Return to Freedom - Wild Horse Sanctuary

By Corinne Brown

In the much debated struggle to save America’s wild horses and burros, it appears that the equines are losing, but it won’t be without a fight. The remaining herds, amounting to approximately 28,000 free ranging animals in 10 states, a dramatic reduction over the last twenty years, are in danger of disappearing as a natural resource wherever they still roam. Diminishing grazing grounds and urbanization, along with range politics, have forced free roaming herds off rangelands and decreased chances for continued natural evolution. Only conscious efforts to save these animals and their habitats will prevent the inevitable loss, and only informed leadership can properly provide for their survival. Few in that leadership are as educated, passionate and effective as Neda De Mayo, founder of Return to Freedom-American Wild Horse Sanctuary, an advocacy and protectorate for wild herds everywhere.

An unlikely warrior, Neda is charming, charismatic, articulate, pro-active and relentless in reaching the widest audience possible to share the news of her foundation and its purpose. Founded in 1997 in order to educate the public about the options for wild horses, Return to Freedom is a non-profit wild horse and burro sanctuary on 300 acres near Lompoc, (Santa Barbara County,) California, dedicated to preservation, conservation and education.

Seven days a week, some 200 horses comprised of a number of rare breeds, live at the sanctuary safe from natural and human predators. Here, an educational center allows for viewing the horses at pasture. The majority of the horse herds are left in a “wild” state and only receive vet services and supplemental feed, as necessary. These horses are never adopted out. Instead, April through September, the facility is open for tours and work study programs enabling students, statesmen, biologists, and tourists to see wild horses, still behaving in their natural group order. Neda points out that many were taken in as entire families so as to maintain their hierarchy.

“I had a model,” explains Neda, “ and wanted to see if the concept would work--that is to preserve and protect with the least intrusive management necessary, while informing the public. It does.”

Unique in the family of horse sanctuaries, Return to Freedom has slowly garnered enthusiastic support from many organizations across the continent comprised of horse lovers and naturalists.

“In order to preserve viable healthy herds, available data indicates that outbred herds of no less than 80 animals will not lead to any inbreeding problems. In order to protect the herds from any catastrophic loss that would reduce the population below 80, we might wisely maintain herds of 130-150 of each geographic type to preserve genetic groups,“ Neda explains. “ To those who value the wild horse as a unique species, it is essential that they continue their natural evolution uninterrupted.”

Sadly, not everyone in the West agrees, however, and the debate over their future rages hotly even now, in spite of the historic Wild free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, passed back in 1971. Although heavily amended since then, the Act offered protection, management and control of horses and burros, deemed living symbols of the pioneer West.

Refuting many who believe that wild horses are neither wild nor indigenous to North America, and are a nuisance to rangelands and other livestock, Neda refers to recent molecular biology research compiled by Dr. Jay F Kirkpatrick, Phd., Director of the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana. He attests that wild horses are, in fact, a re-introduced native wildlife species.

Kirkpatrick states, “The genus Equus, which includes modern horses, zebras, and asses, is the only surviving genus in a once diverse family of horses that included 27 genres. Equus was native to North America 1.4 to 1.6 million years ago and migrated to Asia where it survived and flourished. It was reintroduced to the North American continent in 1519 by Hernando Cortez then continued to be imported northward by the Spaniards from Mexico. Recent genetic research has proven that the modern horse is the true genetic equivalent to E Lambei, the last horse to occupy North America prior to extinction.”

That being said, it stands to reason that the horse is as much of apart of our landscape as the grizzly or the moose, or any other free roaming species that has survived the millennia. That they have been caught and domesticated by men for centuries has rendered them, in the minds of many, into one more stock animal, created to serve mankind. But, as pointed out by Kirkpatrick, horses revert to wildness and adapt to feral life readily, illustrating the shallowness of their domestication.

Neda believes that only through education can the American public and those yet to come, enjoy the value, beauty and inspiration of wild horses and burros, not only as a unique wildlife species but as a cultural and historic resource. And then, only, if the animals are protected in viable, healthy genetic groups. This kind of effort requires supervision, tracking, personnel, and donor support, -- a full time job on its own.

