Top Quotes: “Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals “ — Laurie Zaleski

Austin Rose
12 min readMay 23, 2024

--

“I couldn’t help but think of my mother and the original Funny Farm, the wild and woolly place where I’d grown up. After fleeing a nightmarish marriage, with next to no money, living with three kids in a rundown, one-bedroom house in the woods, Mom had taken a succession of lowly jobs, including one cleaning cages at the local animal shelter. That’s when she started bringing home the desperate cases, the animals next in line to be euthanized, until dozens of them roved the woods and fields around our house or lived outside in lean-tos or sheds we built ourselves. Some — including geese, pigs, goats, and an injured, recovering foal — even lived inside with us.

That’s when Mom jokingly dubbed our place the Funny Farm — “because it’s full of animals, and it’s fit for lunatics.”

Even at her poorest — and believe me, as Mom would say, most of the time all she had in her pocket was lint— she couldn’t bear to see an animal put to sleep if she could help it. Sometimes, she was scarcely able to keep food on the table. Even so, her rule was: One dollar for the family, one dollar for the animals.

It was Mom who had landed me in this pickle.”

Dad wouldn’t allow her to drive, so she had to run all her errands on a bicycle, with little Stephen perched in a basket on top of the handlebars, and Cathy and I on a two-seat carrier bolted to the rear wheelbase. He wouldn’t let her have a credit card, so she paid for the groceries out of a cash allowance, which he handed over every Saturday in a bank envelope.”

“The Chicken Man’s visits continued for a year or more. Whenever he showed up, I greeted him warmly, but no longer pressed him for details, and, eventually, I guess he decided he could trust me. He owned up to working in a poultry processing plant. Each time a bird escaped the assembly line, this unlikely Samaritan would grab it, put it under his coat, then slip out and stow it in his truck until the end of his shift. Then he would bring it to the Funny Farm, where it could live a long, happy life.”

“His name was Steve, and he worked for UPS, Mom’s former employer. Well, Debbie the goose developed a mad crush on Steve. Every day, as soon as he pressed the electric panel to open the gate, she’d go hurtling in his direction, madly flapping her wings and squawking at the top of her lungs. One day, when a female driver showed up instead, Debbie was fit to be tied.”

“Priscilla taught me that pigs aren’t low, filthy creatures, as some people believe, but sensitive, smart, affectionate, and quite finicky about their living quarters. Sure, they roll around in the mud and dirt, but only to repel gnats and flies or keep their skin from getting sunburnt.

And although pigs can live on slop — as in any old garbage, including restaurant waste — Priscilla was quite the connoisseur. She loved her leafy greens and hay and fresh fruits, and I did my best to accommodate her.”

“From the day I got Adele — she was surrendered to the farm with a half-dozen other homeless chickens — she was the only one who refused to live among the hundreds of other birds on the grounds. It was as if for her, this commoners’ existence was simply out of the question. Every time I put Adele out in the farmyard, she would circle around to the back deck, stand at the sliding glass door, and peck relentlessly until I let her in again.

It was clear that Adele was determined to be my new roommate. She never gave up. How could I say no? She finally won and loved living with the dogs and cats in the house. She loves to jump up on the couch and watch TV— her favorite show is Friends — clucking the whole time!

You cannot potty-train a chicken. Believe me, I tried. So I outfitted Adele with a diaper — essential for the house-dwelling hen — and then built a cardboard house with a special roost for her to sleep in. She was the happiest hen ever. Whenever I couldn’t find her, she was always in the bathroom playing in my jewelry, with some of the necklaces hanging around her neck. Adele loved anything sparkly, and and would stare into the mirror for hours and hours. Anytime I took the dogs on road trips, Adele would come along too, claiming the center armrest of the truck to get the best view. Adele ruled the roost and none of the dogs or cats ever stood up to her.

One day, I left the house for a chiropractic adjustment and, unbeknownst to me, Adele decided to tag along. Somehow, she slipped out behind me, jumped up into the truck bed, and off I went. When I was finished with my appointment, I heard all this talk of rooster, chicken, rooster, chicken. As I approached the receptionist, I noticed she was holding a chicken. I asked how she got a chicken and she said it came up and knocked on the door. I said, “She looks a lot like my house chicken, Adele, what are you going to do with her?” The receptionist said she had a small farm and was going to take her home and build her a pen outside! I said, “Okay, if you need any help, let me know, I own the Funny Farm.” For two days, I searched high and low for Adele, all over the farm. Finally, one morning over coffee, the bells in my head went off and I realized that Adele must have jumped into the back of my truck.

