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Funny Farm: The Little Rescue That Could

Two things combined to make this Pinelands animal sanctuary a global sensation: the pandemic, and a bestselling book.

Lesley Stahl and Laurie Zaleski

By Marjorie Preston

On any given Sunday, people from around the world log onto Facebook to watch a New Jersey farm girl cavort with hundreds of rescue animals.

The stars of the show range from the tall (a quartet of 7-foot emus) to the small (assorted bunnies and guinea hens) to the enormous (a 2,500-pound steer named T-Bone). All are living safe, happy lives with Laurie Zaleski, owner of the Funny Farm Rescue & Sanctuary in Mays Landing.

On the program, streamed live each week at 10 a.m. ET, Zaleski shares the stories of resident pigs and cows, goats and peacocks, horses and alpacas. Viewers watch from as far away as the U.K., Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, the Ukraine, Ireland and South Africa, as well as the U.S. and Canada. The once-unknown Pinelands farm has become a global phenomenon.

It all started with COVID-19. Forced to shut down the popular local attraction, Zaleski launched the series as a way to keep in touch with friends and fans. Soon word spread beyond South Jersey as people from coast to coast and in other countries discovered the Funny Farm and its wisecracking owner.

That same year, following a feature story about Zaleski’s turbulent life in New Jersey Lifestyle, friends urged her to write a memoir. She took on the challenge, and in 2022, “Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals” was published by St. Martin’s Press.

The book, released in paperback on August 1, details Zaleski’s rough-and-tumble childhood and pays special tribute to her mother, Annie McNulty. After fleeing a violent marriage, Annie went from upper middle-class housewife to impoverished single mother. She raised three kids in a one-bedroom shack in the woods near Turnersville, and worked odd jobs to earn money.

One of those jobs was cleaning cages at a local animal shelter. That’s when the tender-hearted mom started bringing home the animals that were next in line to be euthanized—dogs, cats, farm animals, a colt with a broken leg, even raccoons and skunks. Though she struggled to pay the bills, Annie had one rule: “One dollar for the kids, and one dollar for the animals.” And the original Funny Farm was born.

The Next Chapter

Years later, as a successful artist and graphic designer, Zaleski bought the 15-acre (now 25-acre) Mays Landing farm, so her mom could pursue rescue on a larger scale. Sadly, Annie died of cervical cancer weeks before the sale closed. Zaleski resolved to continue her mother’s work, and has since enlarged on it, going from a couple dozen rescued animals to hundreds. In 2012, the Funny Farm became a nonprofit and opened to the public.

As a writer, Zaleski was required to relive the trauma of her girlhood, including ongoing abuse by her father, who poisoned the family’s dogs and shot her horse. The memories were challenging, but ultimately cathartic, and the book is buoyed by heartwarming, often hilarious tales of Zaleski’s unconventional life and the animals she’s saved. The memoir won raves, becoming a People magazine Book of the Week and making the Washington Post list of the year’s best feel-good memoirs. Broadcasting legend Lesley Stahl visited the Funny Farm to film a segment for CBS News Sunday Morning, and later returned with her husband, kids and grandkids.

Since then, interest in the sanctuary has soared. Donations have rolled in from celebrities like Phillies pitcher Zach Wheeler; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame drummer Gina Schock of The Go-Go’s; and comedian and TV host Whoopi Goldberg. Zaleski, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration, is amazed by her fame and the worldwide reach of her venture.

“I used to be excited to have people visit from Cherry Hill or Vineland,” she says, with her trademark throaty laugh. “Now they’re coming from all over. When somebody visited from the Netherlands, I said, ‘What brings you to New Jersey?’ I expected them to say, ‘I have family in New York and decided to swing by.’ But no, they came specifically for the Funny Farm.

“We also had a visitor who turned 70 whose daughter said, ‘Mom, I’ll take you anywhere in the world you want to go: Paris, London, Italy.’ She said, I want to go to Mays Landing to see the Funny Farm.’ It's so heartwarming.”

Happy Endings

The farm animals come from unfortunate backgrounds that include abandonment, abuse and neglect. Many are disabled. “Usually,” says Zaleski, “we’re their last stop.” At the Funny Farm, they learn to peacefully coexist, even species that typically consider each other predators or prey. Many roam freely among guests on visiting days.

“It’s hard for certain animals to overcome their backgrounds and feel secure and safe again,” observes Zaleski, “but some have a rebirth of sorts, and learn to be happy.” Case in point: hundreds of roosters recently rescued from a cockfighting ring in Buena.

“All they knew was solitary confinement and fighting—it was either survive or die for these poor animals.” While some of the birds may be forever traumatized, others are healing. “And even the ones who can’t be rehabbed will still live a nice life.”

Last year, fans witnessed one dramatic rescue as it happened. Zaleski and her social media director Matt Reeves raced to inner-city Philadelphia to rescue a sheep and lamb that had escaped an illegal slaughterhouse. The animals were rounded up by compassionate neighbors who then contacted the farm. The whole episode was streamed live. At first the emaciated animals were terrified of humans. But Shenell and Tyrone (named after the couple who saved them), are now plump, healthy and happy.

Zaleski is particularly proud of her Kindness Program, which visits local schools and uses unusual animal friendships to demonstrate acceptance and compassion. “We teach never giving up. We teach it’s okay to be different. We’re all unique in our own way, so no need for labels.

“The takeaway is always, ‘Be kind.’ That’s my mantra. Give back and help people who are less fortunate. Because as bad as you have it, as hard as your life might seem or the obstacles that stand in your way, there's always somebody who has it worse. Let’s make it all of our jobs to help others.”

Laurie Zaleski never planned to become a farmer, much less an author or a media sensation. “But sometimes,” she reflects, “somebody has a bigger plan for you”. In my case, it was my mother.

“Now, I'm living my best life. And the animals are too.”

The Funny Farm Rescue & Sanctuary is located at 6908 Railroad Blvd. in the Mizpah section of Mays Landing, New Jersey. Powered by a team of dedicated volunteers, it’s open Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit

Funny Farm (TP) - Macmillan
Laurie Zaleski never aspired to run an animal rescue; that was her mothers dream. But from girlhood, Laurie was determined to make the dream come true.…