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Santa Rosa woman offers respite for horses, other animals

Betsy Bueno’s surname pretty much says it all.

In Spanish, her last name means “good,” and there’s not really any other way to describe what the 61-year-old Santa Rosa resident has been putting out into the world for the last 25 years.

From her 4-acre ranch at the base of Taylor Mountain, Bueno provides sanctuary, rehabilitation, and placement for horses that have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. As of this writing, she was caring for 16 different horses. She refers to the operation as Lost Hearts & Souls Horse Rescue.

Bueno doesn’t do this work because it’s lucrative or because it buys her goodwill with wealthy donors in the community — in fact, she funds almost all of the animal husbandry herself. In her words, she does it simply because she loves it, because she loves animals, and because she rests easier knowing she’s doing everything she can to help the beings that need her most.

“Maybe I was a horse in another life of something; I feel like the need to do this is in my soul,” she said. “Nothing makes me happier than making a difference in these animals’ lives.”

Rescue as a second career

Bueno didn’t set out for a career in horse rescue. Back in her 20s, the native of South San Francisco spent time with the U.S Army and served as Military Police. She transitioned into work as a police officer with the South San Francisco Police Department and later transferred to the Napa Police Department, where she served on the K-9 unit.

Finally, around 1999, she retired from the force, moved to Santa Rosa, and decided she’d stay home to raise her children.

That same year Bueno bought a horse for her daughter and discovered it had been horribly abused. She connected with North Bay Horse Rescue and Welfare about similar cases, which led to her involvement as a foster caregiver for the Humane Society of Sonoma County. From there she volunteered with other organizations that help Sonoma County Animal Services. For Bueno, these gigs were fulfilling but they weren’t enough.

“I was helping and making a difference, but I felt like I could be doing more,” she said.

Bueno bought her current ranch in 2004 and moved her rescue efforts there. In 2011, she went all-in on Lost Hearts & Souls, obtaining nonprofit status and helping with animal control cases from all over the area.

Amassing a menagerie

Today the law enforcement work represents a huge chunk of her operation. Local animal services organizations call her when they have cases where a horse has been abused; Bueno investigates, writes a report, testifies about her findings in court, and then she pays for the vet fees and rehabilitates the horse on her ranch.

This is how Bueno has amassed her current group of horses. Many of the animals are in pending investigations. Others are in such poor health they are what considers “non-adoptable.”

On a recent weekday, the group included Buddy Love, a Leopard Appaloosa who lost an eye to abuse and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Julio, who came from the back of a drug house and won’t let anyone but Bueno touch him. Casino, who had his head smashed in a trailer accident, was there, too. Then there were Momma and Fritz, a mother-son pair of Arabians from an animal control case in Contra Costa County.

“They’ve been through a lot, but horses are experts in forgiveness,” Bueno said. “People hurt them and do things to harm them but if you show them care and love, they recognize that and they become different horses.”

The Lost Hearts & Souls ranch isn’t just pasture; the property comprises a circa-1947 barn that Bueno has gutted, expanded, and padded with three feet of wood shavings to create a soft and cushiony floor.

In this barn, on that floor, the horses bed down as a family every single night.

“They’re like little lambs in there, side-by-side, cuddling,” she explained. “Amazingly, after all these animals have been through, they still seek that comfort and connection from each other.”

Bueno feeds all of her horses every day, and she pays for the feed (and medical bills) out of her own pocket—nearly $3,500 per month. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic she took a full-time job delivering packages for FedEx as a primary means to pay these bills. She defrays the rest of her living expenses with her pension from her 20-year career as a police officer.

Impact in the community

The work Bueno is doing certainly has turned heads in the Santa Rosa community and beyond.

Tom Baker, a maintenance worker from Rohnert Park, offers Bueno free handiwork whenever she needs it — the best he can do to support her operation with a limited budget. This year he has run new water and power lines into the barn. In previous years he has repaired fencing.

His wife, Debbie Baker, swings by the ranch and helps feed the horses when Bueno’s schedule hasn’t permitted her to get home in time for the evening meal.

“She’s an amazing lady, one of a kind,” Tom Baker says of Bueno. “I wish there was more I could do.”

Michelle Gossage agreed. Gossage owns and operates Saddles & Boots, a western shop on Highway 12 in Sebastopol, and often she’ll set aside proceeds from certain items to donate to Bueno and her operation at the ranch.

Because Gossage owns four horses herself, she understands how expensive it is to feed and care for 14 or 15 of them.

“It’s not cheap to take on other people’s problems the way she does,” Gossage said.

Carey Sweet, a freelance contributor to The Press-Democrat, has a small animal rescue operation of her own, and has become good friends with Bueno over the years. Sweet waxed poetic when asked what makes Bueno’s work special, noting that she has had to “hide cash in her truck to make her take any payment” for the work she does.

Sweet added that Bueno selflessly has jumped in and helped the horse owner community during fires and other natural disasters.

“She is an amazing first responder, driving her trailer into the flames to rescue countless animals from the wildfires since 2017,” Sweet wrote in a recent email. “She has secured donations of feed and pasture for animals made homeless and helped their people, too, with love and support and connections to assistance.”

What’s next

Looking forward, Bueno said she plans to continue her animal rescue work so long as she is able.

One area of emphasis in the coming year: fundraising. Normally Lost Hearts & Souls hosts an annual event that generates about $30,000 to cover operating costs. The last two years, due mostly to COVID-19, she hasn’t been able to host the event, and definitely has felt the pinch.

She noted that all donations go directly to helping the horses, and said the operation has full nonprofit status, which means all donations are tax-deductible.

“At this point we’ll take all the help we can get from wherever we can find it,” she said. “I’ll figure out a way to care for these horses anyway, but knowing there are people in the community who want to support what I’m doing and want to donate to the cause definitely makes it easier for everybody involved.”

Helping horses

Lost Hearts & Souls Horse Rescue cares for horses that have been abused, neglected or abandoned. If you wish to donate to the sanctuary or volunteer, you can reach the organization by mail at 616 Hunter Lane, Santa Rosa, 95404; call 707-479-5639; email betsybueno@aol.com or visit lostheartsandsouls.org. The sanctuary is not open for walk-in visits.

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