is a family member whom one has somehow forgotten — or, at least, forgotten to love. Such moments are powerful. They bring about change at the level of basic attitudes — a person’s consciousness is raised. He or she becomes, in the movement’s term, an “animal person.” This poignant quote by the inspiring Kenneth Shapiro is indeed the catalyst for the change in the lives of Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter.

Their story of how Esther came into their lives as a supposed mini-pig is the background for this research project that analyses how this special family constructs their animal rights identity. Specifically, it was through familial relationship with Esther, that Jenkins and Walter made the connection that led them to adopt an Esther Approved (vegan) lifestyle.

I set out to explore the Esther approach to animal rights activism and how the family constructs their very special identity. More precisely, I was interested to see how that is co-constructed in interaction, i.e., in conversation. Using their weekly live-feed updates on Facebook as data, I transcribed and analysed Esther’s Dads interaction, following the interactional sociolinguistics framework, which sees the way people speak and interact as a series of habits of talk that create meaning, but also reinforce certain ways of thinking about the world. Language in this project is seen as a resource for participants to actively and creatively draw on to reshape their surroundings. Of course, their activism is not seen as occurring in vacuum, but as a discourse that responds to, or competes with other existing animal rights activism discourses.

Competing Discourses

As Kenneth Shapiro states, the animal rights movement has acquired a negative image of aggression and extremism which time and again threatens to discredit the efforts of many who feel passionate about animal gaining equal rights.

Lyle Munro, in his paper on DIY Animal Rights Activism, elaborates further on this point and claims that there is a need to engage in a more moderate form of activism to gain effectiveness. For example, Peter Singer in his influential book Practical Ethics holds that veganism and vegetarianism is a prerequisite for effective activism, a view supported by Munro asserting that ‘meat avoidance is for many animal protectionists the single most important thing an individual can do for animals.’ Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM)’s influential campaign The Great American Meatout launched in 1985, exemplifies the positive turn in animal rights activism. The campaign to reduce meat consumption focuses on the positive message of the vegan lifestyle rather than on the cruelty issues.

Esther with dad Steve Jenkins on left, and dad Derek right

Esther’s approach

Esther’s approach goes even further in the promotion of kindness above all, to show animals as agentive through Esther’s voice (and she has one, especially when dad Steve wouldn’t let her out of the back yard) and demonstrating a solution: both through adopting an Esther Approved lifestyle (i.e., a vegan lifestyle) and by changing the schema we have for farm animals and for what we conceptualise as a normative family structure. In effect, Esther’s dads perform and construct their activism in opposition to two main dominant discourses: they offer an alternative discourse to the mainstream carnist discourse, and a counter-discourse to the mainstream animal-rights discourse, intersecting with gay rights and gay family structures.

Activism through change of frames in family discourse

I analysed my data using the concept of frames and footing as developed by Erving Goffman. The notion of frames originated when Bateson (1955) observed monkeys in a zoo, playfully nipping at each other. He conceived that the monkeys had a way of decoding the interaction as ‘play’ rather than ‘fight’. Goffman, who later developed Bateson’s frames into interactive frames, noted that participants within one interaction setting, shift between multiple frames in order to accomplish various social acts. In my project, I illustrate how moving between frames helps Esther’s Dads accomplish their animal rights activism in their unique way, and construct their family identity.

Esther, her new children’s book and Cornelius the turkey in the background.

By switching between what I call ‘activism frame’ where Jenkins and Walter speak to their supports on the live feed, and between the ‘parental frame’ where they speak to Esther, between ‘the “marketing” frame’ in which they raise funds for their sanctuary all occurring within this online interaction, a new animal rights activism discourse is created. As Ableson (1976) notes, “…attitude towards an object consists in the ensemble of scripts concerning that object”. Esther’s dads’ activism attempts to change the mainstream schema of pigs as food. By seeing Esther as their daughter , they elevate Esther’s status from farm animal destined to become a commodity, to that of a child, benefitting from love, care and kindness that should be extended to all beings.

Esther’s activism does not stop at live feeds! In their recent children’s book, the theme is clear: love is love, and families come in all shapes and sizes. In addition, Esther’s current fundraiser to purchase a large CT scanner for the Toronto Veterinary Hospital highlights the core finding in this project. A few months ago Esther was suddenly taken ill and had to be rushed to the Ontario Veterinary College hospital. In an attempt to find out what was wrong, dads Steve and Derek realised the hospital did not have a CT scanner large enough to accommodate Esther’s size. As Esther is a part of the family, her dads will do anything they can to assure her medical care. The scanner fundraiser will not only help Esther and all the other large animals in the sanctuary but will also benefit all the large animals in the Ontario area such as horses and large zoo animals who currently do not have the proper scanning facilities at the hospital.