Book Review: FUNNY FARM by Laurie Zaleski

Laurie Zaleski’s Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals is not only a memoir of a hardscrabble life but a lovely tribute to the woman who taught Laurie all she needed to create and run an animal sanctuary. Laurie’s mother, Annie McNulty, gave her the skills — hard work, determination, and a love of all creatures among them — to run a 600-animal rescue while also running a successful graphic design company. 

The book’s opening pages offer a glimpse of what such a life is like: At the end of a day, when Laurie arrives home from her day job, she learns (as she often does) that her day is far from over. An activist has shown up with two starving calves whom he’d saved from slaughter; they’d been nearly dead in a hot metal trailer, without food or water. It was time to start bottle feeding.

Funny Farm then takes readers into the past, to the day when Annie took Laurie and her brother and sister out of their abusive home for the last time. Their new home would be a shack in the woods behind a New Jersey strip mall, with no heat, water, or electricity. It was a shocking change of scenery for kids who’d grown up with privilege — their father was an economics professor who’d done well in the stock market; as Laurie writes, they didn’t have to keep up with the Joneses: “We were the Joneses.” Their father commanded the respect of the community, and they had vacation homes in the Poconos and the Jersey shore, as well as a new Cadillac nearly every year. 

Yet behind the scenes, Annie and the kids lived with fear and violence. Laurie’s parents had married young and impulsively: “They were just eighteen and twenty when they promised to love, honor, and, in my mother’s case, obey, all the years of their lives.” The three kids came along within four years, and while Annie had the luxury of being a stay-at-home mother — with a nanny and landscaper — this freedom came at a steep price. She was not allowed to drive. Because her husband preferred blondes, she went from a golden-haired brunette to a platinum blonde. She received a weekly allowance on Saturdays. 

When Annie learned her husband was having affairs with his college students, among other women, their home life exploded. Fighting became regular and more brutal, causing Annie to leave twice. They left for the third and final time when Laurie and her sister, at five and six years old, had to protect their mother from an attack by their ax-wielding father. 

While life in the shack was challenging at first, eventually the family acquired electricity and, with it, heat and light. They got running water, making the kitchen and bathroom useable. Eventually came furniture, a stereo, and a TV. Yet the stability didn’t last long — the shack had been enjoyed by teenagers who’d lost their playground and began to vandalize, steal, and harass the struggling family. 

However, the family’s first guard dog would soon make his appearance: Wolf, a German shepherd who had been surrendered to the local animal control, where Annie worked cleaning cages. Wolf was followed by an Irish setter and a sheep dog — and then so many more rescued animals that Annie began calling their home “the Funny Farm.”

Though Laurie told herself living in the shack would be temporary — “I needed to think of it as short-term, just to tolerate being there” — a year passed before she knew it. By then, Annie had lost all the glamour of her former life: “She traded miniskirts for jeans and sneaks or cowboy boots. Her creamy-white hands grew red and rough.” But in the end, it was for the better. “When we got over the shock of being uprooted from our former, privileged life,” Laurie writes, “we realized with surprise that we were pretty darned happy.” 

Unfortunately, the abuse from Laurie’s father continued, and in fact grew worse, including custody battles, kidnapping, vandalism, and, ultimately, the heartbreaking murders of five dogs and a horse. Still, Laurie and her siblings were forced to spend time with their father, and in their former home, “being a kid was like punching a time card.”

And meanwhile, the Funny Farm kept growing, with a menagerie of dogs, cats, chickens, geese, sheep, goats, horses, and racoons. They all learned how to care for the animals — “Mom learned how to do all these things from livestock manuals, then taught us” — but money was so tight that Annie also sent their chickens to the butcher for meat; they sold goat milk, butter and cheese, and chicken and duck eggs. Laurie couldn’t bear to eat the meat of the animals she saw as family, and when Annie sold off the goat kids, as the babies cried for their mothers, Laurie writes, “I would run into the woods and put my hands over my ears until the truck pulled away.” 

The Funny Farm became what it is today — a fifteen-acre sanctuary receiving more than 100,000 visitors a year — when Laurie decided to buy Annie, diagnosed with stage four cervical cancer, a proper farm for her animals, who then totaled only thirty-five but very quickly grew to the 600 animals who call the sanctuary home today.

Quite noticeably in a book about animal rescue, some animals are referred to by it, even when the animal’s gender is known. In a story about receiving hens rescued from a man working at a poultry plant, Laurie writes, “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.” Likewise, the word which appears on occasion instead of who; when describing how Animal Control handled “pests,” Laurie writes: “But all too often, it was the last stop for these creatures, which were quickly euthanized.” This is likely more an editorial style guideline than choice of the author (the New York Times, for example, still uses pronouns like heshe, or who only for animals with names, or if the sex of the animal is specified; the Associated Press and The Chicago Manual of Style follow the same guidelines), but even though all of the named animals are referred to by their personal pronouns, this editorial choice does stand out in a book about sanctuary.

What makes this noticeable is that the majority of the animals in Funny Farm are in fact vivid characters, and celebrated as individuals. Throughout the book, Laurie’s life stories are punctuated by tales of the farm and its animals, particularly the odd and wonderful friendships formed by rescued animals. Readers will meet a steer named Yogi and an alpaca named Cooper who become best friends. And then there’s Hope, a kitten, and Jello, a duckling, both survivors of car accidents that took their families, who became inseparable after being rescued. And so many more. These unlikely animal friendships have inspired the farm’s anti-bullying and special needs program, in which human kids learn about tolerance and acceptance both in their schools and at the Funny Farm. 

Funny Farm is a lovely tribute to a woman whose legacy of determination, hard work, and love of animals continues in her daughter and the farm dedicated to her memory. 

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