Living With More Than 600 Rescued Animals at the Funny Farm
By Sydney Kerelo

On a 25-acre farm in Mays Landing, Laurie Zaleski lives with 15 horses, 2 cows, 20 goats, 200 cats, 11 dogs, 2 llamas, 22 peacocks, 5 donkeys and many more furry creatures that roam the grounds. She calls it The Funny Farm.

Each and every one of its occupants – human and non-human alike – carries with them stories of abuse, neglect and rescue. She can tell you the origin stories for every animal that came to live there. There’s Hope, a blind kitten found on the side of the road who has become inseparable from her duck companion Jello. There’s a rescue bull named Yogi and his best llama friend, Cooper.

“I also had a dog named Chuck – short for upchuck because he would eat and then automatically regurgitate his food,” says Zaleski. “The vet said he would live for 6 months, and it would be best to put him down. I said, ‘That’s not an option. We’ll let him live out his days.’ And he lived another 5 years before he passed from a heart attack.”

Wilbur, a resident of the Funny Farm

Over the years, Zaleski has made a home for more than 600 animals at the Funny Farm. With a new published memoir detailing her life and 3 children’s books under her belt, she continues her mission: to help as many animals and people as she can.

A graphic designer by trade, she never intended to run one of the largest animal sanctuaries on the East Coast. It just happened, starting many years ago when Zaleski was just a child and her mother Annie escaped an abusive marriage with Zaleski’s father. Taking her children, Annie fled the house while he was at work. They bounced around numerous motels before ending up in a “shack in the woods” in Turnersville – which became the original Funny Farm.

The shack lacked running water and electricity, and was severely vandalized. The family couldn’t afford more comfortable accommodations, but Zaleski’s mother was determined to make it work. She had odd jobs, including shifts at a local hardware store and an animal shelter. That’s when Annie discovered her calling for rescuing animals. First she came home with a guard dog, then it quickly escalated to multiple dogs, cats and horses.

“It’s really important to help others,” says Zaleski. “My mother always instilled that in us, and I always say that those animals saved us. She was resilient and taught us to be resilient.”

Zaleski was establishing her career as a graphic designer and saving up to move to Philadelphia when life took an unexpected turn. She was in her late 20s when her mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Annie was given 6 months to live and fought it for 4 years before passing away.

As a child, Zaleski and her mom had talked about one day owning a farm. While Annie was fighting cancer, Zaleski wanted to make that dream come true. After years of searching, she found a farm for sale in Mays Landing within her price range – but she was outbid by $10,000. Zaleski thought she had lost the farm until she got a surprise call saying the sellers accepted her offer 2 weeks after her mother died.

Zaleski had a choice to make, go through with settlement or run to the city. She chose to honor her mother’s legacy by continuing the Funny Farm.

“There would be no Funny Farm without my mother,” says Zaleski. “She rescued those animals, and I had to pick up where she left off.”

With 35 animals in tow, Zaleski packed up her mother’s home and moved to Mays Landing, where she ran the farm while working as a graphic designer. For 12 years, she paid all vet bills and mortgage payments, spending roughly $4,000 a month on animal feed, all from her own pockets. Most of the rescues were dropped off by owners who could no longer care for them or were brought after being found by police or locals. The farm hosts a mix of domestic pets, farm animals and wild critters including skunks.

Eventually, she turned Funny Farm into a non-profit and opened it to the public while continuing to live there, care for the animals and work full time. It’s open to the public 8 am to 4 pm Tuesdays and Sundays. Volunteers run the show, and there is no admission fee.

Her memoir has a cheerful cover decorated with animals found on the farm, but it is not a light-hearted beach read. Zaleski details her childhood, including the trauma of living with an abusive parent and the toll of having her new home broken into numerous times when she and her mother were settling in. That’s the reason Annie adopted the first dog from the shelter. It was a German Shepherd named Wolf, who successfully scared away would-be robbers. The book’s sadder moments are balanced with the many funny and lighthearted stories of rescued animals and their recovery.

Zaleski recalls numerous conversations with her devoted volunteers about charging guests to visit. But her answer is always the same. Her mother didn’t have a dollar to go anywhere, and in honor of her memory, it will remain free.

“One woman came up to me, crying, as she was handing me a $20 bill,” says Zaleski. “I remember saying to her, ‘What’s the matter?’ and she told me how she’s been coming here for a year and never put money in the donation box because her boyfriend left her, and she has 3 kids, no alimony, no child support. She finally got on her feet, and the one thing she wanted to do was give the Funny Farm $20, which was a lot to her. It made me cry.”

August 2022
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