I felt like a terrible mom! I called the receptionist and told her that was my Adele! She laughed and said I could come pick her up. I rushed to her house to find Adele pacing back and forth in a nice outside pen! She was very put out!

She squawked at me all the way home. When we got home, I painted her nails to be sure I would always recognize her.”

“As soon as we got out on the highway, it became clear that we had picked up a male and female and apparently, they were very excited about being rescued! At the sound of squealing, I turned around to see them humping like crazy, in full view of other motorists.

To understand why this was such a spectacle, you have to know a little about a pig’s anatomy. Boars have corkscrew-shaped penises that can extend up to eighteen inches. Their orgasms also last a long time — up to half an hour — and they ejaculate the whole time. This wasn’t just a couple of horny farm animals at play. This was the greatest show on earth.

A carload of guys caught the action and started fist-pumping and cheering. A mom in a van sped past us, I guess to keep her kids from learning too much too soon.

At the sight of this freeway fornication, a couple of other drivers almost veered off the highway.

We got home, and as Mom hosed down Woody’s truck, he cornered me, stuck his finger in my face, and said grimly, “Do not tell anybody about this.”

Fast-forward to a New Year’s Eve party. Warmed by a little holiday cheer, I let the story slip and soon everyone was jeering at Woody about his traveling pig sex show. End of romance.

Like clockwork, about four months later, our new sow gave birth to six baby piglets.”

“Most often, cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, and I had to wonder if my Casanova of a father had brought something home that would later cause Mom’s cancer.

“Politico is sleek, beautiful, and obsidian black. He’s also balky and short-tempered — in horsey parlance, “hot-blooded.” But while Shannon could be temperamental — bucking when I tried to ride him, head-butting Stephen in the snowball incident — Politico has inflicted real injury, left me with lasting scars, and put me in the hospital twice.

One time, I was feeding Politico when he bit me, and practically took my thumb off. Apparently, he didn’t think I was pouring his food in fast enough. Another time, when I opened the pasture gate, he must have thought it was post time, because he bolted, running me over. The volunteers tell me I fell flat on my back, staggered to my feet, then swooned back to my knees. I don’t remember any of it. I ended up in the hospital with a concussion and short-term memory loss, but still loved him just the same. After all, it wasn’t his fault he was treated so badly.

“Raised for his meat, Bacon had been fattened to more than nine hundred pounds, way too big for his height and length. Just when he was “finished” —pushed to his top weight prior to slaughter — his tenderhearted owners realized they couldn’t go through with it. And that’s how Bacon ended up at the Funny Farm.

The poor boar was so heavy, he could barely move. Each day I had to plop down on the ground beside him, brace my feet against his back, and shove him to a standing position, in sort of a barnyard leg press. Only then could Bacon rise up and shuffle to the feed trough.”

“By 2013, more than three hundred [today 600] animals lived with me at the farm, every one of them a rescue. The grounds were overrun with squawking ducks and geese. The barn teemed with cats, feral and tame, along with all the farm animals.”

“What’s it like, having a cockatoo living in the house?

For one thing, it’s earsplitting (the shriek of these exotic birds has been measured at 130 decibels, the same noise level made by a jet taking off from an aircraft carrier).

For another thing, it’s a lifelong commitment, and then some (cockatoos can live to be eighty years old or even older!).

For a third, fourth, and fifth thing, having a cockatoo (or parrot, same thing) can be trying, exhausting, and messy.

Cockatoos have been likened to bratty children who never grow up. They demand lots of quality time with their favorite people. If they don’t get it, they can become destructive and aggressive, and I can assure you, you don’t want to tangle with an angry cockatoo. As I know from personal, painful experience, the bite power of this breed has been measured at more than 350 PSI (a Doberman pinscher, by contrast, comes in at 305).

“I learned that in the mid-1990s, my dad was fired from Camden County College for sexual harassment.”

“I never heard from him again.

When Cathy heard about the visit, she hit the roof.

“After everything that bastard did to us, why would you give him the time of day?”

But I found it oddly satisfying, like putting the finishing touch on an illustration or a period at the end of the sentence. In a curiously detached way, I was glad to know I didn’t harbor bad feelings toward my dad. Maybe it was better that way, to harbor no feelings at all.

