Volunteers again are complaining about the mistreatment of horses at an equestrian center operated by the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, sparking a new investigation into how the facility is run.
It's the second probe into the management of the Danada Equestrian Center and the care of the animals housed there. An internal investigation conducted last year by a veterinarian and others found no signs of abuse involving the historic farm's roughly two dozen horses.
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But current and former volunteers who long have expressed concerns about the operation of the Wheaton facility questioned the legitimacy of the initial probe. They say the new inquiry gives them hope the issues they've raised will be properly examined and lead to needed improvements.
Former volunteer Jane Muklewicz claims the list of ongoing problems includes abusive handling of horses, poor training practices, poor feeding practices and mismanaged medical issues.
"Fifteen months ago, when volunteers first came forward with examples of mismanagement and abusive treatment, we were told an independent assessment would be done," said Muklewicz, a Naperville resident who volunteered for a decade at Danada. "That turned out to be a sham investigation conducted by the very people who were accused of mismanagement."
This time, the investigation is being done by newly elected Commissioner Shannon Burns, who already has conducted 61 interviews with volunteers, forest preserve employees, veterinarians and horse experts.
"The board is very concerned about the fact that former volunteers and current volunteers continue to raise concerns about Danada," Burns said. "The volunteers continue to say, 'You haven't done anything' or 'What you did do wasn't done right.'
"So the board decided it would be worth our while to take a long, thorough look at everything," she said.
The equestrian center once served as part of Dan and Ada Rice's racehorse training estate and was the home of 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair. Opened to the public by the forest preserve district in 1983, the facility offers educational and recreational equestrian activities. Its staff is assisted by trained volunteers.
But in November 2011, a letter signed by 34 current and former Danada volunteers was sent to every forest preserve commissioner. That document said workers were 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."
Commissioners also received a five-page attachment listing specific problems dating to 2010, including claims the medical needs of six horses were neglected.
Officials responded by launching an internal investigation. That review included a volunteer survey, meetings with volunteers and the decision to bring in a veterinarian to assess the 25-horse herd.
The veterinarian told forest officials obesity was the biggest problem facing the horses, but there were no obvious signs of abuse or neglect.
Muklewicz says the first probe wasn't conducted fairly and lacked objectivity. For example, she said she doesn't believe the veterinarian had all the information he needed to do a proper assessment.
So while some thought forest officials put the Danada horse controversy to rest last summer, Muklewicz said, "from our perspective, they never really addressed it legitimately."
Commissioner Tim Whelan acknowledges the debate over the care of horses isn't settled. He also says the district is investigating claims some staff members are rude and retaliate against volunteers who lodge complaints.
Whelan said "a lot of people" have approached him with worries about the herd's health and the volunteers' morale.
"They don't feel like enough has been done," said Whelan, who recently won election to the board.
"We want to be assured the horses are being taken care of," he said. "We want to be assured we have happy volunteers."
Right for the job
When forest preserve President D. Dewey Pierotti realized another probe was necessary, he wanted to find someone who was both independent and qualified to do the analysis and recommend solutions.
That's why he gave the task to Burns, who is new to the situation and has a professional research background.
"She's completely neutral," Pierotti said. "She's going in there with an open mind. She's going to make her own evaluations. And she's going to bring recommendations to the board."
Muklewicz says she's pleased with Burns' appointment and is hopeful the investigation will be unbiased and thorough.
Pierotti said he already has told Burns she's free to do her work, make her report and "let the chips fall where they may."
"She's not going to whitewash anything," he said.
Burns says she still has people to talk to and it could take a few more months to complete her report.
"This is our one shot to do it right," she said. "If I hurry and rush a report -- and a year from now people are still complaining -- I don't see the board then saying, 'Let's do another study.'"
While it's not yet known what her recommendations will be, Burns said she's "not a big fan" of suggesting people get fired. So it appears unlikely critics will get their wish for new management at Danada.
Pierotti, meanwhile, says he's determined to make changes based on Burns' recommendations.
"If we made some mistakes, let's correct those mistakes," he said. "I want to be able to say I've done everything possible to try to resolve this situation once and for all."
Muklewicz says she, too, is willing to accept the conclusions of the report. But will that be true if the probe finds no problems at Danada?
"I am going to say yes," Muklewicz said, "because there's no way on God's green earth that it's going to come out fine."