Daniela Romero Waldhorn

Daniela Romero Waldhorn

“There is the belief that activists’ needs are secondary to the movement….. We have a collective problem, and we need an entire movement overhaul.”

“I was at home, looking out the window and saw that someone had left a box in the middle of the street,” says Daniela Romero Waldhorn when asked if it was possible to pinpoint where her animal activism began. “Immediately, cars drove by and crushed it completely. Then I realised what was in that box. That person had abandoned around five baby kittens to be run over.” Romero Waldhorn was just seven years old at the time.

Watching the dogs and cats taking their chances on the Chilean streets, knowing they were desperate for food and affection, had always broken her heart, but it was this deliberate act of cruelty that changed her. She made a personal promise to do whatever she could to help animals and began right away by feeding the strays in her neighbourhood. As a child, there was little more she could do, but this was just the beginning.

Barcelona, Spain, 30th July 2021. Environmental portrait of researcher and lecturer Daniela Romero Waldhorn. Photo by Selene Magnolia / #unboundproject / We Animals Media.

A chance meeting with a vegan during her college years inspired her to become vegetarian, but also to conduct her own research into animal agriculture.

“Until then, I was not really aware of how much suffering was behind my foods.”

But with knowledge came action, and over the next few months, Romero Waldhorn gradually became vegan.

In 2004, she co-created a network of street activists, and organised her first protest against the use of animals in circuses, specifically the elephant Ramba and the other animals used by the Los Tachuelas circus in Santiago. Romero Waldhorn remembers her early years in grassroots activism with fondness. “We were a bunch of strangers, at first, who shared the dream of building a more just and compassionate world for all. That is simply beautiful. I learned a lot from their experience, their courage, and the power we can have together to transform the world.”

And yet something was troubling her. “Shouting out in protest was, somehow, liberating but I always had doubts about whether that was the best thing I, or we, collectively could do.

Unfortunately, at that time, I didn’t have access to reliable information to make better decisions.”

While her childhood pledge to help animals was born of a visceral reaction to a traumatic incident, it has been her cool-headed commitment to evidence-based activism that has guided Romero Waldhorn since. In founding a local branch of AnimaNaturalis, she was able to learn about effective campaigning from more experienced activists. Together they campaigned successfully to free more than 100 monkeys used for experimentation by the Catholic University of Chile. Later Romero Waldhorn went on to work as an undercover investigator, documenting and revealing to the world how animals are tortured in festivals and how chickens are slaughtered for their meat.

Witnessing severe suffering inevitably exacts an emotional and psychological toll, yet enduring pressure and judgment from others within the animal rights movement has also proven difficult.

“Once, I was publicly sanctioned by another activist for going to the beach. She told me it was clear that I did not care enough for animals and should have been leafleting instead.”

This personal attack was not an isolated case. Over the years, Romero Waldhorn has experienced racist, sexist, and xenophobic discrimination from within the movement. Her work has also made her – and her family – the target of dangerous threats from powerful forces outside the movement. “While the persecution that some social activists face in Chile (and other Latin American countries) is not a common experience, it exists.”

After 17 years of working in the movement, she began to experience burnout. Rather than abandon her work as an activist, she used that difficult period to examine why she and others succumb to activism exhaustion. She points to the culture of martyrdom that leads activists to impose unrealistic expectations on themselves while organisations push supporters and staff to constantly demonstrate their commitment.

“There is the belief that activists’ needs are secondary to the movement, and everything and everyone can be sacrificed for the sake of animals–notably, everyone who is not a cis-white man. We have a collective problem, and we need an entire movement overhaul.”

It’s possible that such a journey, seeing and experiencing all that she has, might have driven Romero Waldhorn onto a different path, but she says she remains “impact-focused and hungry for justice.” Today, she works as a researcher at Rethink Priorities, a think tank “dedicated to figuring out how to make the world a better place” where she investigates the potential for helping prawns and shrimps. It’s a strategic decision as it is estimated that these animals are killed in larger numbers for human consumption than any other. At the same time, she is studying for a PhD in social psychology to help inform a more evidence-based strategy for animal advocacy.

Activist, researcher, and lecturer Daniela Romero Waldhorn. Photo by Selene Magnolia / #unboundproject / We Animals Media.

This self-described “crazy cat lady who still believes deeply in human compassion” has found her role and her mission. Her twin strategy–helping the largest number of animals, while identifying the root causes of speciesism and potential ways to overcome it–is already an enormous contribution to the movement. And yet, perhaps, there is something else.

Romero Waldhorn has found her peace. She makes time to dance cumbia, walk in wild places, spend time with loved ones, and, yes, go to the beach. Her example of how we can each remain effective and committed while protecting ourselves from burnout might just be her greatest gift of all.

Interview and story by Kate Fowler. Photos by Selene Magnolia.

Rebecca Knowles

Rebecca Knowles

“Times are changing, indeed.”

Rebecca Knowles is that rare combination of gentle warmth that puts you at ease in a moment, fierce intellect that allows her to read scientific papers and pick out key messages, and fearless determination. It is a powerful mix and explains, perhaps, how this unsung hero has quietly, yet dramatically, driven up the visibility, acceptance and adoption of veganism in Scotland. And it all began many years ago with a stray dog in Japan.

Rebecca was working as an English teacher in Ibaraki prefecture where she found herself caring for three abandoned dogs and two cats. “Like most of my life, it wasn’t planned,” she says, but once she and her partner had nursed these needy animals through distemper and back to health, they could not let them go again. Rebecca had wanted to come home to Scotland, but could not bear the thought of the animals being quarantined for six months. That decided it. She and her American partner moved to the United States instead, settling in southern New Mexico at the foot of Mount Taylor – one of the four sacred Navajo mountains.

