ROY — This is the heartwarming story of Grace and Esther, two unlikely friends who have been virtually inseparable the last 4 ½ years.

They hang out together whenever possible. They took a memorable trip to Las Vegas shortly after meeting. And when Grace was nominated for homecoming queen, who was tapped as her escort?

That’s right, Esther.

You should also know that Esther is a sheep.

Grace Hislop, a 20-year-old University of Utah student from Roy, raised Esther from a lamb. She bottle-fed her, slept beside her, and spent countless hours bonding with her. All Grace has to do is go outside and call “baa-a-a-a,” and Esther “baa-a-a-as” right back and comes running.

Such behavior isn’t common in sheep; most are quite skittish around humans, according to Grace’s dad, Lance Hislop. But Esther and Grace imprinted on one another early, and now Esther would rather hang with Grace than do anything else.

“I’m her herd,” Grace explains.

“She is her herd,” Dad echoes, for emphasis.

PETTING ZOO

The two friends can often be found in the shade of a large tree in the pasture out back, lying there while Grace rubs and scratches Esther’s wool. And they’re usually not alone out there. The family has two other sheep, Sariah (a daughter of Esther) and Ruth. There’s also a small red pig named Ginger.

Grace says she and her brother, Roy High School junior Miles Hislop, love sharing their animals with others. As such, they’ve set up a “Do It Yourself Petting Zoo” at the back of their property.

The Hislops have an acre and a half out behind their home, and the land at the back abuts the paved Denver and Rio Grande Western Rail Trail, just south of 4800 South, in Roy.

Although they had the idea about five years ago, they just got around to creating their very own petting zoo in early May. They went on KSL Classifieds and bought a 25-cent metal candy machine for $50. It had two slots; one they filled with grain (for the animals), and one with bubble gum (for the passing children).

“It made people so happy, and I love seeing people happy, love sharing with people,” Grace said.

SMARTER THAN VANDALS

Grace says there’s just something about adorable barnyard animals. One day after they’d installed their “gumball” feeder, Grace saw a police officer sitting in his vehicle on the trail, at the back of their barbed wire fence, just staring.

“He waved me down, and I worried maybe someone had complained,” Grace recalls. “But instead, he said, ‘I just love your animals.’”

The petting zoo idea has been a bit of a learning curve for the Hislops. The first machine they purchased was “pretty cheap,” and could be pried open quite easily.

“I went down there and twice it had been pried open,” Grace said.

The third time, the plastic “window” had been broken, so it couldn’t be salvaged.

“They broke the gum side and didn’t even take the gum,” Grace said. “In fact, they didn’t even take the money. They were just there to vandalize.”

“But,” Grace adds, “we are smarter than them.”

So they purchased a higher-quality candy machine, one that has four dispensing slots. And they got a friend of a friend to design and build a metal cage — for about $40 in parts — to go around their new machine, to discourage vandalism and theft.

‘LOVE, LOVE, LOVE GRAIN’

For a quarter, visitors to the petting zoo can get a gumball for themselves, or a handful of oats, corn and barley mixture for the sheep and pig.

Grace says Ginger the Pig will do tricks for visitors.

“She’ll sit on her hind legs to get grain,” she said.

They monitor how much grain goes into and comes out of the machine, as they have to be careful with just how much the animals eat.

“Sheep love grain. Love, love, love grain,” Grace said. “Given the chance, they will east so much of it that they will bloat and die.”

Enjoying the Do It Yourself Petting Zoo is a simple four-part process, according to the sign on a post next to the trail:

“1. Shake milk jug and ‘Baaaaaa.’” (There’s a gallon milk jug with a few small rocks inside it, tied to the fence. You shake the jug and the animals come running, since the sound resembles the shaking of a feed bucket.)

“2. Put a quarter into the machine and get a handful of grain.”

“3. Hold your had flat and let the animals find you.”

“4. Do it again!”

Grace says they had the vending machine set up on the trail for two weeks and made $44.

“The candy machine only cost us $50, so in two weeks we basically made up the cost of the machine,” she said.

Of course, the money trickles in gradually, one quarter at a time. But it does adds up.

“We made $5.75 yesterday,” Grace said recently. “It could become a money maker, I suppose, but it’s not about the money.”

HOMECOMING AND VEGAS

A 2018 graduate of Roy High School, at one point Grace found out she’d been nominated for homecoming queen.

“I don’t think it took more than 10 seconds to think, ‘Esther should be my escort,’” she said.

She approached the administration about it, and they thought it was a great idea.

Lance Hislop feigns hurt when talking about that incident.

“She was nominated for homecoming queen,” he says. “She could have chosen her father to escort her, but instead she chose a sheep.”

Grace says her fellow students came to love Esther, the Sheep Escort. She brought the animal back to school that year for the Christmas assembly.

“I think she’s in my yearbook more than I am,” Grace says with mock jealousy.

One of Grace’s favorite Esther stories she likes to tell was when the lamb was just three weeks old. Lance and Teresa Hislop took their two children to Las Vegas to visit relatives, and Esther got to tag along. It was a crucial time for the lamb; she needed to be fed four times a day at equal intervals, so there was always a 3 a.m. feeding.

“So we put her in a box in our van, and she came to Vegas with us while we stayed at our cousins’ house,” Grace said. “They didn’t let her sleep inside, so I slept outside with her.”

And walking a lamb down a street in Vegas? Those memories are priceless, Grace says.

“We’d walk down a busy road there, and I loved the reactions when people see you walking a sheep,” she said. “Even just walking around Roy, most people don’t see a sheep going for a walk. It’s going to cause an accident one of these days.”

Grace and her brother have talked about the idea of developing a traveling petting zoo, one that could visit schools and other organizations.

Of course, in time all things change. Grace is now away at college, living in Salt Lake City and attending the University of Utah.

“It’s been good for her,” dad Lance Hislop says, jokingly adding: “I’m going to have this sheep till it dies.”

With Grace in school, she and Esther don’t get to see each other as much these days. But Grace says she comes home to Roy as often as possible — mostly to visit Esther, although, yes, the rest of the family is there, too.

“When I come home, 90 percent of it is to see Esther,” Grace confesses.

Dad Lance Hislop simply shrugs and nods his head. Sheepishly.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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