The Return to Freedom Team
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
Database and Program 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!
Biologist and Science Program Manager
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. Celeste first joined the RTF staff as an equine manager in 2005. She received training in wildlife fertility control from the Science and Conservation Center and has managed RTF’s fertility control program since 2010. She continues to be a presenter at various conservation conferences in the U.S. 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.
Ranch and Equine
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.
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!
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.
Marina is a Santa Barbara native, born and raised. Horses have been a passion of hers since she was a toddler. She grew up active in a few different sports, but knew working with horses was her calling. Marina graduated from Averett University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Equestrian Studies and a concentration in Business Management. She joins our equine care team after many years as a working professional in the equestrian community at hunter/jumper barns in Germany, Los Angeles, Goleta, and New Mexico. In her free time, she goes to the gym, hike, and enjoys the beach!
Marina with Fig!
Erik joins Return To Freedom as an Equine Assistant which is a role he constantly says he absolutely loves. He has grown up with wild horses and burros and is deeply passionate about the care and wellbeing of America’s wild horse and burro population.
A native of Santa Barbara, Erik’s passion and love for horses started at a very young age. In 1986, Erik’s grandparent’s introduced him to horses, burro’s, and horsemanship. It was love at first sight! Since then, Erik and his family have had a history of rescuing wild and unwanted horses and burros and providing them with “high-class retirement” at the family ranch.
Erik has also ridden horses for several cutting horse trainers and owners, and was a farrier’s apprentice.
Erik is a graduate of University of California at Santa Barbara with a degree in Psychology. He is currently a student at Penn Foster College where he is studying to be a large animal Veterinary Technician.
When not at work, Erik enjoys time with his amazing wife Mallory, studying to complete his Vet Tech degree, and time at his family’s ranch.
Dr. Eller completed her veterinary degree at the University of Minnesota in 1999. After graduation, she worked in equine and small animal practice, and ran a solo equine practice for 13 years. Throughout this time, she maintained an active presence in animal welfare and rescue work in Minnesota, and in 2013 began working towards a Master’s degree in Veterinary Forensics through the University of Florida. Dr. Eller began working with the ASPCA’s Field Investigations and Response (FIR) team in December of 2014. With the ASPCA she managed the medical care and forensic examination of thousands of animals, as well as being qualified as an expert witness in numerous cases and licensed in a dozen states. Since leaving the ASPCA in 2019, Dr. Eller has been active in caring for wild horses at several sanctuaries across the country, as well as assisting with animal care and welfare on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She has extensive experience in equine medicine and rescue, and served a 3-year term on the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Equine Welfare and Public Policy Advisory Board. She has also worked in various areas of wildlife and avian medicine and rehabilitation. With Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservancy, Dr. Eller will work with the rest of the staff and volunteers to ensure the development and implementation of best practices for the welfare of the horses.