Volunteers' concerns alleging mistreatment of some horses at the Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton have sparked an investigation by the DuPage Forest Preserve District.
Officials were slated to discuss the center's operations Tuesday, but the meeting was canceled due to a staff member's medical emergency. The discussion about Danada, which manages 25 horses and has more than 150 volunteers, is now slated for March 20.
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A letter signed by 34 current and former volunteers at Danada was sent to all members of the forest preserve commission in mid-November, saying workers are concerned with "the well-being of the horses, the loss of educational opportunities and the lack of consideration and regard shown to the volunteers by managerial staff."
The letter contained a nearly five-page attachment outlining specific concerns with Danada management since 2010, including claims the medical needs of six horses were neglected.
The most serious allegation concerns physical mistreatment of animals by an unnamed staff member, which first was reported to the district in 2010.
"A Danada staff member has been observed on more than one occasion exhibiting inappropriate correction of the horses' behavior, which includes hitting a horse in the leg with a hammer and hitting a horse in the stomach with a metal rasp so hard the rasp broke," the letter said. "These actions appeared to those that witnessed this to be the result of anger and frustration."
District officials said that was the first such complaint in Danada's nearly 30-year history and they took it seriously enough to launch an internal investigation. But they said they found the claim was "false or exaggerated" and the employee is still with the district.
The letter also expressed concerns with the treatment of a handful of longtime volunteers, accusing the district of not valuing people who served for a decade or more.
"A 10-year volunteer who had short hours due to an injury earlier in the summer found she needed surgery," the letter said. "When she informed management she needed to take a leave for approximately eight weeks, she was told she was being deactivated and if she wanted to return she would have to reapply. If she were accepted, she would have to retrain. (This volunteer had previously been a President's Award recipient.)"
David Guritz, education director at Danada, said the letter was signed by a small contingent of Danada's 154 volunteers and the complaints were "presented in a way that was blatantly slanted." He said some volunteers disagreed with the letter and were upset by its accusations.
"There are some who are upset that this is being presented as the view of the core contingent of volunteers," he said.
Forest preserve Director Brent Manning responded to the letter in late November, outlining a plan that included an internal review, as well as hiring an outside agency to assess the situation at Danada.
"It was clear to us there were some areas where we could improve," Guritz said. Managing overweight horses and improving communication with volunteers emerged as main goals.
According to forest preserve documents released this week, officials are almost finished with the assessment that included several internal reviews of components such as the feeding program and horse workload.
Last week, a longtime veterinarian from the DuWayne Animal Clinic conducted a herd assessment. The vet specializes in equine lameness, according to forest preserve officials.
In addition, the district applied for accreditation with the Certified Horsemanship Association, which evaluates equestrian facilities on safety, program operations, management and horse activities.
The most recent improvement effort is a volunteer satisfaction survey that asked more than 30 questions. While the results are scheduled to be discussed later this month, the same group of volunteers sent another letter to the district last month saying they were upset with how the survey was conducted.
They said the survey included only two questions about horse care, a topic they said is their primary concern, and noted other problems.
"Although names were not required, stating individual shift and time were mandatory questions," the February letter said.
"Common sense dictates this greatly reduces the possibility of anonymity. As stated in our original letter, many volunteers are hesitant to speak up due to possible repercussions."
Volunteers will have another opportunity to speak on March 27.
During a commission meeting that day, Dr. John Kuhn from DuWayne Animal Clinic will present his findings, results from the initial survey will be discussed, and changes coming to Danada will also be outlined.
Volunteers also will receive a second survey to respond to the findings.
"They will have an opportunity to review the assessment and let us have it again, positive, negative or otherwise," Guritz said.
District officials are scheduled to meet directly with volunteers in late April. Final results of all the efforts will be presented at a June meeting, Guritz said, and final recommendations will be woven into Danada's 5-year plan.