For the second time in two years, an investigation into conditions at the Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton has found the historic farm's 25 horses are "healthy and safe," despite repeated claims to the contrary by some volunteers.
DuPage County Forest Preserve Commissioner Shannon Burns, who conducted the latest probe, says two experts didn't find any sign of abuse or neglect involving horses at the district-owned facility. But she is recommending that several operational and management changes be made.
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"Yes, there are concerns," Burns said. "But Danada is not on the edge of collapse, and the horses are not in bad shape."
Burns, the only Democrat on the Republican-controlled forest preserve board, appeared to win over about 48 former and current Danada volunteers Thursday night when she presented her findings. Audience members, including some who had complained about the mistreatment of horses in the past, applauded.
"It's a good start," former volunteer Beth Mix said of the report. "It's a really good start."
Mix, a Des Plaines resident who volunteered for five years at Danada, said district officials listened to what she and others had to say and came up with good suggestions.
"They are getting a vet in and a trainer in for the horses," Mix said. "That's the number one thing that we all agree on."
The reaction was very different from what happened last year, when some questioned the legitimacy of the first investigation conducted by the center's veterinarian and an equine expert.
This time, Burns is asking that the forest preserve be given a year to implement her recommendations.
"The district has put a lot of time into this," Burns said. "We should be given a chance now to do our thing and prove that we're going to make the changes we say."
Long before the forest preserve opened the equestrian center to the public in 1983, the facility was a part of Dan and Ada Rice's racehorse training estate and was the home of 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair.
Now the center 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. In addition to alleging animal abuse and neglect, the document said Danada's management showed a lack of consideration and regard for the nearly 150 program volunteers.
Officials responded by launching an internal investigation. That review included a volunteer survey, meetings with volunteers and two assessments of the horse herd.
However, some insisted the first probe wasn't conducted fairly and lacked objectivity. They continued showing up at forest board meetings to publicly declare that problems -- abusive handling of horses, poor training practices, poor feeding practices and mismanaged medical issues -- were continuing.
There also were claims that some staff members had been rude and retaliated against volunteers who lodged complaints.
"It became quite apparent to me that something had to be done with respect to responding to those allegations," forest preserve President D. Dewey Pierotti said.
Pierotti said he wanted the second evaluation to be done "in an unbiased and independent manner."
So he gave the task to Burns, who was elected in November. In addition to being new to the situation, Burns has a professional research background. Before the election, she was an outspoken critic of the district and its policies.
"There was no political pressure on her," Pierotti said. "She came back with an honest and thorough evaluation. She has certain recommendations, and we're going to implement them."
Burns spent four months and conducted more than 100 interviews with volunteers, forest preserve employees, veterinarians and horse experts. She also engaged the help of an expert from the Hooved Animal Humane Society and an equine veterinarian to do thorough inspections of the horses.
Neither person's inspection revealed any indication of horse abuse or neglect. Both inspections, however, noted that improvements could be made in barn operations and herd management, according to the report.
The district, for example, is making arrangements with vendors to ensure the quality of its hay. And to make sure all the animals get enough hay to eat, horses that are smaller, more timid or have medical conditions will be fed separately.
Burns also is recommending that a veterinarian be hired to be on-site 10 hours a week, do regular inspections of the horses and issue monthly reports to district officials. In addition, she said outside, independent experts should be used to do an unannounced inspection of the herd at least once a year.
"It's what should have been happening all along," Burns said.
When it came to how volunteers were treated, Burns said she couldn't prove there was retaliation. Still, she said, volunteers are an integral part of the program and need to be treated better.
So the district's director of public affairs -- not the human resources department -- will oversee the management of Danada's volunteers.
"The language of HR -- firing, terminating, last-chance agreements -- that is not appropriate for volunteers," Burns said. "They should only be hearing the language of 'thank you.'"