Some honor their loved ones by planting a tree. Laurie Zaleski went a lot further: She founded an entire animal sanctuary, just as she’d once promised her mother.
Her mom, Annie McNulty, was a spirited beauty with “impeccably bad taste in men,” she writes in “Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals” (St. Martin’s Press), out now. That led her straight to Richard Zaleski, a blue-eyed charmer who gamed the stock market and brutalized his wife. Laurie recalls the many times she and her brother and sister cringed, terrified, as he beat her. Then, just before Christmas in 1973, he threatened all of them with a carving knife. The next day, Annie, 26, bundled the kids into a borrowed car and headed to a rundown farm in the South Jersey woods.
With few marketable skills, Annie started cleaning cages at the local animal control, taking home the hard-luck cases no one else wanted: neglected dogs, discarded kittens, orphaned goats. When her car broke down, she rode a horse to the supermarket.
Nevertheless, as much as she loved animals, she felt no compunction sending the occasional chicken or goat to the butcher. “We gave that animal a happy life,” she told her distraught daughter, a vegetarian who opted for mayonnaise sandwiches whenever
meat was on the menu. “Now that animal is giving us food. Fair exchange.”
Her children may have been impoverished, but they weren’t poor: They had acres to roam through, and plenty of pets to play with. Young Laurie dreamed of becoming an artist, if only to make her mother’s dream come true. Someday, she promised, she’d buy her mom a bigger and better farm.
Even after her siblings moved away and Laurie started a graphic-design firm, she stayed behind, helping her mother care for whatever animals came their way. At one point, they teamed to rescue a pair of neglected potbellied pigs. Only after they wrestled them into a crate, hoisted it onto a truck and hit the highway did they realize they’d picked up a male and female, “and they were very excited about being rescued!” Zaleski writes. “At the sound of squealing, I turned around to see them humping like crazy, in full view of other motorists.”
Some four months later, the farm welcomed six baby piglets.
As Laurie’s graphics business flourished, her dream of a bigger farm was in reach. But Annie, diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1995, wouldn’t live to see that dream become reality: In 2000, just two weeks before Laurie bought the 15-acre farmstead that would become their new home, her mother died.
Ever the optimist, Annie had bought a set of dinnerware for her new home. “I wasn’t born in a barn,” the embossed plates read, “But I got here as fast as I could.”
And so, Laurie vowed to build the farm in memory of her mother. It’s there that she assembles a memorable cast of characters, including the mysterious figure she calls the Chicken Man. Now and then, he would arrive at the farm, in shabby clothes and saying nothing, with a chicken under each arm. Only later does she realize he works in a poultry-processing plant, and is smuggling whatever fowls he can to the safety of her sanctuary.
Some of Laurie’s rescues develop touching, interspecies relationships, like the blind kitten befriended by a duckling who serves as its seeing-eye companion. Laurie, struck by how animals grieve for their lost companions, struggles to find a new friend for a 50-year-old donkey named Jethro. “Older donkeys get fat pockets on their butts that look like Kardashian ass implants,” she observes. After several misses, she lucks out when she introduces Jethro to Lorenzo, a llama.
With word of mouth comes more animals and, to Laurie’s relief, help. Now, 22 years later, what started as a one-woman operation in New Jersey’s Pinelands boasts 100 volunteers, who open the farm to the public twice a week — admission free, donations welcome.
Even so, Laurie sometimes hesitates to take on yet another wild goat. That’s when she remembers the woman who started it all.
“Well, Mom, here we go again,” she thinks. “What do you think I should do?”
“As if I had to ask.”