“Joyful Farm: My Unexpected Life With 600 Rescued Animals” by Laurie Zaleski (St. Martin’s Press)
As the title promises, Laurie Zaleski’s memoir about how she came to start and run a large animal rescue farm in southern New Jersey is funny.
It’s also moving, a big-hearted twin tale of animal and human resilience.
Zaleski alternates the stories of some of Funny Farm’s most colorful animal characters with the turbulent history of her own family and escape from domestic violence. She tells of the cruelty and abandonment behind both narratives, but answers them by describing and practicing compassion, loyalty, and love.
The idea for Funny Farm began with Zaleski’s mother, Annie, who left her abusive husband when Laurie was 5. Annie took her three young children to the only place she could find: a cabin in the woods with no running water or electricity. It was quite a reversal: in the life she left behind, Annie had three houses, a nanny, and a housekeeper (although her husband wouldn’t let her have a credit card or driver’s license).
Mother and children struggle with poverty, Laurie with shame and rejection (pressed by a teacher, she has to admit in class that her family doesn’t have a telephone). However, she also watches as her mother builds a more authentic and independent life for herself, working a variety of low-paying jobs but exemplifying toughness and optimism.
One of those jobs is cleaning cages at Animal Control. Then soft-hearted Annie brings home “the desperate cases,” first dogs and cats, then farm animals and more. She does the toughest and dirtiest jobs on the farm (though always with makeup on).
Meanwhile, Laurie’s “ruthless” father continues to molest her.
The animals, too, are survivors who have come through trauma to find new life and bonds. There’s the bull, heartbroken without his alpaca pal nearby; the diva chicken; the horse that greets visitors; the blind cat and her devoted duck with the seeing eye.
“Tens of thousands of children visit Funny Farm each year, and we don’t share full details of our animals’ sad past because it may be upsetting to these young visitors,” Zaleski writes. “What we tell them is that every animal that lives here is a rescue and each one has found a home, a happy ending and many, many brothers and sisters.” On the farm, she says, “the kids can see them that way and appreciate who they are, undisturbed by their sad past.”
Zaleski dedicated the book to her mother, for whom she bought the current 15-acre Funny Farm in Mays Landing, New Jersey, with money from Laurie’s own graphic design business. Though she had always envisioned returning to this career, her mother’s dream eventually became hers.
“It was the happiest of accidents,” she writes. Eventually, she turned the farm into a nonprofit charity so she could care for more animals that continued to be brought to her door.
The story of Funny Farm is an entertaining read for animal lovers and anyone interested in a true story of a bountiful and unconventional life.