Can you imagine your home being the go-to place for cast-off animals, 600 at this point, while you also own and run your own company? Successful businesswoman Laurie Zaleski finds herself in exactly this situation.
“It’s my unexpected life. If somebody were going to say Laurie, when you’re 53 you’re going to own one of the largest animal rescues, have a published book about your life, and you’d have 600 rescue animals, I’d think they’re crazy! Never in my life could I have dreamed it.” Laurie Zaleski
Despite dealing with a nightmare of abuse and harassment in her early years, this award-winning Art-Z Graphics Founder and CEO ended up keeping a childhood promise to her “superhero” mother, who loved animals. Although she saved animals most of her life, in 2012 Laurie formally established the 15-acre Funny Farm Animal Rescue and Sanctuary in New Jersey.
Who wouldn’t want to know how this remarkable woman made it all happen? Laurie took time out of her busy life as she was feeding animals to chat about her new book, Funny Farm, My Unexpected Life With 600 Rescue Animals, and her amazing journey……
EYE: How did the Funny Farm, as you call it, ever come about? You say it is your “unexpected life.”
LAURIE ZALESKI: The original Funny Farm started back when my mom finally escaped my very abusive dad’s well-to-do house with us three kids into a shack in the woods, poverty-stricken. To make ends meet, she started doing odd jobs, having no skills right out of high school and didn’t even have a driver’s license.
One of her odd jobs was cleaning cages at the local shelter. They were going to euthanize all these animals that she didn’t feel needed to be euthanized. Then she started bringing them home to give them hope and a chance at life.
EYE: Wait. You were all in a tiny house and she brought home all these animals to care for?
LAURIE: Yes. The living room was mom’s bedroom. My sister and I shared a room and then my brother slept in a small room the size of a closet. And then we had all these animals moving in with us. We could barely take care of ourselves, let alone them.
She said to us, “As bad as we might have it, somebody always has it worse. Look at these animals.” And it kind of took the attention off of us. She felt that we were able to help these animals without money, just give them love and care.
My mom always said, “It’s called the Funny Farm because it’s full of animals and fit for lunatics.” That’s how the original place and name Funny Farm came about.
EYE: You were living in this tiny house with all these animals. What kind of menagerie were you caring for?
LAURIE: Initially we had a dog, then a baby horse, baby pig, goose, goat, raccoons and squirrels. Mom loved all the animals. Because of her love and passion, it was in our blood and we all loved them as well.
We helped as many animals as we could. Although we were planning on living in this rental house for a very short time, we ended up living there for over 28 years.
EYE: Currently you have a terrific job, owning your own successful company, Art-Z Graphics. Why also run this animal sanctuary, which is more work than your full time job?
LAURIE: Bottom line: I made a promise to my mother. I did not start Funny Farm on purpose. I had a great job and I thought I was going to live in Philly and have cappuccino with my friends.
Of the 3 kids, I was the kid who loved the animals the most, and I always said, ‘Mom, when I get older, I’m going to buy you your own farm so you’ll have one to call your own.’
When I went to purchase her new farm in Mays Landing, NJ, in my twenties, my mom got cancer. She passed away just two weeks before the sale was final. I lost my mom, who was my best friend. And on top of it, I owned this new, but rundown 15-acre farm with our 35 rescue animals. I was on my own.
EYE: How did you handle the job and the new farm? You did it on your own for a long time!
LAURIE: I did the best I could on my own for 12 years. I would feed them between four and five o’clock in the morning, and then feed them again when I got out from work, which was sometimes nine and ten, but I just had to do whatever I could do to survive. I really didn’t mean it to be a rescue.
A lot of friends and people from work, who were very supportive, started saying, ”Oh, you have all this land. Will you take this or will you take that?”
Before I knew it, I had 100 and then I had 200 animals and I was doing it by myself. I was paying my bills, the mortgage, the vet and feed bills.
My job supported all of the animals. I learned budgeting because I grew up with nothing and mom wasted nothing. After I reached 200 animals, my feed bills were about $4,000 a month, and I couldn’t pay my mortgage and feed these animals. I couldn’t let them starve. What was I going to do?
EYE: What did you do?
LAURIE: People started saying, “Why don’t you become a nonprofit?” “Can I visit? Can I volunteer?” And I’m thinking, What are people talking about? This is where I live. So I went from a very secluded lot of privacy to zero privacy now.
But those babies needed somebody to step up and somebody had to carry on what my mom had started. It only became an official nonprofit because it got too big. I’m my mother’s daughter for sure; I have a hard time saying ‘no.’
EYE: Are you surprised these animals seem to get along?
LAURIE: Because I grew up in that little shack in the woods and all the animals lived in our house, I was used to animals all getting along, no matter what the species. They had to. With little space, there was no other option. Eventually, we made enclosures so many of them could be outside.
