NEW YORK • Soon, it will be the year of the dog in the Chinese almanac but, for Esther, it continues to be the year of the pig.
Esther is - well - a pig.
Sometimes, people cry when they arrive at the farm in Canada because seeing 295kg Esther the Wonder Pig in real life can be overwhelming.
It has about 11/2 million followers on its social media accounts. It owns trunks full of clothing, including evening gowns, all sent from fans worldwide.
The story of how a piglet became Esther the Wonder Pig started in 2012 when Mr Steve Jenkins got a message from an acquaintance on Facebook, saying she had a piglet but could not care for it.
Then, Mr Jenkins, now 34, and Mr Derek Walter, 35, lived in a three-bedroom house in Georgetown, a hamlet in Ontario, with two dogs, three cats, two turtles and a koi pond in the backyard. They worked from home, Mr Jenkins as a real estate agent and Mr Walter as a professional magician.
The acquaintance delivered the sow to Mr Jenkins. Mr Walter, who was not told in advance, was unhappy at first, but the animal soon grew on him.
They named it Esther, a sweet, old-fashioned name, and decided to take it to a vet who said it could get to be 113kg.
Mr Jenkins had become attached to Esther, making it a bed in the living room and figured it would be larger than the dogs. Not ideal, he thought, but manageable.
But soon after, Esther started eating like, well, a pig. Its diet consisted of pig food bought from a store, supplemented with whatever the two men were eating.
Esther impressed them with its smarts. It figured out how to open the refrigerator, using its snout.
They trained it to go to the bathroom. Mr Jenkins said: "We'd see an intelligence in it we didn't even see in our dogs."
Esther kept growing. "It was hard on us. At our lowest point, I'd be in tears thinking we had to get rid of it," he added.
But they could not find a suitable place to send it. All the sanctuaries they found were full.
When Esther was about 18 months old, it tipped the scales at 190kg. But it made them laugh so often that Mr Jenkins created a Facebook page for it in 2013. It had 100,000 likes in 80 days.
Handmade clothes for it started arriving at their house. It kept expanding and so did its popularity. By May 2014, it had 250,000 followers.
"We knew what we had to do. How we were living wasn't fair to it," said Mr Jenkins. They thought only one solution would work: Start their own sanctuary.
They found a 20ha farm about 40 minutes' drive from their house. The price was US$1 million (S$1.34 million). They put up a request on a crowdfunding site, hoping to raise US$400,000. Within two months, they had raised it from 9,000 people in 44 countries.
In 2014, they moved to the farm house, less than a year after they started Esther's Facebook page.
They called it Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.
Soon, they had a cow, horses, goats and a pregnant pig, in addition to Esther. They started selling Esther T-shirts and tote bags. They now maintain 10 social media accounts and have three full-time staff.
Then, there are the volunteers. There are about 40 who work a regular schedule each week.
The farm also offers tours on many weekends, bringing in hundreds of people a month for a suggested donation of US$10 each.
The Dixie Chicks musical group visited last year. In July, British comedian Ricky Gervais donated more than US$25,000 from one of his comedy tours.
Mr Jenkins said one reason people are drawn to Esther is simply that it makes them smile.
The two men have written a book about it and offer an expanding array of merchandise on the website, including jewellery and artwork.
The site invites fans to sign up for a seven-day Carnival cruise in the Caribbean, where they would be joined by like-minded pig lovers and served a customised "Esther approved" menu.
Proceeds go to the sanctuary, which now has 50 rescued animals.
Mr Jenkins was asked so many times for Esther's measurements - so that its fans could make clothing - that he put them on the website.
"The more people look at it and watch it, they build a relationship with it," he said.
"It's so relatable... and then they'll see a video of it and think, 'Oh, I'd love to have a cupcake and a massage for breakfast like it does.'"