MIZPAH, N.J. — Even if you’re prepared, making the turn into Funny Farm Animal Rescue, where the speed limit drops to one mile per hour, is like entering another, better, world.
It’s not quite the goat character from Wicked, Dr. Dillamund, teaching a class at Shiz University , but close. Let’s just say, the usual rules, boundaries, fears, assumptions, and hierarchies do not apply.
Laurie Zaleski long learned that those conventions are false idols, embodied most dramatically in her father, a Camden County college professor whose persistent violence drove her mother into the woods of Turnersville to collect animals, people, peace of mind, in a crowded ramshackle home but with space to breathe.
In her new memoir, Funny Farm My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals, Zaleski, 53, a graphic designer who shares the Mays Landing farm with those animals — some in diapers, some really, really, large, many in odd cross-species friendships — spares little of the tough backstory that led her to open the inspirational Funny Farm Rescue (open to the public on Tuesdays and Sundays).
She includes the stories of many of her rescue animals — goats, llamas, cats, dogs, pigs, cows, bulls, roosters, ducks, and turkeys — mostly as codas to the chapters, but the real gut punch of her story is about the humans.
As she writes about her mom’s postdivorce boyfriend Barney, another difficult figure in their lives, though more generously portrayed than her father, “Both Mom and Barney were lonesome and disappointed by love, so they tied their lives together like rafts adrift at sea, and towed the kids along in their wake.”
Like her mom, Annie Zaleski, the book is never far from a laugh or a heartwarming story about a rescue animal, their unusual personalities and underdog arcs. Ricky the peacock, slated for euthanasia because of a spinal cord injury, sits today on the roof of a shed. Cooper the alpaca still hovers around his best friend, Yogi, the 1,200-pound calf.
Connor the emu, newly graduated from a cage on the kitchen table, walks around like the big bird on campus. Canyon, the one-eyed horse, entertains young visitors. Lorenzo the llama does that llama thing where he will kiss you on the lips. Zaleski has used the animals to teach about bullying and disability to children, but just being around them is a nourishing reset of anyone’s anxieties.
“As always,” Zaleski writes of her mom, “her motto, ‘The more you cry, the less you pee,’ always got a laugh, and seemed to dispel the blues, at least a little bit.’ “
In all, on the 25-acre farm, she inventories, “11 dogs, 20 goats, 15 horses, a skunk, four alpacas, two llamas, I can’t even tell you how many geese or chickens off the top of my head, 24 pigs, 200 cats, and a 2,500-pound red Angus steer.”
In her house, Nemo the goat sneaks in off the porch like he owns the place, and Bradley the blind lamb is wearing a diaper, looking like he walked in from a nursery rhyme. Various chickens roam (their presence ended Zaleski’s last relationship.) Eleven dogs sleep in her bedroom, though not all in the bed. Most of the non-dog animals behave like they’re dogs.
Is this the way we all should be living, surrounded by other species, everybody walking around in one big minestrone soup of existence?
“I wouldn’t suggest this for everybody,” Zaleski says, wiping up after Nemo in the kitchen. “It’s not conducive to relationships.”
Still, it makes you wonder.
Mating season at the Funny Farm
It’s mating season at the Funny Farm and Cherry the turkey is trying to mate with Buddy the dog. It’s par for the course for the noisy animal chaos that envelops visitors and keeps volunteers coming back. The roosters are crowing, the pigs are snoring, the dogs are barking, and it all seems to revolve around Zaleski, dressed this day in her signature red cowboy boots, fringe jean jacket, cowboy hat, and lipstick.
Even if you want to stipulate that Cherry will accept a platonic bond, Zaleski says the friendships between different animals are legit.
Do they really have personalities, or is that a creation of the active social media volunteer, who, unlike Zaleski, likes to pretend the animals are the ones speaking in videos?
“Oh my god,” she says. “They do. Even the chicken and the ducks. Some of the ducks I just don’t know as well. All the turkeys have distinct personalities.”
The book tells the story of her turbulent and unconventional childhood, her mother’s escape with her children, and Zaleski’s determination to set up a real rescue farm for her mother beyond the informal one that built up in the woods of Turnersville.
Her mom died of cancer two weeks before Zaleski settled on the property in the Mizpah section of Mays Landing, not far from the old Jonesey’s Bar on Route 40, on the edge of the Pinelands. She says she was prepared to write honestly about her father while he was still alive, but he died before the book was published. For a heartwarming book about rescue animals, it’s a tough read.
The Funny Farm stands in memory of her mom and her spirit, with her mom’s ashes buried beneath an old wagon. None of her mom’s animals are still surviving. The Rescue Farm has been open to the public since about 2012, gaining a devoted following on social media. Since the book’s release, which landed Zaleski in People magazine, donations have increased about 30 percent, she says.
Although she once envisioned herself living an urban artist lifestyle, and she’s built a successful design and photography business contracting with the FAA’s Tech Center in nearby Egg Harbor Township, Zaleski says she’s content . As any dog owner knows, the animals have a way of drowning out most of life’s turmoil, and the lessons of these rescue creatures are many. They leave little time for introspection.
“People say when they come here and make the turn, your troubles melt away,” Zaleski says. “ One girl who was suicidal said ‘When I had no voice, I had it for the animals.’”
She’s not worried about the animals escaping.
“The gate’s open,” Zaleski says. “People are like, ‘Don’t they leave?’ And I said, ‘If you’re an animal, would you go? Who would leave?’”