Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals
It was twilight, that golden hour between daylight and dark, and things were quiet on the farm. All the animals had been fed and returned to their stalls or pens. The chores were done—or as done as they ever can be on a farm, where the work is truly never-ending.
In the final ritual of the day, I pulled back the pasture gate, and the horses—I had fifteen at the time—galloped from the fields back into the barn, their manes and tails flying like flags. The sight never failed to thrill me.
The volunteer crew was on its way out, all the fiercely, fanatically, unreasonably dedicated people who’ve helped keep the Funny Farm and its animals going for the past twenty-odd years.
As for me, I looked forward to a rare quiet evening—if the word “quiet” can ever apply when you live with hundreds of ducks and geese, dogs and cats, pigs and goats, alpacas and horses. The noisiest of all are the peacocks—so regal and beautiful, but with piercing cries that could wake the dead.
But eventually, all the clucking and grunting, neighing and feather-ruffling does settle down, and even the peacocks nod off, usually perched high atop the barn roof, like weathervanes.
Twilight is my favorite time on the farm.
Just in from my day job, I dropped my briefcase, shucked off my dress suit, kicked out of my high heels. and pulled on my farmgirl uniform: Carhartt overalls and shit-kicker boots. I was just about to nuke what remained of yesterday’s pizza when I heard the sound of a car crunching onto the gravel driveway. The last person out must have left the gate ajar.
I run a graphic design firm, as a contractor, for the federal government. It had been a busy workday—a typical day—with back-to-back meetings and deadlines and lots of fires to extinguish. I was bushed. I wasn’t expecting company or, frankly, in the mood for it.
Poking my head out the screen door, I saw a Toyota Camry pull up next to the farmhouse. A twentysomething kid in a rumpled T-shirt and board shorts clambered out of the driver’s seat. Then he opened the back door of his car and lifted out an underfed fawn, its long knobby legs feebly kicking.
In a flash, I was out the door.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Do not try to dump that animal here.”
I was mad, and justifiably so. This happened all too often, people coming to the farm and dropping off unwanted dogs, cats, rabbits, and all kinds of animals, often because the animals are sick, or injured, or old, or in need of some kind of special care.
Usually, the dumpers sneak up under cover of darkness and just toss out the poor creatures, in all kinds of weather, then zoom off. It was the main reason I had installed extra lights, motion detectors, and cameras. But this kid was brazen. He’d driven right in.
Yes, I operate an animal rescue, and most of the animals that live with me—at last count, more than 600—come from less-than-loving circumstances, to say the least. They have been unwanted, abandoned, and sometimes abused. But dumping any animal, for any reason, is irresponsible, cowardly, and cruel. And in most states, including my home state of New Jersey, it’s also illegal.
Besides, I mostly rescue farm animals, along with some domestics and a handful of exotics. As a general rule, I don’t take deer or other wild animals unless it’s short-term, until I can hand them off to a wildlife rehabilitator.
Furious, I charged down the porch steps and brandished my cell phone in the kid’s face. “Do you know that dumping animals is illegal? I am taking your license plate number right now, and I’ve got the cops on speed dial.”
To my amazement, as I rattled off this little speech—I had it memorized—he turned to lift a second fawn out of the car.
“You are not hearing me,” I began.
“Please!” He swung around, a harried look on his face. “Please. I’ve been driving around for five hours, looking for help. I stopped at six different farms. They all said the same thing: ‘Go to the Funny Farm.’”
By now, the farm dogs had assembled, prancing and yelping at my heels and edging closer to the nervous fawns. That’s when I realized that these were not white-tailed deer at all, but calves: spindly-legged, nearly newborn Jersey calves with caramel-colored coats, big chocolate-brown eyes, and fluttering Bambi lashes. They were unsteady on their feet, ears drooping. The umbilical cords still dangled from their undersides. From the back seat of the Camry wafted the unmistakable smell of manure.
“I can’t keep them,” said the kid. “My landlord won’t let me have—well, cows…”
“Where did they come from?”
He averted his eyes. “Auction.”
“Oh yeah?” I stared hard at him, hands on my hips.
Then I slid the phone into my pocket. With a shrug and sigh, I braced myself for the latest hard-luck story.
“Okay. Let’s hear it.”