There, she trained as a Clinical Mental Health Therapist working in a variety of places including a group home for pregnant and parenting teenage girls, a large domestic violence shelter, the county jail, a women’s prison, an acute psychiatric hospital, and latterly owning her own health clinic.

Rebecca Knowles and Princess the rescue dogThey moved further south to live on the border of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and their three rescued dogs became eight, which meant they needed larger premises and some land.

“I went to view a place that sounded ideal,” says Knowles. “There was plenty of land for the dogs to roam around in and it was outside the city. There were also outbuildings. I asked the owner what she used them for. She opened the door to reveal wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling cages. She bred dogs. The noise was deafening and I was horrified.”

The owner was retiring and Rebecca asked her what she was going to do with all the dogs. The woman replied that she would keep a few, but that most would be put to sleep. Knowles was shocked. “Well, no one’s going to want to look after a bunch of old dogs”, the breeder replied, and without a thought, the words “I do” came from Knowles’ mouth.

She describes that instantaneous decision as “the most logical thing in the world”.

And that is how eight dogs became 40 overnight. “We tore out all the cages to find rodents in the walls, and then spent a lot of time trying to save wee baby mice! Then we were able to let the dogs out to run around on the grass. They had never touched the earth before, and never felt the softness of a blanket either. They went crazy! Rubbing themselves, rolling on their backs, and running around excitedly.”

Inevitably some of the dogs were pregnant, and so the work to care for them was only just beginning. Despite the stress of it all, and her work caring for humans in need, too, Knowles describes these dogs as “one of life’s gifts to me”.

El Paso gave Knowles another gift: she met her first vegan. She had been vegetarian since her time in Japan, when she woke up one morning with a troubling thought:

“If I say I’m an animal-lover, and yet I eat animals, I’m a hypocrite.”

She immediately became vegetarian, but knew nothing of the suffering in the dairy and egg industries until that fateful day she met a vegan in Texas.

It changed everything and she became involved in outreach and activism for farmed animals. She was part of the lobby group (Animal Protection Voters) that resulted in cock fighting finally being abolished in New Mexico. She volunteered with the Chihuahuan Desert Wildlife Relief, and was an active campaigner with Mercy for Animals and PETA. And yet she still wanted to come home.

As her old dogs reached the ends of their natural lives, she found she was able to contemplate bringing the rest home. There were “just” 15 dogs and two cats left.

They found a rental property in the Highlands that had enough land, and her husband, Vishnu, moved to the UK while Knowles initially remained in the US to begin the mentally and physically challenging rounds of paperwork, vet visits, bureaucracy, drilling holes in crates, booking flights, and overnight drives to Arizona that would eventually bring all their dear animals home to Scotland. “It felt like the biggest mountain I had ever climbed in my life,” she says.

“I thought, if I can do this, there’s going to be nothing in life that is too difficult.”

It was springtime when they arrived, and the fields were full of lambs. It was a sight Knowles hadn’t seen for a very long time. “I would give our neighbour lifts into Inverness,” she says “and she would go on about how sweet and adorable the lambs were and in exchange I would tell her the truth: four to six months – that’s the average life expectancy of one of these innocent, fun-loving creatures.”

And that’s how Vegan Outreach Scotland started, with just one woman wanting to tell people the truth. She made a Spring Lamb flier, and hit the pavements of Inverness handing them out and talking to people about this completely unnecessary suffering. “And it is unnecessary,” she says “because we need nothing from an animal’s body to live a happy, healthy life.”

A friend suggested she start a Facebook group. And since then, in the past three-and-a half years, the sole founder of Vegan Outreach Scotland has been joined by more than one thousand members in four branches across the country, from the Borders up to the Highlands.

Knowles is a calm voice, a rational and gentle person, who is utterly determined. She wins people over with her warmth and humour, and inspires them to take action in their personal lives and through outreach. She is also fearless, taking The Vegan Roadshow into the heart of the farming world – to agricultural shows and the Highland Games, as well as to galas, fairs, festivals, libraries, university campuses, supermarkets and high streets.

Since its inception, there has been a significant shift in the public’s reaction to her message. “Initially, people would ask what veganism was. Occasionally there was some wariness or even hostility towards us and surprise when people discovered we were nice and friendly. These days, everybody knows somebody who is vegan: an aunt, a sister, a son, a friend, a colleague. People already have a level of knowledge and are interested in learning more. Many vegans approach our stalls too, which was rare three years ago. People love our food samples, which we always have on our stands, and want to know where to buy them or how to make them.”

“Times are changing, indeed.”

You might think this enough of an achievement for one woman, but Knowles has much more to do. She understands that individual change is essential but the huge shifts will come when politicians understand the threat to the environment posed by animal agriculture. In early 2019, she launched a political campaign. She set up meetings with members of the Scottish Parliament to discuss the environmental impact of the food system and how repurposing land currently used for animal agriculture to instead grow crops for human consumption would not only provide greater food self-sufficiency and food security, but also free up the majority of Scotland’s agricultural land for native reforestation and ecosystem restoration. All of this would help Scotland achieve its ambitious climate change goals.

Knowles is not a professional campaigner or a political lobbyist, and still works her day job as a psychological therapist, but only a fool would bet against her driving changes on an even bigger scale than she has to date.

“Currently, we are lobbying for a seat on the Farming and Food Production Future Policy Group which comprises producers, consumers and environmental interest groups who will inform on and recommend a new bespoke policy on farming and food production in Scotland post-Brexit. Exciting stuff!”

And this immense change all began with one woman in a faraway country faced with three dogs who needed her help.

 

Photos by Julia Fraser – a Scottish photographer who creates pictures from her observations of the people and landscape of Scotland.


Interview and story by Kate Fowler – a freelance writer and PR and media specialist.