The Return to Freedom Team

Staff

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NEDA DEMAYO
Founder and President

Neda DeMayo, president and founder of Return to Freedom, has worked for over twenty years on wild horse and burro issues with a focus on solutions, and is a recognized authority on wild horse behavior. Neda works nationally to elevate the status of America’s wild horse and burros through advocacy, education, media, programs, and events.

With a vision to create a sanctuary model to explore minimally invasive wild horse management that could be viable on the range, she founded Return to Freedom in 1997. She speaks at national press conferences, educational venues, rotary clubs, public and private venues, and she has held government contracts to remove horses on horseback to sanctuary so they would not be dispersed or slaughtered.

Neda has also been a hired consultant for a feasibility study for a large preserve in the state of New Mexico. In 2004, after a trek into some of Nevada’s public land Herd Management Areas (HMAs), Neda founded the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC) to protect the free-ranging lifestyle of America’s wild horses on the range for generations to come as part of our national heritage.

She recruited attorney Virginie Parant to help her create a coalition of a diverse range of public interest groups, animal welfare and environmental organizations, to share a unified voice and coalition to support America’s wild horses and burros on federal and state lands. The AWHPC was conceived, not as a new group nor a fundraising entity, but as a united platform to engage a firm grassroots base.

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Prior to devoting her life to wild horse and burro preservation, Neda was successful both in the Holistic Healing arts and later in fashion and costume for theatre, film, and print. Her clients included A-list actors and working with publicity teams developing actors from unknown or character actor to lead.

In 1998, Neda began developing Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary on a 300-acre ranch located in the rolling, coastal hills of Lompoc, California. With the help of family, friends, and volunteers, she was able to launch a model for minimally intrusive wild horse management and ecotourism to build a small support base. After a few years, Return to Freedom was able to hire staff and, with limited funding, maintain a high standard of equine care and ranch management. The facility, once run down and used for chicken breeding and cattle, has been transformed into a humble but enchanting sanctuary and educational center hosting over 1,000 guests annually and reaching tens of thousands of people every year through advocacy, programs, and events.

Robert Redford and Neda DeMayo
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Today, Return to Freedom (RTF) provides care and refuge in three locations for over 400 wild horses and 29 burros who have been captured and removed from state or federal lands. RTF has pioneered minimally-intrusive, natural management of wild horses utilizing Native PZP fertility control, a method that has allowed the sanctuary to maintain horses in their natural social bands.

Neda is currently focused on strengthening Return to Freedom’s educational programs on and off the range, and establishing a self-sustaining Wild Horse and Burro Conservancy and Wilderness Preserve with the support of the RTF Board of Directors and friend and actor Robert Redford.

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CORY GOLDEN
Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator

Cory Golden is a Nebraska native with more than 20 years of experience as a reporter. For the Bellevue Leader (NB), The Lincoln Journal Star (NB), and The Davis Enterprise (CA) newspapers and other publications, he wrote about a wide range of subjects, including environmental issues, politics, courts, education, agriculture, public safety, and sports. He later spent two years working both as a policy analyst and in member services for the League of California Cities.

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SUSAN BRANDT
Administrative Operations Coordinator

Susan comes to Return to Freedom with over 12 years of non-profit operational management experience as the Finance Manager for one of the largest volunteer-based United Nations-affiliated NGOs in the US. She supported the outreach activities of thousands of volunteers in overseeing 2,700+ annual courses and events. Prior to her non-profit work Susan spent time in the medical device manufacturing industry in clinical research.

Susan earned a B.A. degree in Environmental Studies, with an emphasis in Resource Management, from UC Santa Barbara. While studying under Roderick Nash she was inspired by his work in environmental ethics, preservation of wilderness, the rights of nature, and shaping environmental law. Susan interned with the National Park Service in residence on a remote BLM Herd Management Area in southeastern Utah supporting Canyonlands National Park’s conservation activities. While there she witnessed firsthand the complex range management issues related to livestock and wild horses and burros.

Susan is a Connecticut native and 30-year resident of Santa Barbara County. She is a life-long lover of horses and all things equine. In her free time Susan enjoys hiking trips in our national parks and exploring the canyon country of the southwest. She’s extremely excited to have the opportunity to share her non-profit and environmental experience in support of Return to Freedom’s important mission.

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KAREN DESCAMPS
Database and Program Management Assistant

Karen worked on horse ranches and farms in her younger years. As an adult she enjoyed a long career in banking. A few years ago, Karen began her relationship with Return to Freedom as an office volunteer.

She joined the Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary staff as Office Manager in 2011. Karen has a profound love for all animals and enjoys working with them. She is particularly devoted to the ranch cats and at any given time you will see a few of them lounging on various perches around her office!

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DIANNA DAWSON
Executive Assistant

Dianna is a San Luis Obispo County native and has loved caring for animals since she was young. Her first exposure to animal care was as a toddler watching her grandmother rehabilitate animals at the Museum of Natural History in Santa Barbara. Dianna chose to follow in her grandmothers footsteps and continue to care for animals. Growing up Dianna enjoyed her time riding her paint horse Comanche, the horse that showed her how amazing and caring horses truly are.

Her deep passion for animal welfare shows through the years she has spent volunteering in animal husbandry and wildlife rehabilitation focusing on rescue, rehabilitation and release. During her time volunteering, she was a member of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network as a responder to oil spills that affect aquatic birds along the central coast of California. Aside from volunteering, Dianna has also worked at a small animal practice where she cared for hospitalized animals and assisted veterinary technicians.

