BOOKS: A Novel Exploring the Challenges and Triumphs of Running an Animal Shelter

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2012:

THE RIPPLE EFFECT A Novel Exploring the Challenges and Triumphs of Running an Animal Shelter

by Marcy Eckhardt 268 pages,  paperback ($17.99) or e-book ($7.99.)

Probably close to 100% of the ANIMAL PEOPLE readership have at some point either worked or volunteered in an animal shelter. Thus probably close to 100% will either intensely identify with the characters in The Ripple Effect,  by longtime shelter worker and consultant Marcy Eckhardt,  or at least recognize them–and probably most who start to read The Ripple Effect will read it cover-to-cover  in just a couple of sittings,  as I did,  feeling that The Ripple Effect is by,  for,  and about us,  the people who know animal sheltering from the inside out, as opposed to them, who interact with shelters in various ways and often vocally criticize shelter procedures, but have little understanding of why things are done as they are.

The Ripple Effect is about the omnipresent tension between shelter staff and the public, heightened by intensifying pressure from activists and donors to go “no-kill,”  whether or not the animal intake volume has been reduced enough by sterilization, adoption, fostering, and other programs to make “no-kill” a realistic option.

Should author Eckhardt be lucky enough to achieve significant crossover readership among the public,  and among activists who lack shelter experience,  or–even better–should The Ripple Effect become a hit film–it could do a great deal to reduce the conflict over “kill vs. no-kill,”  by clarifying that even no-kill shelters often have to euthanize animals for reasons of health or dangerous behavior (unless they also practice selective admission), that selective admission is not a realistic option in communities which do not have open admission shelters,  and that the overwhelming majority of shelter workers in today’s context do everything reasonably possible to avoid killing animals.

We are so far now beyond the era when the Phyllis Wright essay “Why we must euthanize” hung prominently on the wall of almost every shelter that Eckhardt makes only transient mention of the attitudes and conditions of those days.  Just entering her 20th year in animal sheltering, Eckhardt became involved two years after Wright died,  one year before the first No-Kill Conference was held in Phoenix,  Arizona,  not far from the locale of The Ripple Effect near the Four Corners reservation area,  where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet.  The culture of animal sheltering in those days,  focused on euthanasia rooms, has shifted to the present focus on adoption facilities and boosting “save rates,” sometimes regardless of whether particular animals can or should be “saved.”

But, though shelter culture has changed, the nature of shelter work still requires killing some animals, and killing fewer animals has not always lessened the stress on the people who do it. The elevated status that skilled euthanasia technicians had within shelter culture during the Phyllis Wright era helped to offset the aversion and antipathy that outsiders often exhibited, and still exhibit, toward people who kill impounded or surrendered dogs and cats.  The high volume of killing done then, after minimal holding periods, helped euthanasia technicians to mechanize or ritualize the procedure, distancing themselves from it.  Euthanasia technicians today, as at the fictional shelter Eckhardt writes about, often have become personally acquainted with the dogs and cats they kill, during holding intervals of weeks or months.

Among The Ripple Effect central characters are a shelter director who, like most, has learned her job on the job, in the manner of apprenticeship, and is bewildered by “no kill” activism; a senior shelter technician who is burned out by euthanasia stress; an enthusiastic trainee who is gradually learning and adjusting to shelter work;  an executive director who came up through the ranks, but is now focused on the politics of keeping the shelter funded and functioning to the point of sometimes unintentionally overlooking the needs of her stuff;  and a senior volunteer turned board member who aspires to oust and succeed the executive director,  as part of making a transition to “no kill” that she knows about mainly from having attended a couple of conferences and reading blogs.The senior volunteer might be seen as the villain of The Ripple Effect,  and is viewed as such by the narrative persona, the shelter director; but she is clearly dedicated,  motivated, able to recruit new volunteer help, sometimes offers new ideas of possible value, and while her habit of following staff all over the shelter jotting down critical notes is problematic, irritated staff miss many opportunities to explain what they are doing before the criticisms become an explosion.

