Neda DeMayo Biography

Animal rights activist

Born c. 1960; divorced.

Addresses: Home —California. Office —Return to Freedom, P.O. Box 926, Lompoc, CA 93438. Website —


Worked as a celebrity fashion stylist; established Return to Freedom, a sanctuary for wild horses in Lompoc, CA, 1997.


Neda DeMayo founded Return to Freedom, a sanctuary for wild horses in Lompoc, California, in 1997, and has emerged as one of the most ardent campaigners for the protection of what many consider a unique national living treasure. "We are here to point out that wild horses are a nation, " DeMayo asserted in a Los Angeles Times interview with Ann Marsh. "They have a civilization and a community unto themselves."

DeMayo grew up in the 1960s in the New Haven, Connecticut, area, and rode horses from an early age. She began formal lessons at the age of five, and at eight years old received her own horse, whom she called Sam. "I'd ride him into town and to the Dairy Queen, " she told People magazine. She and her cohorts were fascinated by horse lore, and one day some friends told her that she had just missed a pack of horses trotting down the street. "In my mind I thought they were wild horses, " she said in an interview with the Santa Maria Times many years later, "and I looked everywhere for them. Everywhere."

Wild horses have captured the imagination of many other animal-lovers over the years, too. The sight of hundreds of mustangs or other breeds of wild horse racing across America's western landscape has become an iconic image signifying the national character and the country's immense, untainted majesty. Conservation groups estimate that between 40, 000 to 100, 000 wild horses roam freely in ten American states. The mustang—a small, elegant, and intensely fast runner—is one of the breeds known to possess a bloodline linked back to the horses that Spanish conquistadors brought over to the continent in the 1500s. Even the word "mustang" is derived from the Spanish mestengo , which is a term for "an ownerless beast."

DeMayo recalled seeing television footage of wild horses being rounded up by helicopter when she was seven or eight years old. This was probably related to a save-the-mustang campaign that gained ground in the early 1970s. Ranchers in western states had long considered wild horses a nuisance because of the grass they grazed for their diet—as the ranchers' cattle must do as well—and since the early twentieth century the wild-horse population had steadily declined thanks to tactics that included chasing the packs with aircraft until they dropped dead from exhaustion. The protection movement finally resulted in the Wild, Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (PL 92-195), a federal law passed by Congress in 1971 that banned the sale or slaughter of wild horses and burros. Since then, their numbers have been overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

DeMayo eventually moved away from her equestrian enthusiasm and the East Coast. She traveled extensively as a young woman, studied theater, and eventually settled in the Los Angeles area, where she found work as a fashion stylist to entertainment personalities who included Sandra Bullock and David Duchovny. In 1994, she was involved in two serious car accidents within months of one another, and she decided to make some changes. "I realized that I needed to get clear about what I really wanted to do with my life, " she said in the Santa Maria Times interview. "Because you don't know how long it's gonna last."

DeMayo's early passion for horses was reawakened when she learned about canned hunts, which allow hunters to shoot their prey on organized outings for a hefty fee. Such hunts take place on private property, and DeMayo was stunned to learn that the BLM allowed some wild horses to be hunted if certain criteria were met. This was a capture program designed to thin out certain herds, and was enthusiastically supported by the ranching industry. DeMayo began to devote her attention to the anti-hunt cause, and submerged herself in an intensive educational effort. She studied with Carolyn Resnick, a noted horse expert, and worked with horse rescuers who took the captured mustangs and other wild horses and tried to place them in adoptive homes, or gave them shelter in specially created sanctuaries.

DeMayo spent two years learning about wild horse breeds and behaviors, and decided to use what she had learned to teach others. She set up Return to Freedom as a nonprofit organization in 1997. This sanctuary near Santa Barbara, California—on a former chicken farm—was acquired with the help of DeMayo's parents, who bought the land as a retirement property. The rest of the 300 acres were given over to the horses that DeMayo began taking in, often in family groups. DeMayo is adamant that mustangs and other wild-horse breeds need to be allowed to roam freely, and in their own herds. As she explained to People , "they live in social groups just like humans…. They are born to live in herds. Why would we want to take that away from anyone?"

DeMayo also took a more public role when she challenged the Burns Amendment, passed by Congress in December of 2004 as an attachment to another bill. Named after a Montana Republican senator, Conrad Burns, the law rescinded some of the protections of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act and allowed the BLM to thin out the herds by the thousands. It allowed for the sale of some of the captured horses, ostensibly to private owners who would find homes for them, but at least 40 of them were instead immediately sold to slaughterhouses, because horse meat is considered a culinary delicacy in Japan and some parts of Europe. In April of 2005, thanks to efforts by DeMayo and others, the BLM ordered any pending sales halted until an inquiry into the Burns Amendment program was completed.

DeMayo does not receive a salary for her work, and her Return to Freedom foundation raises funds to pay the salaries for a staff of caretakers and other expenses; the monthly bill for hay for the 200 or so horses she had taken in by 2005 runs to $8, 000. Local veterinarians donate their services, and some revenue comes from the educational camps for youngsters that Return to Freedom runs. DeMayo hopes to one day establish a historical land trust for the protection of wild horses. "These horses are unique to the United States, " she said in the People interview. "They represent the pioneer spirit of the American West."



California Riding Magazine , May 2005.

Grit , March 2005.

Los Angeles Times , July 20, 2001.

People , May 9, 2005, pp. 219-20.

Santa Maria Times , June 22, 2002.


Return to Freedom, (October 21, 2005).

Carol Brennan

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