Jean’s Pick of the Week: Funny Farm, My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals

We have all experienced the Internet vortex. You go online to do “just one thing” with the best intentions – to book that reservation, to stay abreast of world events, to make that important purchase – and THREE HOURS LATER, you have spent the whole afternoon watching cat and dog videos. And by you, I actually mean me. Nothing sucks me in faster than videos about unlikely animal friendships but afterwards, I’m left feeling guilty for having wasted the day away. I have the perfect solution though. Reading Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals by Laurie Zaleski gave me the same warm fuzzies as watching animal videos on YouTube, but none of the guilt. After all, it’s reading, which any parent, teacher, or good librarian will tell you is food for the mind and, in this case, the soul too.

The Funny Farm Rescue & Sanctuary, located in Mays Landing, NJ, is one of the largest animal sanctuaries in the United States. Founded by Laurie Zaleski, this charitable organization is dedicated to creating a home for unwanted farm animals, domesticated animals, or animals with special care needs. Not only is the farm a sanctuary, but it is free for visitors to mingle and meet with the farm’s residents, many of whom have become Internet stars, undoubtedly, in part, because of people like me. In 2019, the Funny Farm welcomed more than 100,000 visitors from as far away as the United Kingdom, Mexico and Russia!

While the pages of this book contain enough heartwarming and funny tales about the farm’s quirky residents to satisfy the most ardent animal lover, this is as much Laurie Zaleski’s story as it is the animal rescue that she founded. Her father was a respected economics professor at a NJ college with a head for business who made a bundle in investments. Anne, her pretty mother, had children young and kept the perfect house. With a housekeeper to do most of the cooking and cleaning, Anne spent most of her time volunteering at local organizations, including animal shelters, and throwing lavish dinner parties that would make the local paper’s society pages. But behind the closed doors of this picture-perfect family, Laurie’s father was a womanizer, controlling, and violent. After one particularly harrowing episode, Anne, despite having no job, no driver’s license, and no savings, escaped with Laurie and her siblings. They ended up in a ramshackle, run-down dwelling – to call it a house would be giving it too much credit – where they had to bootleg electricity and running water. 

Despite growing up in poverty, there was an abundance of love, adventure, and fun in Laurie’s family. There were times when there was barely enough food to eat, but Anne could never turn away an animal in need and she slowly began collecting strays of all varieties. And thus, Laurie and her siblings had a unique childhood. They learned DIY skills of the most unusual variety: building shelters, birthing animals, and even butchering. Laurie went on to start her own successful graphic design business, but she never stopped dreaming of buying her mother a real farm where she could retire and spend her days rescuing animals full-time. From this seed of an idea grew the Funny Farm.

Society says dogs don’t get along with cats, a chicken can’t be friends with a dog and a squirrel can’t sleep with a bunny… but they do at the Funny Farm. Because we let them.”

Laurie Zaleski in Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals

Cynics say that people are guilty of anthropomorphizing animal behavior. Animals do not think and feel the same things that people do so we cannot interpret their actions through our human lens. Maybe not. But how can you be mad reading about a world in which a goat, sheep, steer, and dog are best friends (the new Fabulous Four), and a woman who started out with nothing went on to rescue hundreds of abandoned animals? Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

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