Among the most true-to-life aspects of The Ripple Effect are the many philosophical and practical contradictions evident in the shelter procedures and activist attitudes.  No character is entirely consistent, from the shelter director and other staff focused on saving animals who nonetheless casually eat meat, to the animal hoarder who believes himself to be a rescuer, to the scheming no-kill volunteer and board member whose first two criticisms of shelter practice both come straight out of the Phyllis Wright credo: that advertising and discounting particular animals to promote adoptions somehow “devalues” them.

Paradoxically, both techniques were introduced by Mike Arms, who was then shelter director for the North Shore Animal League, no-kill for more than 50 years.  Arms since 2000, has been president of the no-kill Helen Woodward Animal Center. Probably the most bizarre contradiction,  but a contradiction that even Eckhardt does not seem to recognize,  even though she has blogged about it, is that the executive director seeks to reduce euthanasia stress by having her staff cremate animals instead of disposing of their remains at the county landfill.  This requires the staff to manually pulverize the remnants of skulls and large bones, a grim and occupationally dangerous reminder of the living animals.

Few if any psychological counselors who specialize in treating euthanasia stress would recommend this change of procedures.  The only alternative to manual pulverization that Eckhardt appears to be aware of is to use a coffee grinder, which would be harshly noisy and impractical for frequent use.  However, making a quiet bone-crushing, dust-evacuating machine similar to those used at crematoriums for humans would be a relatively simple and inexpensive chore for a mechanically inclined volunteer who knows his way around a junkyard.

The Ripple Effect is not flawless literature.  Though the writing flows well, there are passages, including improbably long bursts of dialog, which are actually short expository essays about various aspects of animal sheltering,  paralleling blog postings at Eckhardt’s <> web site.  But Eckhardt can be praised for surmounting the difficulty of writing a gripping novel that includes not even the hint of a romantic theme involving any of her mostly young female characters,  whose emotional focus is their work to the near exclusion of any personal life.

Barely mentioning pit bulls in The Ripple Effect, Eckhardt somewhat sidesteps aspects of her climactic crisis,  involving a German shepherd whom the shelter director recommends should be killed due to dangerous behavior,  who is instead transferred to a no-kill shelter through board intervention, is fostered out, also contrary to the shelter director’s warnings,  and severely mauls a child.

While such incidents involving German shepherds occasionally occur, the dog in question is about 10 times more often a pit bull, according to the ANIMAL PEOPLE log of attacks by shelter dogs, and breed-specific pro-pit bull activism heightens the very conflicts that Eckhardt aspires to illuminate.

The Ripple Effect concludes with a climatic scene in which impassioned speeches by the shelter director and the executive director, who has just resigned, bring the board and the community to their senses.  That rarely happens in the real world.

Also in the department of gripes and complaints, The Ripple Effect is typeset in a Helvetica font meant to stop the eye, not in a font meant to enhance easy reading.  The copy-editing overlooked frequent inappropriate capitalizations, substitutions of sound-alike words for the words that are meant, and ordinary typographical errors.

My initial hope, when Eckhardt called to offer a review copy, was that The Ripple Effect would update the nonfiction school library classic The Animal Shelter by Patricia Curtis (1984),  which introduced many young people of Eckhardt’s generation to shelter work as a possible career.

My first response, upon seeing that The Ripple Effect is a novel, was the sort of remark Eckhardt’s burnout case would make. We see lots of bad novels, with thin animal-related motifs, but little hint that the authors actually know which end of an animal poops.

But my initial hope was fulfilled.  I would give The Ripple Effect to anyone, of any age, as a mostly realistic introduction to animal sheltering.  Though animal sheltering will continue to evolve in coming decades,  I expect The Ripple Effect will stand up, in 30 years, just as well as The Animal Shelter does today as a portrait of humane work when it was written. –Merritt Clifton

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