“Eventually, it wasn’t uncommon for hundreds of people to show up on visiting days, and then thousands. Five thousand people came to our fall festival in 2017, and in 2018, twice that many came, until traffic backed up through the Pinelands and out onto Route 40. By way of apology, I made the rounds of my Mizpah neighbors, handing out muffins and fresh eggs and promising I’d manage the crowds better next time.

In 2019, the Funny Farm in the remote Jersey Pinelands — once my closely guarded secret — welcomed more than 100,000 visitors from as far away as the United Kingdom, Mexico, and even Russia. We now have friends across the state, around the country, and, to my everlasting, gob-smacked astonishment, around the world.

Some in the close-knit rescue community have urged me to keep barriers between our animals and visitors — think of the potential liability — but I’ve never believed in rescuing animals only to cage them. I’ve visited livestock farms and petting zoos where there were not one but two fences to keep people and animals at a distance, and kids can only feed the animals through a plastic chute. I mean, seriously, what kind of fun is that? At the Funny Farm, we believe that friendship has no fences.

Sometimes I’ve had to make adjustments, as with Yogi, who’s now pastured on visiting days because of his horns. But as much as possible, this is a free-range farm, and I plan to keep it that way. I’m not unmindful of natural rivalries in the animal kingdom, and I don’t disregard the fact that a dog, given the chance, could show aggression toward a pig, or that a flock of roosters, given the chance, could love a hen to death. But whenever it’s possible and safe, our animals are unleashed, untethered, and unrestrained. They all seem to know that they have all been given a second chance, and, once they get to know one another, strong friendships form. Sometimes, even the most odd friendships.

“The other dogs came over to see why I was crying. We had lost Snoop by that time, but all the other dogs — Freddie and two new dogs named Farley and Rocky — watched us dig a grave in the front yard, next to the place where Mom’s ashes were buried. It was important to let the dogs see Chucky’s burial or they wouldn’t know where he had gone.

Gently, we laid Chucky’s still-warm body into the ground, then filled in the grave.

To my astonishment, within minutes, the dogs dragged Chucky’s bed and toys from the porch to the grave site and started to play on the mound of freshly dug earth. Chucky was gone, but they still included him in their game.”

“His mail started to pile up, so a neighbor asked a police officer who lived in the cul-de-sac to look in on him.

By the time he was found, Dad had been dead for several weeks. But they fixed the date of death as the day he was discovered: Friday, February 14. He died alone.

Richard Zaleski, my mother’s valentine, was gone.

It was left to us, the phantom children, to clean out and sell his house. Driving into Timber Heights, the trees seemed much taller and the surrounding suburbs more sprawling. But the neighborhood itself was largely unchanged. And that went double for our childhood home at Timber Heights Court.

Opening the door to Dad’s was like stepping into a time machine, set to the early 1970s. Everything was just as I remembered, down to the red shag rug, the popcorn ceilings, and the orange bathroom with the flocked wallpaper. The faux Tiffany lamps were still there, along with the Naugahyde-and-chrome swivel chairs. The kitchen was just the same: a built-in Magic Chef wall oven and Melamine counters that looked like slabs of Spam. He still had the pool table downstairs with multicolored balls racked up and ready to go. The same neon beer signs hung on the paneled wooden walls. Even the kids’ bedrooms were intact, still kids’ bedrooms with the original furniture and bedding, as if we had just stepped outside to play.

I couldn’t make sense of it. My father’s actions, his years of violence and acts of retribution, all spoke of a hatred so intense that it demanded a blood price. But inside his house, it was as if time stopped when my mother left him.

Each visit to Dad’s was like a weird treasure hunt. We uncovered troves of mementos of our lives together, including photographs of the family and spools of home movies. We found pictures taken before and after his plastic surgery, full face and profile. Unnervingly, there were stacks of photos of the original Funny Farm, including one of Mom (in a bikini and cowboy boots!) walking one of our school friends on a pony, plus shots of the big trash heap next door and all those rusted cars. Those were tucked away with paperwork showing that the photos had been taken by a private investigator. Dad had covertly watched us all our lives.

I also found letters written to him by my mother in the early days of their romance — sentimental, loving, sweet, and filled with hopeful plans. Some were so intimate I almost blushed to read them.

And in his bedroom, we found a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and a box of wadcutter bullets, the same kind of gun and ammunition used to kill Shannon our horse.”

--

--

Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at https://peacejoyaustin.wordpress.com/blog/