Several volunteers at Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton spoke out Tuesday during a DuPage County Forest Preserve Commission meeting in response to recent allegations of horse neglect and other management problems.
Eight women were divided almost evenly on both sides of the issue, which stemmed from a letter signed by 34 current and former Danada volunteers and sent to all members of the forest preserve commission in mid-November. The letter said 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."
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The letter also contained a nearly five-page attachment outlining specific concerns with Danada management since 2010, including claims the medical needs of six horses were neglected.
Ten-year volunteer Jane Muklewicz said the letter was sent to commissioners after "many failed attempts by volunteers to work with management." She criticized the forest preserve's response to the allegations, which included a herd assessment, an evaluation of spending on the horses and a volunteer satisfaction survey all conducted by staff members.
"People were surprised the assessment was being conducted by individuals that have a vested interest in disproving these concerns," Muklewicz said.
Chris Gingrich, forest preserve education outreach specialist, outlined some findings from the volunteer survey Tuesday. While he said there were questions on overall satisfaction with the district where groups were "worlds apart," most seemed to agree communication between management and volunteers needs improvement.
As part of their response to neglect allegations, forest officials also hired a veterinarian from the DuWayne Animal Clinic to assess the horses. He will present his findings at the March 27 commission meeting.
Sally Carr, who has volunteered at Danada for 12 years, expressed concern for the horses' health, saying they are overweight due to lack of use. But she also echoed the survey finding that calls for better communication, saying the environment will improve at Danada "only if everyone treats each other with full honesty and respect."
But other volunteers like Jan Yong, who has helped at Danada for a decade, said new management that has come to Danada in recent years has improved communication dramatically.
"Danada is a magic place with top-notch management, in my opinion," Yong said.
Volunteer Emelia Zuccheri has helped at Danada for eight years and said management has always told volunteers when to give extra attention and help to a horse that is injured or sick.
"I just feel like I need to be here to support the staff, because I've had nothing but a positive experience," Zuccheri said.
In addition to the March 27 meeting that will detail the vet's findings, 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, and final recommendations will be woven into Danada's five-year plan.