“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.
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.
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.