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.
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.
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!
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.
Program and Volunteer Coordinator
Sarah Maddox was born in Hawaii and moved to Oregon, where she completed her education and earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Western Oregon University. Sarah spent 20+ years in the customer service industry, including work in restaurants and hotels. She then shifted her focus to sales-driven positions in insurance and apartment management.
Sarah came to Return to Freedom (RTF) as a residential volunteer through connections with her uncle, a former RTF staff member and long-time, valued volunteer. Sarah brought her exceptional office and organizational skills and an infectious and upbeat positive attitude to RTF. The RTF team couldn’t part with her at the end of her volunteer stay and she was offered a permanent position.
While Sarah’s work at RTF is focused on programs, volunteer and retail activities, she also provides back-up support to ranch staff and assists with feedings and equine care. Sarah is in a unique position of being able to help in the office as well as on the sanctuary property, and enjoys doing both equally.
Laura Dicterow, a Communication major from UC San Diego, has had a long commitment to raising the awareness of animal welfare issues through the power of the media. Laura’s been involved in non-profit animal advocacy since 1994 when she joined the staff of The Ark Trust, a non-profit animal protection organization which is now a part of The Humane Society of the United States. After her work with The Ark Trust, Laura joined the staff of Farm Sanctuary as their Special Events Manager from 2015-2017.
Laura has been an avid horse-lover for her entire life. She first learned about Return to Freedom (RTF) when Spirit came to live at the sanctuary, and has been a fierce supporter and volunteer for RTF ever since! She is very honored to use her experience as an event manager to help RTF raise awareness of the plight of America’s wild horses and burros through fundraising events.
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.
Joe is a North Carolina native that got his start riding and showing horses, and working along side his mother in the local stables through junior high. In late high school he studied abroad in New Zealand on a large sheep, cattle, and reindeer ranch. These early experiences stirred up a passion for agriculture and sustainability. Thereafter, he started upon a path in soil science and sustainable cropping systems and became an agronomist with experience in diverse soil environments. For the last 6 years Joe has been working with California vegetable and berry growers to better their agricultural practices. He has come to us now looking to return to his original inspiration, herd animals, to explore soil and conservation through a new lens. We are happy to have Joe join our team as we implement holistic grazing and ranch management!