Dianna has a bachelor’s degree in Animal Science from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo where she focused her studies on animal health, behavior and welfare. While at Cal Poly, she devoted her time creating a body condition score guide for Safari West Wildlife preserve. The guide was created for seven different exotic species to help animal caretakers better visually asses the health of an animal to ensure proper welfare.

Dianna has always been driven to make a positive impact for animals. She is excited to continue to express her passion for animal welfare through working with Return to Freedom. She cares deeply for Return to Freedoms mission of making an impact on the wild horse issue, along with preserving the American history of these beautiful animals.

Ranch and Equine

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JASON BUCKINGHAM
Ranch Manager

Jason Buckingham joins Return to Freedom with a lifelong experience with ranch management, and decades as a professional cowboy, teacher and trainer internationally.

He began his life with horses at a very early age. Growing up on a large ranch in the great basin of southern Idaho (Owyhee County) riding colts, branding calves, halter training the babies, feeding, caring for thousands of cows and horses all under the direction and supervision of some of the greatest horsemen and women in the world. During the summers he was taking outside horses in for training and problem solving.

This powerful experience provided him with a way life that can be considered truly one of a kind.

After attending Boise State on a football scholarship, obtaining an education in Political Science, he started his own business training horses and competing in all roping disciplines. Several horses he bought or rescued from slaughter were successfully brought back from a place that for most trainers was too far to bring the horse back to trust again. These horses were able to be homed with the right person and become successful in many arenas.

After winning numerous rodeos and shows a natural transition began and he started teaching roping (team and ranch), colt starting and problem solving. This led him to a life change: a great move to Europe where his influence and experience changed the way Europeans thought of the American west with one success story after the other in all fields of the international equine industry.

Reaching a plateau with people and horses another life change occurred: to move back to the States and truly give himself to the horse this time, joining others who stand with wild horses that need a voice and who hear what they have to say.  

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ELENA BAJONA
Equine Management Consultant

Elena Bajona is an Equine applied behaviorist & therapist, specialized in equine welfare, cognitive behavioral therapies and equine massage. Elena is a talented trainer with a strong background in the horse industry internationally.

With extensive experiences abroad (USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia, UK and Germany) in 2002 she founded Animantia, a private Academy of equine behavior studies based in Italy with a branch in Idaho.

As a teacher and Applied Equine Behaviorist she dedicated more than 15 years in teaching equine behavior through specialized courses for individuals and professionals. Elena founded the first ethological equine facility in Italy where she worked with thousands of horses: training, natural foal starting and problem solving through behavioral therapies.

She attended the Academy of Equine Dentistry in Idaho as a free-lance professional in supporting the teaching for equine dentistry students and she organized courses on equine applied behavior in relation to horse handling during dental work to reduce stress on the horses and humans.

In 2010 she discovered some wild horses in Italy and she spent the years after teaching natural behavior to her students, underlining the importance of observation within herds of wild horses in their natural environment to understand and learn their unique behavior and emotional/social life.

Her equine specialization continued few years ago in the USA when she became an equine massage therapist and focused on rehabilitation and physiotherapy for horses with both physical and psychological problems.

A fervent believer of the preservation of all creatures in the wild she joined Return to Freedom to share her knowledge and experience in order to improve the welfare and quality of life for rescued wild mustangs and burros.

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SARAH ROMBERGER
Barn Manager

The physical and mental well-being of animals and the protection of the environment have always been the subjects of Sarah Romberger’s passion and focus. While studying ecological, organismal, and evolutionary biology at California State University, Fresno, she began her professional experience in animal care as a zookeeper, caring for over 100 different species which included tigers, orangutans, sea lions, and a multitude of others. Over the course of her decade-long zookeeping career she became Lead Zookeeper and Scuba Diving Safety Officer, advocating for the protection of natural habitats, educating the public, and focusing her efforts on the health and welfare of the animals in her care and their counterparts in the wild. Upon returning home to Lompoc, she volunteered to help at Return to Freedom and never left! She could not be more thrilled to now be caring for the amazing, inspirational animals at RTF and advocating for the protection and preservation of wild horses and burros and their habitats. Sarah’s upbeat personality and enthusiasm is refreshing and we are all so happy to welcome her to the team!

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PAULIN TAGLE
Ranch Hand

Paulin and his brother, Merced, have been the rock of maintaining the daily operations of the sanctuary for over 10 years. They make it look easy. They know the horses and pace themselves with confidence and good humor.

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CELESTE CARLISLE
Conservation Science Program Consultant

Celeste is a biologist who started her career studying marine ecology at University of California, Santa Cruz (BA Biology, 1994). She spent years working with marine mammals and invertebrates along the California and Oregon Coasts. Environmental outreach and science education were a large part of her focus while working for South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and then Oregon State Parks. Her passion for horses eventually outweighed her love of marine mammals and she returned to Oregon State University to acquire a post-baccalaureate degree in Animal Science with an equine emphasis. She has worked alongside Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation to oversee and implement the fertility control program since 2010, and more recently, RTF’s on-range public-private partnership programs for wild horse and burro management. She quite enjoys the combination of education, horses, and meaningful scientific work towards the best in-the-wild management we have available today.  One foot is squarely planted in the world of science and the other in the world of horse conservation.