Finding Freya: Frantic search for missing burro ends happily

/ In The News, News

As published by the Santa Barbara News-Press

“A few of us would just cry about it every day and had a hard time sleeping. We were thinking about her all the time,” said Neda DeMayo, recalling the two-week desperate search for Freya, a burro who had come to live at Return to Freedom, a sanctuary for wild horses and burros in Lompoc.

“I think she was an orphan foal who wanted to be near people. It was painful to think of her stuck or lost out there somewhere on her own,” said Ms. DeMayo, founder and president of RTF.

“Freya had a rough start in life,” Ms. DeMayo continued. “Her mom rejected her when she was a foal. So a loving family adopted her, and she was bottle-fed. Her socialization was unique to other burros.

“She had no experience with them. She was more connected to humans. And in particular to the one that bottle-fed her with whom she was most attached and possessive.

“It became an issue. This is not uncommon with orphan foals, and unless someone has experience with this, these foals can become very problematic as they are not socialized properly. That is when it was time for Freya to leave her semi-urban environment in the canyons of Los Angeles and come to Lompoc to live like a burro in June 2019.”

The adjustment was not easy for Freya, who didn’t play well with others because she didn’t know how. 

“First, we introduced her to Jasper, a burro who also prefers humans and horses to living with the burro herd. Although Freya seemed eager to be with Jasper, he wanted nothing to do with her,” said Ms. DeMayo. “We then introduced her to the burro herd of 25 living in the approximately 100-acre oak forest. The herd tolerated her odd ways and the fact she always had to be first for the hay, braying and pushing them out of her way. They seemed to accept her as she was.

“For humans, she was a kick — literally. One minute, she played the coquette, wanting to be stroked. The next, she was crotchety and kicking. Yet somehow, she managed to endear herself to everyone.

“She was always getting into a predicament or chasing someone or something. Once, she slipped down a hole but let it be known straight away with her braying. RTF staff heard her, helped her out, and all was OK. Perhaps that was a foreshadow for what happened when she went missing March 21.”

One day, Freya did not show up to meet the feed truck. Usually, she was first in line, but now, she was nowhere in sight. The next day, the same thing. Panic struck. Quickly, everyone went into action, beginning a search of tracking, diving into ravines and thick brush.

Where could she have gone?

Despite the terror, there were no vultures in the sky, an indicator a carcass was not on the ground, and there were no signs of mountain lions having dragged her. The search was constant and extended beyond the team at RTF. 

Neighbors were looking, too.

“Every day, there were one to three people searching, six to 10 hours a day,” Ms. DeMayo said. “Fence lines were repeatedly checked, and ravines followed through thick brush. RTF ranch hand Raul Carlos, once a tracker in the Army, gave us hope when he found what he believed to be her tracks and followed them through what seemed an impossible brush for her to get through and over to the neighboring ranch’s water trough …  But where was she?”

They were about to finally give up after a wrenching two weeks, but as mysteriously as she disappeared, Freya returned on April 5. One morning, she was back with the herd but different.

“She was not braying and running to the feed truck. She was disoriented, dehydrated, shocked and had body trauma. She could not move her tail, and fur was missing. She was severely impacted and could not urinate or defecate on her own,” Ms. DeMayo said.

Two weeks of intensive care began, first by Dr. Chris Pankau of Inland Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, who saved her life, and then at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, a full-scale, state-of-the-art facility, under the loving and expert care of internist Dr. Christina Lopez and her team.

Although this feisty burro showed every sign of fighting her way back, her future was still very precarious, according to Ms. DeMayo.

“An older burro most likely would not have survived, but 6-year-old Freya had youth on her side, so we remained optimistic,” Ms. DeMayo said. “Dr. Lopez said Freya loved her sessions in the hyperbaric chamber but was not at all behaving for acupuncture treatments (to help with her nerve trauma). Her infections were healed; the IV drip came off; her bladder catheter was removed, and Freya was starting to function on her own.”

Because there is an on-site veterinarian at the sanctuary, Dr. Nicole Eller, who could keep a close eye on Freya’s recovery, feeding and providing emergency treatment if she would become impacted again, the burro was released to return home.

“Freya seemed to perk up each time someone whose voice she recognized came to see her, so we made sure she was visited every day by someone she recognized, and Facetime visits were often scheduled with the family who first rescued this orphaned little burro,” said Ms. DeMayo. “Lisa Brown, a horse trainer and wrangler for Hollywood films and a longtime supporter of Return to Freedom who brought Freya to RTF originally, traveled from Ojai every few days to visit Freya in the hospital.

“Since Freya’s return, we have seen a new younger male mountain lion. It appears he is staking out his territory. He could have been on her trail. Perhaps she strayed from the herd and was on the run, eventually getting caught up in some of the heavy brush, finally escaping to neighboring rolling hills. We can’t be sure, but we assume that all the searching and tracking helped her find her way back.

“Freya’s story is surely unique in our 22-year history, except in one regard: It is emblematic of the devotion and quality care Return to Freedom gives all of the animals at the sanctuary.” 

Please consider a donation to the Stella DeMayo Veterinary Fund