Through sanctuary and advocacy, Neda DeMayo has devoted herself to saving wild horses — and to helping people re-connect to the natural world.
To understand Neda DeMayo, you have to understand her lifelong devotion to wild horses. At age 6, after watching a helicopter chase and capture horses on television, she declared to her stunned parents that she would make a place for these horses. Decades after witnessing the scene, the visionary behind Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation has done just that.
DeMayo (whose first word was horse, according to her 94-year-old mother, Stella) began taking riding lessons at age 5 near her rural Connecticut home and at 8 years old had her own horse with an unruly pony to keep him company. A week after graduating from high school, she jumped in her car with her dog and best friend and traveled across America, landing in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she became a holistic practitioner and was active in theater arts. Just a few years later she left with her backpack and a one-way ticket to India. Upon returning to California, she studied fashion design, eventually establishing herself as a Hollywood costume designer/stylist for the likes of Sandra Bullock, David Duchovny, Jeff Goldblum, Antonio Banderas, and others.
While enjoying the creativity of working in the theater and film industry, DeMayo was shocked to discover through press reports in the early ’90s that there had been no end to the helicopter roundups of wild horses she had seen as a child and decided it was time to take action on their behalf.
“Although in my heart I hoped for true preservation — where wild horses, wildlife, and our vast habitats could remain untouched — I knew there needed to be an educational element to bring an awareness that there were still wild horses in America, what they are, their value, and what threatens their survival threatens our own,” DeMayo says. “The value of creating a sanctuary is not only to provide refuge for the animals that live there, but to be able to effect change to save thousands more through education.”
Exploring the logistics of what might be involved in operating a wild horse sanctuary, DeMayo began to delve into the politics surrounding wild horses. Traveling to observe herds in California, Nevada, and Oregon, she quickly understood that America’s wild horses were caught on the front lines in a battle over the use of our federal lands and natural resources, so she turned her focus to finding solutions.
During this exploratory time, having long ago left the world of traditional riding behind, DeMayo was fascinated when she learned about the work of author and equine facilitator Carolyn Resnick. “Carolyn’s methods are based on developing the bond between horse and human. The work is transformative because to inspire the natural desire in the horse to follow your leadership, you need to earn that trust. Her method is based on the matriarchal behavior in the herd as opposed to dominance through more predatorial behavior,” DeMayo says. “The communication was more congruent with what I observed in wild bands.”
She had purchased a young, unruly Arabian mare named Taj, but she hadn’t ridden much for several years because she found herself questioning the ethics of riding: “I loved horses, but why did I need to ride them?” Developing this horse-human relationship in line with Resnick’s methods, DeMayo says, deepened her understanding of horses and herself. She did ride again but was able to start Taj without the use of ropes or tack of any kind, riding bridleless and bareback before adding light tack later. “I had a shift in the way I perceived leadership and the dynamics of shared leadership within herds and what we as a human community can and need to learn from the natural world.”
As luck would have it, her father, Bill, a former partner with Ernst & Young, was nearing retirement from his position as a planned giving officer for the University of New Haven. Her father and mother, by then in their early 80s, joined their two daughters on the West Coast and decided as a family that it would be fulfilling to be involved together with something that served a larger purpose. DeMayo and her parents had visited a wild horse sanctuary in Northern California. The experience inspired the DeMayos to pool their assets and buy a rundown 300-acre ranch — and in November 1998, Return to Freedom launched its American Wild Horse Sanctuary near Lompoc, California, 60 miles north of Santa Barbara.
With it, DeMayo’s dream of a safe haven for many of America’s wild mustangs became a reality.
DeMayo started Return to Freedom with a focus on educating the public that horses live in herds made up of harem and bachelor bands and the strong bond that exists between these highly social mammals. Her fundamental purpose for the sanctuary was to explore alternatives to how wild horses and burros were being managed both on the range and after capture. The sanctuary was created as a model for solutions that could be applied on the range to replace the government’s endless and costly capture-and-removal management program.
The first 25 horses arrived at the sanctuary from the Hart Mountain Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in December 1998. The horses were among 279 that were gathered on horseback from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land by the late wild horse advocate Jim Clapp, one of a very few individuals skilled enough to do so. The small herd now had a new home in the hills of California’s Central Coast.
Maintaining the sanctuary for more and more horses would prove an expensive proposition. As more herds arrived on only 300 acres, not only did feed prices increase but supplies and the need for safe handling equipment as well as hiring help grew along with the organization. “I started raising funds by inviting people to quietly observe the horses who were captured on horseback and therefore maintained in their naturally selected family and bachelor bands and relocated to the sanctuary,” DeMayo says.
The next group of horses came from the Sheldon FWS Refuge in Nevada. Upon hearing that the USFWS was planning to remove horses from the Sheldon Refuge, Return to Freedom submitted a proposal that enabled Clapp to once again set up camp for several months and gather horses in their family bands. He subsequently relocated 50 more to the sanctuary.
