Meet the N.J. Woman Saving 600 Animals at Her Rescue After Escaping Domestic Abuse As a Child

“I don’t have human children. I have animal children,” Laurie Zaleski tells PEOPLE of the more than 600 rescue animals she cares for at Funny Farm Rescue & Sanctuary in Mays Landing, N.J.

When Laurie Zaleski snuck her twelfth animal into the house — this time a diaper-wearing chicken — her boyfriend of 11 years balked. Zaleski’s response? “Well, there’s the door.”

The relationship ended soon afterward. “He didn’t want Funny Farm to be what it is,” she says of the 2017 breakup. “And I couldn’t have that.”

For Zaleski, animals have always come first. She is the founder of Funny Farm Rescue & Sanctuary, a nonprofit animal rescue in Mays Landing, N.J., which now cares for more than 600 residents (up from 200, her ex’s preferred limit). Even though Zaleski is overseeing one of the largest animal rescues in the Northeast, she still found time to pen her inspirational memoir, Funny Farm, which was published this spring.

In the book, Zaleski introduces readers to some of the sanctuary’s most memorable animals. Many of the rescues — a mix of farm, wild and domestic species like pigs, dogs, goats, horses, emus, and skunks — roam free on her 25-acre property.

Some have formed unlikely (and adorable!) friendships, which are highlighted in Funny Farm: Bradley the sheep and Scooby the German shepherd, Yogi the steer and Cooper the alpaca, and Hope the kitten and her “seeing-eye duck” Jello. Cuteness aside, Zaleski’s rescue is all about saving lives. The animals have been “abused, neglected, unwanted, lots of them are disabled,” says the author, 53. “Usually, we’re the last stop.”

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

The origins of Funny Farm can be traced back to Zaleski’s childhood. Her mother, Anne, saved animals for decades. In 2000, Zaleski bought the Mays Landing property for her animal-loving mom, but she died of cancer before the sale went through. “I wanted to pick up where she left off and rescue animals,” Zaleski says of Funny Farm, which is run by volunteers and is open to visitors on Sundays and Tuesdays, always for free. “And it just grew and grew.”

Laurie Zaleski's mother Annie sleeping on couch with petunia
Anne with Petunia the pig. COURTESY LAURIE ZALESKI

In her book, Zaleski opens up about her painful childhood and paints a vivid portrait of her mom as the woman who taught her to love the creatures others rejected. The author says that her mom was her “superhero.”

In 1973, Anne was only 26 when she left her husband for the third and final time after he came at her with an ax, Zaleski says. “She was literally fighting for her life and ours because he was abusive to us as well,” Zaleski remembers. (Eventually, Zaleski’s dad stopped tormenting them, she writes in her book. He died in February 2020.) Anne found a “shack in the woods” in Turnersville, N.J., where she took her three kids. The house, which Anne rented for $100 a month, was supposed to be a temporary solution, but Anne lived there with her kids for the next 28 years.

In the first three months of living there, the family got robbed six times, which prompted Anne to bring home their first pet, a dog named Wolf. “They’re the best alarm system ever,” says Zaleski. “We stopped getting robbed after that.”

Anne worked at an animal control service and took in all kinds of rescue animals, including a pig named Petunia, despite the family’s financial struggles. “It took the concentration off our own issues and gave us a job,” Zaleski says. “So even though we were rescuing them, they rescued us.”

For more about Funny Farm, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.

The Fabulous 4 Cowboy Reggie Yogi Farley
Cowboy, Reggie, Yogi and Farley are all best friends. “The gate is open on visiting days, and people ask, ‘Don’t they leave?’ Would you want to leave the Funny Farm? It’s the best place. It’s like Disneyland for animals.”. COURTESY LAURIE ZALESKI

Zaleski says her mom “always found the silver lining” despite the abuse and poverty she experienced. “Her courage and resilience are something I’ve never seen in any other person,” says the author.

Zaleski grew up determined to give something back to her mom, who had sacrificed so much. After graduating from college, she became a graphic designer and eventually saved enough money to buy a farm for her mom. Anne visited the property but died of cancer before Funny Farm opened. She was 52. “I didn’t know which end was up,” Zaleski recalls. “I felt like I couldn’t live without her, let alone, all of a sudden I’m at this farm with her 35 animals.”

For more than a decade, Zaleski took care of the growing number of animals herself, until the costs and workload became too much for one individual. In 2012, with help from her friends and family, Zaleski turned Funny Farm into a nonprofit — all for the love of animals.

Yogi and Cooper
“There are a lot of odd couples,” says Zaleski. Cooper the alpaca and his “best buddy” Yogi the steer “look like Laurel and Hardy.”. COURTESY LAURIE ZALESKI

After decades of rescuing furry and feathered creatures, Zaleski says she doesn’t have a favorite animal because they’re all so “unique.” “I’m even connected to the chickens!” she says with a laugh, referencing Adele, a chicken who often dons a pink tutu and is one of the 30-some critters living in Zaleski’s house.

On a regular day, a minimum of four volunteers help Zaleski take care of the more than 600 rescues at Funny Farm, which subsists on fundraisers and donations. Most of the rescues at Funny Farm were dropped off by owners who could no longer care for them or were called in by police or locals.

“We don’t concentrate on where they came from, we concentrate on where they are now,” says Zaleski of Funny Farm’s approach to animal care. She takes the same approach with visitors, who range from school children and families to local community groups.

Hope, the blind kitten and her seeing eye duck, Jello
When they first arrived as newborns, Jello the duck and his kitten pal Hope “slept together in a little box to keep each other warm.”. COURTESY LAURIE ZALESKI

It’s important to Zaleski that Funny Farm remains a sanctuary for animals even after she’s gone. Equally important is the free entry for visitors, which is a tribute to her mom. “My volunteers get mad at me like, ‘Laurie, we had 1,000 people today. If everybody gave us $1, we’d have $1,000,’ ” she says. But Zaleski has remained dedicated to free entry.

One day, she shared the anecdote during a hayride, and a woman started to cry. “Hearing your story, it touched me,” the woman told Zaleski. She’d been coming to the farm for a year, but she couldn’t afford to put money in the donation bucket. “She got divorced, the same thing as my mom, but she couldn’t get [child support and alimony] for a long time,” says Zaleski. “And then she got a job, and she handed me a $20 bill, which must have been $100 to her.”

Adele and Eyore
Standing on her friend Eyeore lets Zaleski’s “diva chicken” Adele avoid the snow. “Animals don’t get enough credit. They’re smarter than people,” Zaleski says. COURTESY LAURIE ZALESKI

For Zaleski, the fight is never over to help the animals and humans in her life, just like her mom. “I still feel her with me,” Zaleski says. “My mom called our original place Funny Farm — she said it’s fit for lunatics and full of animals and that we were crazy but good crazy. I’m proud of that. I’m proud to beat to a different drum.”

Funny Farm is on sale now.

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