RTF can boast a donor list of over 23,000 contributors annually with a $700,000 dollar budget, an amount that sadly, never goes far enough. In Neda’s mind, it will take the duplication of her sanctuary’s efforts however, to be successful in the long run. “However,” Neda feels, “ the privatization of America’s wild horses makes no more sense then privatizing our National Parks System to save our wilderness areas. The conflicts that surround the wild horse and public land use are cultural, economic, and therefore political.”

To maintain herd population at the California facility, Dr. Kirkpatrick oversees a reversible, non-hormonal birth control program, allowing the herd’s social behavior and the natural herd dynamics to continue, while reproduction is controlled. Meanwhile, reversals in wild horse protection have caused needless slaughter of wild horses. Recently, the Burns Amendment has put a noose around any wild horse over ten years of age that has been rejected three times at auction, the usual method of relocating animals that are rounded up in order to control herd sizes. These animals are designated for slaughter. In the wake of a seemingly inexhaustible resource, foreign owned slaughterhouses (using horsemeat for human consumption,) have appeared to make a profit. This insult to a national icon comes at a time when America faces threats to many of her natural resources for commercial purposes, a sad comment on our relationship with wildlife, and horses in particular.

As Congress currently reassesses the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, a hotly debated prohibition against these commercial horse mongers, Neda and others are indignant over a profound and ignoble disregard for our wild equine.

“If the prohibition succeeds, then we can hope for a moratorium that will allow the BLM to do a proper headcount and review the number and condition of the herds, as well as examine all our resources. Sadly, unlike cattle, sheep and wild game, horses apparently have little or no value to many who only see them as an environmental threat. The hard truth is to those who monopolize our public lands, they have no economic value.”

Return to Freedom has been working closely with national organizations to reverse the Burns Amendment, and to achieve a permanent ban on horse slaughter. This effort has garnered widespread support from the American public and even Hollywood. Celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, Noah Wyle, and Wendie Malik, to name a few, have signed letters and issued statements to the press. Return to Freedom was thrilled when “America’s cowboy” Robert Redford worked with them to address members of Congress on behalf of the wild horses, adding his powerful voice to the effort.

Neda would like to see the introduction of incentives for the public land ranchers who hold the grazing permits where the horses range, to allow the horses to remain in their proper wilderness habitats.

“In some areas, eco-tourism could then make viewing them more than profitable. The BLM currently spends between 30-40 million on the wild horse management program. Just imagine it. Ironically,” she adds, “it’s cheaper to support horses than round them up and remove them, but few understand that.”

Meanwhile, at Return to Freedom, Neda has created a learning opportunity equal to none. School children can visit nature’s classroom and partake of living history tours, clinics, special youth programs and retreats. A celebrity at the Sanctuary is Spirit, the beautiful dun stallion who was the inspiration and model for the 2002 Dreamworks film, Spirit-Stallion of the Cimarron. This horse, actually ranch bred, is a prime example of the Kiger breed, found on the high desert of eastern Oregon in 1977 and agreed by government officials to be a band of very rare horses. To preserve these animals, they were relocated to an area near Kiger George, Oregon.

Adult and youth volunteer work programs are also available. Here, both ranchers and the public can learn about range management and guardianship. There’s simply no one who can’t learn something valuable about horses and preserving America’s greatest inheritance--our country’s wild and natural resources.

Return To Freedom currently maintains over 6 distinct geographic phenotypes, differentiated specialized groups with the same unique characteristics. Return to Freedom is poised for their next step, the expansion of Return To Freedom Sanctuary into a large scale wild horse conservancy, a historical land trust that incorporates the wild horse as part of the wildlife ecosystem. Neda envisions 20,000 acres or more somewhere, ideally suited to sustain herd groups, a sought after dream for displaced free roaming herds.

Neda De Mayo has proven we can make a difference, one human being at a time. Her heroic, intelligent effort can be measured by how successful we are at saving our wild, voiceless equine companions and their brethren. Join her.

Learn more about Return to Freedom's sanctuary on their website. Learn more about Neda De Mayo's plan for America's wild Mustangs in Kurt Brungardt's new Vanity Fair documentary "Mustang Crisis" online.

About the Author
Corinne Brown is a freelance writer and novelist whose love of horses and the West has shaped her life. Based in Colorado, she's a staff writer for "Working Ranch Magazine

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