Today we go to schools for free and teach children all about anti-bullying and getting along like the animals do. We call it our “Kindness Program.”
We read our self-published Funny Farm children’s books. The program is so popular we are booked months and sometimes years in advance.
EYE: Who are the best examples of getting along?
LAURIE: We have a blind baby lamb, Bradley, whose best friend is Scooby, a big, huge German shepherd. Normally they would not get along but not here. We bring them around to school so people can really see firsthand how they get along.
Then, there is Adele, who is the diva chicken in one of the books. Am I a boy, a girl, black, white, purple? Who cares? We just say, “Why do you have to label anything? Just be the best you that you can be!” This chicken, true story, lives in my house. She also thinks she’s either a dog or a cat or a cockatoo.
In our book, it is all about her wanting to be something that she’s not. At the end, she just says be the very best that you can be. She comes to school with us and wears a diaper and has her nails painted.
EYE: You made a film about a dog with special needs, right?
LAURIE: Yes. Chucky, my first megaesophagus dog, was the animal that touched my heart more than others. These dogs cannot push their food down normally. I had to hold a bowl and feed him between 10 and 14 times a day. He had the worst case the University of Pennsylvania had ever seen, living to be a little over 5.
That was my hardest death that I had to deal with. He was different. Total personality. Like with the others here, we just give them the best life that they can possibly have. Sometimes you can’t see disabilities with people as well as animals, and that’s why we should always be kind. You never know if someone is feeling sad on the inside.
EYE: You’ve gone from being a child in a well-to-do home to literal poverty, experiencing a violent father and harassment. How did you survive such a rough and tortured childhood, even getting through school?
LAURIE: My mom. She was the most positive, inspirational person that I know. It was almost annoyingly positive because sometimes you just want to feel sorry for yourself. If she had $2, one went to the kids and one went to the animals; she was the most selfless person that I ever met.
Even with the embarrassing living circumstances, I became the cool kid at school who had all these animals. When I was younger, my mom would bring in a pig, cow or the horse, Shannon O’Leary, for show-and-tell that lived in our house. You know how most teachers would get an apple? My mother would send in brown eggs for the teachers and they always loved that.
EYE: What did you take away from such a tough life?
LAURIE: It was hard, but my mother just wouldn’t let us feel sorry for ourselves. She struggled and did little jobs to make money like stuffing envelopes for 2 or 3 cents a piece and working at animal control part time. At one point, my dad cut the lines to the electricity. She would ride her horse to work because we couldn’t even afford a car.
But I’ll tell you, it made me stronger. Saving the animals really saved us. I would never change a thing, except for maybe making my mother’s life easy.
EYE: What kind of perspective does working with abused and neglected animals give you?
LAURIE: I know that most of these animals would be euthanized if it weren’t for the Funny Farm, and it’s not just me, it includes my volunteers. I am not a one-woman show anymore. These animals can’t feed and water themselves.
We are all volunteer run so all of the donations can go to the animals’ feed and vet care. The volunteers and I agree that it makes you feel good as a human to be able to help these animals that can’t help themselves.
EYE: What’s one of your favorite rescue stories?
LAURIE: I got a call on Memorial Day to take this kitten, Hope, whose mother had been hit by a car. The little kitten appeared to be blind. At the same time I rescued “Jello,” a baby duck, who had been orphaned.
So I put them together and they immediately bonded. Hope would follow Jello around, listening to the sound of his voice. A blind cat following a duck! They are fully grown now with “Jello” finding his own duck friends and Hope can see with one eye. Animals help heal animals.
EYE: What is the best advice you’ve been given or taken away from the success of your farm, and also successfully owning your graphics company?
LAURIE: My best advice always came from my mom, and it was always just take one day at a time. Don’t try and bite off more than you can chew, because every day is a new adventure. Stick to your mission.
All these people kept trying to get me to do a Funny Farm reality show saying I could make $250,000 an episode. I don’t want to do that, even for a million dollars.
My mission is to rescue these animals and give them the best life possible.
EYE: With sweat, tears and grit you continue to make your mom’s dream a reality.
LAURIE: How amazing is it that I’m still able to have my art job, my graphic design and photography, but yet I still get to do my passion, which is the animals. And, being able to help those who can’t help themselves is very fulfilling.
There is no doubt that my mom has played a huge part in the success of the Funny Farm, even after her passing.
EYE: Thank you, Laurie, very much! The Funny Farm is certainly doing some serious good for everyone involved! I highly recommend visiting the Farm, reading Funny Farm and spreading all the kindness! We are sharing more of Laurie’s photo below of her special animals on the Farm.
Top Photo: Laurie Zaleski with Anna/Photo: Amanda Werner
Website: Funny Farm
Instagram: Funny Farm Rescue
Laurie on Instagram: Laurie Zaleski