Remarkable friendships from the animal world

August 17, 2022
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In the leafy Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey lies a very different kind of farm:  the astonishing Funny Farm, a not-for-profit animal sanctuary open to the public two days a week, created by New Jersey’s own Doctor Doolittle, Laurie Zaleski.

Every animal here is a rescue – abused, abandoned, disabled – and Zaleski has healed and protected more than 600 animals over the last 20 years, from retired racehorses to raucous roosters. “We have 115 roosters,” she said. And it sounded like it!

Correspondent Lesley Stahl asked, “For those people who have never been here, never even heard of the Funny Farm, how would you describe it?”

“I say Heaven on Earth, especially for animals,” Zaleski replied. “And for people, because when you walk through the gates, you can feel the inner peace and harmony, because they all get along here.

“My mother had the original Funny Farm, and she said it’s full of animals and fit for lunatics!” laughed Zaleski.

As she writes in her book, “Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals” (Macmillan), there are lessons here for our polarized, at-each-others-throat society, because the creatures on the Funny Farm live in harmony, no matter how different they are. It’s not quite the Biblical tale of the lion lying down with the lamb, but as friendships go, this bond between Emily the emu and a goose named Airplane (because of her wounded wings) is pretty jaw-dropping. “That goose is just always wherever she is,” Zaleski said.

“Do you know why the goose loves the emu?” Stahl asked.

“Maybe he likes larger women? I don’t know!” Zaleski laughed. “I’m not really sure! So, it’s possible that she protected him at one point in there that we just don’t know about. And he thought, ‘You know, this is my protector and I’m gonna stay with her.'”

Zaleski introduced us to another cross-species couple: a donkey, Jethro, and a very kissable llama named Lorenzo. Jethro’s previous companion, a horse, passed away, and (according to Zaleski) Jethro went into mourning:

“This poor guy was suffering because he was so sad. Lorenzo came, and they bonded themselves. They just found each other. I mean, these two are such an odd couple.”

An even odder couple might be Yogi the steer and Cooper the alpaca. “Wherever Yogi goes, he goes,” Zaleski said.

They make an adorable pair today, but two years ago Yogi’s long horns ripped a hole in Cooper’s side by accident. Zaleski said. “When I tried to take Cooper to the hospital, Yogi was definitely freaking out. He cried! He went, ‘MOOOOO!’ It broke my heart! You know, ‘Where’s my friend? Where did you take him?'”

Stahl asked, “Are they really missing them? Are you attributing human emotions to your animals? You’re making it up?”

“I absolutely think that they miss each other,” she said.

“But was it grieving?”

“I think he was grieving. Sure. People say they don’t have emotions. They do have emotions.”

“But scientists complain …”

“Scientists, schmientists!” Zaleski laughed. “What do they know? What do they have in their backyard?”

Jennifer Holland has collected dozens of stories of unexpected animal affection in “Unlikely Friendships” (Workman), one of a series of unlikely bestsellers. Her favorite coupling is of dogs and dolphins, who play in the water together.

“One of my favorites is an iguana with a cat,” she said. “The fact that the iguana not only would cuddle with the cat, but would let it play with his tail, and lick him, and share his food. Those kind of stories just really make me smile.”

In the course of writing her books, the former National Geographic staffer had some questions: “I wanted to know, was there science behind this? Do we understand why this happens? [I] started looking into it and realized we don’t really have one answer, because there’s so many different contexts, so many different animals. It would be very difficult to do a rigorous study and explain what’s happening.”

But with some companions, might it be an instinct for a pet, like a human’s desire for a kitten? “Part of that may be a little bit of that parental instinct, that instinct to care for, wanting to mother,” Holland said.

Zookeepers often place orphaned babies with mothers of another species who are nursing. Stahl asked Holland if the need for protection might come into play, such as with the goose and her emu bodyguard? An example of animal altruism? “Even with an animal that’s blind, another animal may kind of turn into a seeing-eye dog and protect that animal, and show where the food is, and just be the bodyguard, be the helper,” Holland said.

And when animals meet when they’re young, anything is possible. Holland told of an unusual friendship involving a lion, a tiger, and a bear, three predators-turned-pals that were found as babies in a drug dealer’s basement and brought to an animal sanctuary where they became lifelong buddies. “They were pals. These are three animals that would never meet in the wild. And it just happened that these three found something, again, positive in each other, and pal around together.

“I think you see this in captivity so often, because these animals are taken care of, they’re not competing for food, they’re not stressed. And so, they have this luxury of being able to be social with other animals.”

Laurie Zaleski takes that “If you feed them, they won’t fight” theory to a whole other level. She has 35 animals in my house, and they don’t eat each other. “I have 10 dogs, about 20 cats, a cockatoo who is louder than all of them put together, a chicken,” she said. “It’s like Noah’s Ark!”

“Saving animals is what Noah did,” Stahl said.

“I’m Biblical!” Zaleski laughed.

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