Randall Harris, president of Living Free Animal Sanctuary, greets the newest resident, a Sheldon mustang, Liberty Belle. Photo by J.P. Crumrine
Randall Harris, president of Living Free Animal Sanctuary, greets the newest resident, a Sheldon mustang, Liberty Belle. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

Living Free, founded in 1980, is a sanctuary for abandoned cats and dogs. Currently it is home to nearly 100 cats and 45 to 50 dogs.

Mustangs are another species, surprisingly, who are abandoned or whom humans find too numerous. The federal government rounds up wild mustangs annually and keeps them penned in corrals with dozens of other mustangs.

So in July, Liberty Belle, a wild mustang, arrived at Living Free to join these other forsaken animals and potential pets. However, Liberty Belle and others of her herd lived on the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages. Unlike horses that live on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, they are not protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act passed in 1971.

Living Free plans to offer its site for the home to 12 to 20 mustangs and Liberty Belle is the first. Already she has made friends with the staff’s horses and if all continues to go well, more mustangs will be offered a home with food, space and love. In the future, people may come to Living Free to visit with the wild horses.

On its site, Living Free does much to accommodate abandoned animals and give them love and attention until somebody can take a dog or cat home.

There’s the Kitty Castle for newborn kittens. They enjoy special attention for months before moving to one of the three catteries. Each accommodates about 30 cats now and a fourth is under construction.

Earlier this year, Living Free built a Puppy Palace, where pups and their mother may have some privacy until they are old enough to join the adult dog population. There they receive all the appropriate shots.

The dogs also have the opportunity to visit the Give Life Park. It’s also a space where visitors may take a dog and spend some quiet time learning whether they are meant for each other. Being off the leash helps with adoptions, said Edgar Santiago, kennel manager.

The park includes a small pond and benches, covered in luscious green grass where the fence is snake protected. The dogs come and play with each other, sniff the rocks and listen to sounds outside their kennels.

On this day, Duke and Ellen were romping around the park, rolling on their backs and retrieving the balls. “Ellen had been abandoned at a truck stop,” said Randall Harris, Living Free president.

This year, the number of adoptions has approached 60, which is setting records, according to Harris. “We’ll take more than we can take and stay slightly over capacity because were getting so many adopted.” Animals who can’t secure new homes become permanent Living Free residents.

Living Free has several videos for prospective dog owners on how to introduce oneself to a dog and how to be a good owner. In the next few weeks, Ellen will lose her friend Duke, who is headed to a home in Los Angeles, he added. “We’ve even had a guy come from New Mexico to adopt,” said Santiago. “Social media helps a lot.” Living Free has more than 5,000 friends on Facebook.

Under Harris, Living Free studied its various methods to reach out to the public. Consequently, there is a new plan for use of Facebook and now a new website that is more efficient for visitors.

Living Free does more than feed animals until someone adopts them. Consistent with its goal to reduce the number of cats and dogs killed annually, Living Free tries to reduce unwanted and wild pregnancies. It sponsored a spay-and-neuter clinic in June, where 30 animals were neutered. Another clinic is planned for August. Both have been co-sponsored with Luke’s Legacy and in cooperation with the Animal Rescue Friends of Idyllwild.

“We’re all trying to save animals in slightly different ways,” Harris said. And Santiago added that often when Living Free’s kennels are full, ARF not only helps find potential homes, but also temporary room, too.

“A ton of healthy animals are put down, but there’s a ton who are great to have,” Harris stressed. “It’s worth saving them. Here we do our best to keep them.”

But to continue to help the dogs, cats and mustangs, Living Free needs funds. Eighty percent of the budget goes to animal services. “I can’t say enough about the staff. They’re just great,” he said with pride.

This year, Harris and the board have developed a business plan to get more funding. Some early success is evidenced with the construction of the Puppy Palace and the proposed cattery expansion. But this is just the beginning that Harris and other envision. A quarantine area is on the long-range plan and facilities to accommodate the mustangs.

“Each project is funded as a separate campaign,” Harris explained. “Capital costs are critical,” but he is very aware of the problems of funding a construction without operating costs committed, too. “If a new kennel were built, we want to have five years of operating costs.

This key chain, which Living Free founder Emily Jo Beard designed in the 1980s, depicts her dream and intention to include horses as members of the sanctuary. Photo by J.P. Crumrine
This key chain, which Living Free founder Emily Jo Beard designed in the 1980s, depicts her dream and intention to include horses as members of the sanctuary.
Photo by J.P. Crumrine

“Horses were always part of Emily Jo Beard’s original dream when she established Living Free,” Harris said. And last summer, Joan Fagin, the former executive director, called to alert Harris of the plight of the Sheldon war horses, who are part thoroughbreds and part draft horses. In June, Harris and Ray Barmore traveled to Oregon to see the Sheldon mustangs.

In the beginning, Living Free has 40 acres for the mustangs, but must build more equestrian facilities. “[These mustangs] have been around chainlink fences and concrete mostly. It’s important aesthetically and for their rehabilitation to get good space,” Harris stressed.

He plans to move slowly, but expects to have a home for a few more by the end of the year. Eventually, the mustangs may have access to most of the 160 acres at the site. He plans to expand the community-based model of dogs and cats to future horse population.

Since 1980, the number of dogs and cats who were victims of euthanasia has fallen, but not been eliminated, Harris stated. “It’s fewer and we’re headed in the right direction. We just need to shift up the number of adoptions and we’ll still need shelters but we can eliminate killing them.

“All that is needed is to have 3 percent more adopted instead of bought,” he added. “It’s important to believe it can happen. But lots of care and time. There is more we can do for animals here and its better for the community.”