MAYS LANDING, N.J. — For nearly a month, a blind lamb named Bradley has been sleeping in Laurie Zaleski’s living room. Also sharing her humble two-bedroom abode: 11 dogs, 4 chickens (in diapers), 23 cats, several kittens, a baby duck and a very loud cockatoo. Yes, says Zaleski, author of the just-released memoir “Funny Farm,” she is overdue for a home expansion. But she would never consider the alternative: fewer animals under her roof.
“I have a hard time saying no,” Zaleski explains without needing to, as we walk around her 25-acre Mays Landing, N.J., farm one recent sunny afternoon. There were animals popping out everywhere — and no wonder. Currently on the premises are, give or take, 11 dogs, 15 horses, 131 chickens, 210 cats, two cows, 22 peacocks, four alpacas, 24 pigs, five donkeys, 20 goats, four sheep, 160 ducks, two emu, seven turkeys, two llama, several geese and one skunk. They’re here to take refuge, to escape abuse, recover from injury or sickness or simply to experience being wanted. Even the skunk — whose scent glands had been removed — was once someone’s pet.
This is the Funny Farm, double-entendre intended: “Because it’s full of animals, and fit for lunatics,” Zaleski jokes of the sanctuary that she built here, some 20 miles from Atlantic City, more than two decades ago.
Zaleski’s love of animals was born of personal misfortune. “It was a happy accident,” she writes in “Funny Farm” (St. Martin’s), a chronicle of the hardscrabble childhood that sparked her devotion to all creatures great and small. Don’t be fooled by the whimsical cover: This is a tale that’s heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure. (Think “Educated” meets “Dr. Dolittle.”)
The story begins in the early ’70s in Turnersville, about 30 miles from the Funny Farm. There Zaleski lived in a well-appointed suburban home with her parents and two siblings; they had a nanny and a beach house and cocktail parties. But Zaleski’s father had violent outbursts. One day, after being threatened at knifepoint, Laurie’s mother finally had enough. She drove off with the kids and settled into a new house, a ramshackle one-bedroom in the woods that, when they arrived, had no electricity or running water and was strewn with garbage. “Its few windows were broken or cracked, and one of the wooden sills hung down, as if someone had stepped on it to crawl inside. If there once had been steps out front, they were long gone — it was a straight drop, five feet from the doorsill to the ground,” Zaleski writes. Soon after the family moved in, vandals tried to run them out, trashing the place and stealing valuables the family could barely afford in the first place.
Five-year-old Zaleski was terrified. But her mother, “unwavering in her cheerfulness,” found a way to protect her family: a dog. Zaleski’s mom got their first animal, a German shepherd named Wolf, in 1973 through one of her three jobs, cleaning cages at the local animal control. Wolf was meant to scare off the troublemakers, and for a while it worked — until Zaleski’s father figured out his family’s whereabouts and terrorized them.
Zaleski’s mom, Annie McNulty, had a weakness for difficult men and needy animals. The former nearly got her killed; the latter saved her life. Shortly after Wolf’s arrival came other animals, each with its own sad story — a baby horse with a broken leg, a runaway pig, a discarded dog. “Every time I turned around, the menagerie seemed to grow. Two by two, four by four, as if Noah had parked his ark in the woods near Turnersville, dropped the tailgate and said, ‘Welcome home,’” writes Zaleski in the same matter-of-fact style in which she speaks.
Zaleski has her own biblical ship here, though sometimes she has to send some animals elsewhere — reptiles, amphibians and wildlife — where they can be cared for by specialists. “My bathtub and sometimes kitchen sink become a trauma center for animals that get hit by cars or wildlife before they get transferred to a local wildlife rescue,” she says. Zaleski may be generous and patient, but even she has her limits. “It gets me so angry,” she says of people who abandon pets when they move. “I think to myself, I’m glad I’m not your child. Are you going to leave them behind, too?”
The animals on the Funny Farm seem never to want to leave Zaleski behind. As we walk, a trail of critters follows, including a tall and surprisingly fast-moving emu named Connor. Zaleski, dressed in full-on cowgirl gear, flashes her long eyelashes as she greets, kisses and feeds her furry and feathered friends. For her beloved German shepherd Tucker, who has a malformed esophagus, that means propping him up in a special dog highchair so he can lick a bowl of liquefied puppy food.
Zaleski bought the farm in 2000 intending to give it to her mother. Two weeks before the sale closed, though, her mom died of cancer, at 52. “I used to joke and say I was going to live in Philly and have cappuccinos with my friends, but I ended up at the Funny Farm,” she writes in her book. “Mom always said everything happens for a reason.”
“Funny Farm” — the place and the memoir — serve as a kind of tribute to McNulty. “My mother was a shining example of someone who would literally stop at nothing to save an animal and in a way, helping them took our minds off our horrible situation living in poverty,” Zaleski says. McNulty, who grew up in Philadelphia, followed her instincts and learned animal care from friends and neighbors and library books. One book helped her figure out how to butcher goats, a practice she put to use — to her family’s horror, and despite her own heartbreak — when the animals were accidentally poisoned by wild berries and the family needed to eat. “It was a biology lesson like no other,” Zaleski writes. She’s been a vegetarian ever since.
Zaleski is not a farmer, a wrangler, a vet or a formally trained writer. She works 30-plus hours a week at Art-Z Graphics, a photography and graphics company she owns that specializes in government contracts. She has hundreds of volunteers to help run the Funny Farm, a 501(c)(3) charity that relies on donations; two days a week it’s open to the public, free of charge. “My only time to myself is when I go to sleep and even then, there’s a pile of animals on top of me,” she says. Needless to say, she doesn’t have the time or energy for human children.
An armchair therapist might have some theories about why Zaleski and her mom became such ardent animal saviors. But Zaleski is too no-nonsense — and too busy — to delve deeply into her psyche. “We never really spoke about what saving animals meant to us. We just saw the real effects of our efforts,” she says. “Saving animals was just our way of life.” And despite the human mistreatment that, paradoxically, gave Zaleski her calling, she doesn’t hold grudges: “The majority of people are good.”
Nora Krug is an editor and writer in Book World.
My Unexpected Life With 600 Rescue Animals
By Laurie Zaleski
St. Martin’s. 244 pp. $27.99
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