He perched on the steps of the farmhouse porch, a little calmer, clearly exhausted. He absently scratched behind the ears of my German shepherd, Chucky, who dashed away, came back with a Frisbee, and tried to push it into his palm.
“Chucky, please,” I murmured, “not now.”
The kid described himself as an activist, committed to saving farm animals from slaughter. At a cattle auction, he had discovered this pair of tiny calves in a metal livestock trailer, practically dead from the heat.
“Not a drop of water,” he said, in a voice thick with emotion. “Not a fistful of hay. Jesus, they were on their way to the slaughterhouse. Why couldn’t people treat them better on the way?”
“Did you buy them?” I asked.
He stared down at his hands, which dangled between widespread knees. Then he looked at me defiantly. “I liberated them.”
I understood the compassion that had driven him; I also knew, from long experience, that when you get into animal rescue, you have to at least try to rein in your feelings. If you don’t, you’ll go crazy, burn out fast, and be way less effective at your mission to save lives and alleviate suffering. This job isn’t pretty. It’s sure not for the faint of heart.
As for cattle rustling? Well, that’s never a great idea.
I also knew that when it comes to cattle, young males—weaners, like these two babies—are less valuable on the open market than females, which also can be used as dairy cows and be bred. Males are more—well, disposable. Often little ones like these were sold for their meat, skin, and “by-products.”
I flashed back on Harry Hamburger, the lovable steer I had raised as a farm kid, and the day he just disappeared. Almost thirty years later, I could remember the ache I felt when I realized that Harry was never coming back, except as meat loaf or sloppy joes. After that, I declared I would rather eat mayonnaise sandwiches—and often did—before I would consume meat again. I’d kept that promise.
The sun had almost disappeared, and the sky was a streaky purplish-pink. The calves tottered on their long legs, steadier now and a little less timid. They nipped tentatively at blades of grass. They could not have weighed forty pounds between them, with bony haunches and sticking-out ribs. They looked pitiful.
Pizza would have to wait.
My dogs—Snoop and Freddie, Farley and Chuck—continued to circle the calves, sniffing curiously. I stamped my foot so they would keep their distance. The dogs weren’t predatory—they knew better than that—just interested to see who might be joining the family.
At times like these, I couldn’t help but think of my mother and the original Funny Farm, the wild and woolly place where I’d grown up. After fleeing a nightmarish marriage, with next to no money, living with three kids in a rundown, one-bedroom house in the woods, Mom had taken a succession of lowly jobs, including one cleaning cages at the local animal shelter. That’s when she started bringing home the desperate cases, the animals next in line to be euthanized, until dozens of them roved the woods and fields around our house or lived outside in lean-tos or sheds we built ourselves. Some—including geese, pigs, goats, and an injured, recovering foal—even lived inside with us.
That’s when Mom jokingly dubbed our place the Funny Farm—“because it’s full of animals, and it’s fit for lunatics.”
Even at her poorest—and believe me, as Mom would say, most of the time all she had in her pocket was lint—she couldn’t bear to see an animal put to sleep if she could help it. Sometimes, she was scarcely able to keep food on the table. Even so, her rule was: One dollar for the family, one dollar for the animals.
It was Mom who had landed me in this pickle.
Over the kid’s shoulder, I looked at the old buckboard wagon near the gate, decorated with strings of twinkling lights. It once was hers, and now was my tribute, a constant reminder of where I had come from and who had raised me.
Well, here we go again, I thought, as I looked at the starving calves. I realized that if I kept them, these sad, sweet babies would grow to be hungry, expensive 1,500-pound bulls or steers, and cost a small fortune to keep up.
Mom, what do you think I should do?
To the kid, I said, “I have T-Bone over there—” I gestured to the big pasture, where a 2,500-pound red Angus steer quietly grazed—“but I guess it isn’t a farm without a herd. I think we can make room for a couple more.”
His eyes widened, then he dropped his head in his hands, relieved to the point of tears. “Thanks,” he said hoarsely. “Thanks.”
“First things first,” I said. “They’ll have to be bottle-fed for a while, and they won’t last long if we don’t get started right now.”
I stood up and brushed the dust from my overalls. “Well? Are you going to help me out, or what?”
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|Epub||March 30, 2022|