“We got involved there because horses captured off FWS lands are not branded and most end up sold for slaughter,” says DeMayo. “FWS did not use helicopters at that time and we were able to relocate entire bands from a specific area of the refuge.
“When you understand how deeply bonded they are — and how they suffer when they are ripped from their herd and their range — if you are able to keep families together and release them into a sanctuary where they can live out their lives, unbothered, it’s all worth it.”
Over the next 15 years, Return to Freedom’s sanctuary became home to harem bands representing the diversity of the American mustang. These include dwindling populations of Spanish mustangs descended from Spanish Barbs, 100 percent pure-in-strain Choctaw Indian ponies, Cerbat, Wilbur-Cruce Colonial Spanish Mission horses, Sulphur Springs horses, and larger horses whose herds returned to a natural state over the past few hundred years in the challenging habitats of the American West.
To maintain their family bands, solutions to expanding herds — whether on private lands or dwindling rangelands — needed to be explored. “Reproduction is a reality,” DeMayo says. “And while we agree or disagree as to how our water and grazing rights are allocated on government lands, the horses continue to suffer from capture and separation from their herds and their freedom at great expense to the taxpayer and the horses themselves. Since 1999, we have sought out the least intrusive way to manage population growth, which would allow the stallions and their harem bands to remain together.”
DeMayo turned to The Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana, and the late Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, for guidance. The least invasive form of fertility control is native PZP, a humane vaccine that slows down reproduction. Decades of data confirmed no threatening side effects (other than a decrease in foal births). Return to Freedom became the fourth wild horse fertility-control project overseen by the center. The vaccine has curbed reproduction at the sanctuary by 91 to 98 percent, and mares are living well into their 30s without ill effects.
Return to Freedom has advocated for almost 20 years for the redirection of funds spent on expensive and traumatic roundups toward viable and minimally intrusive alternatives that would enable wild horses and burros to remain on their rangelands.
“We need to find solutions that ensure that wild horses and burros receive a more equitable share of the public lands designated for their protection in 1971. We have to strike a balance that benefits wild horses and other wildlife as well as ranching interests,” DeMayo says. “Congress could change the discussion by creating tax credits or incentives for public-land ranchers who reduce their livestock grazing on designated wild horse Herd Management Areas and by increasing water and rangeland restoration projects through university and volunteer programs.”
DeMayo’s father passed away three years ago, but he lived long enough to see the addition of a 2,000-acre satellite sanctuary in San Luis Obispo, California, provided by a generous and committed family through Return to Freedom’s wild horse conservator program. Today, Return to Freedom provides refuge to 500 wild horses and 46 burros at four locations, two of which are leased temporarily.
Two locations are open for guided tours and photo safaris. Guests can photograph and observe the diverse strains of the American mustang and meet the “ambassador” horses like Spirit, the Kiger mustang stallion who was the muse for DreamWorks’ 2002 animated feature film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
“Return to Freedom’s sanctuary functions as a living history museum so that people can see the important role the horse has played in the development of our country, as well as their importance as an integral part of the ecosystem,” DeMayo says. “Education has been the foundation of our advocacy work and has inspired others to find their voice.”
Advocacy remains high on DeMayo’s agenda. Return to Freedom has galvanized support from the Hollywood community to get the message out to the public; some of the celebrities who have gotten behind the effort include board member Robert Redford, singer Carole King, and actors Ed Harris, Wendie Malick, Viggo Mortensen, and Noah Wyle.
Return to Freedom has long been active on policy issues while coming from a very unique position. Not only does the organization have a nationally respected voice for advocacy, with decades of campaign work, it also operates The American Wild Horse Sanctuary — giving it hands on experience both with diverse management needs there and with herds on the range.
The organization’s Wild On The Range Campaign calls for science- based proposals for more sustainable and humane wild horse management including; the judicious use of fertility control, range and water restoration, defining a proud vision for free ranging wild horse and burro conservation and changes in policies which embrace minimally intrusive management on the range.
The organization also has relationships with reform-minded ranch owners, government agencies, other sanctuaries, and animal-welfare organizations. At the two-decade mark, DeMayo remains a tireless advocate. In the coming year, she’ll be focusing on fundraising for a larger preserve and educational center.
Zeroing in on the crux of the matter, DeMayo poses something to all of us: “A question for the American people should be whether it is acceptable to have a future in which there are no wild horses living on their public lands. Return to Freedom contends that public lands are part of our collective inheritance as citizens and that the wildlife, resources, and habitats on those lands — including wild horses and burros — are part of our shared responsibility.
“We believe our country will be poorer if future generations cannot see wild horses run free.”
Ed Harris on Return to Freedom’s Mission
While he was visiting Return to Freedom to shoot the January 2018 Cowboys & Indians cover, supporter and friend Ed Harris filmed a public service announcement for the organization. Watch it below.