Rachele Totaro is a photographer and vegan activist from Italy. I got to know her work through her beautiful portraits of former laboratory rats. In this interview she talks about her journey into veganism and her volunteer work for several organisations. And also about the animals she captures in her photographs: the donkeys from the Donkey sanctuary, the rats who were used in laboratories and why she likes to focus on photographing older and disabled animals.
Hello Rachele, you are a photographer and vegan activist in Italy. Can you tell us some more about your background?
Hello! I’m 37, I live near Turin with my husband and our rescue dog Skid Biancospino. I work in the communications field (by the way, got my advanced degree with a dissertation about how animal welfare charities communicate worldwide) and writing is my main job, but photography is my burning passion – or, to use a Japanese word I really love and that totally fits, it is my ikigai.
Some of the random things I love are books, Alt-Rock music (Smashing Pumpkins are my favourite band), walking outdoors, concerts, ironic intelligent people, vegan food (I’m lucky I live near to the most vegan friendly Italian city), poppies, tattoos and animals of course 🙂
When and why did you become interested in veganism and animal rights?
I had always felt committed to animals since I was a child. I’ve become vegetarian at 20 and vegan at 30, 7 years ago, even if in my last 4-5 years as a vegetarian I had cut off almost every food coming from animals – but you know, there was always that little scary bit preventing me to take the final step. I know it sounds a bit funny nowadays and maybe it makes me look older than I am, but even just let’s say 15-10 years ago, “vegetarians” were seen as freaks – not to mention vegans. Not that being considered a freak ever scared me 🙂 It was just more challenging, perhaps. Now there are so many more opportunities to be informed and honestly I think it is also simpler to live compassionate and make the right choice.
Apart from a personal sensibility towards animals, two milestones for my evolution involved two non-human animals. One was a rabbit, Johnny. He was one of my best friends and teachers in life, about being curious and brave (yes, I’ve learnt it from a bunny) and dealing with such a special critter than many would have considered “food” (in Italy rabbit meat is still very popular) was a way to “take off the veil” and make a connection. I felt totally uncomfortable at eating meat but the very last straw that made me take that final step was a close meeting with two lambs. I’ve always adored sheep and that day, 17 years ago, while I was coming at my parents’ home after a walk in the countryside, I noticed two small lambs in a field. I called them and… they came to me. They were curious, trustful, friendly, two babies. I took their faces in my hands and pledged I would never eat flesh again in my life. I don’t make promises usually, but I was sure I would keep that one I made to myself – and it’s one of the best choices I took in my life.
You published a series of beautiful photos of rats used in laboratories, who were rescued and adopted and went outside for the first time. What’s the story behind that?
First of all thank you so much for your appreciation!
For some years I have volunteered as a photographer for La Collina dei Conigli, an Italian charity rescuing and taking care of retired “lab animals” – this is laid down in the Italian regulations and totally legal, even if it requires a lot of efforts in terms of expenses, spaces and volunteers. Anyway: I realized six photographic calendars for them, having rescued rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and rats as models. I have also realised a trilogy of pictures inspired by books and novels, which had a great resonance in the media and helped a lot to raise awareness about these special critters and the precious job of La Collina’s volunteers. In the last year, I decided to “show the reality”, which can be as magical as fiction (and sometimes more): so I realised natural shots, showing the reactions of my little models taken out from the cages and seeing what was outside for the first time, encouraged by the helping hands of volunteers. Even when rescued from labs, these critters spend their time in cages (which are of course full of enrichments, kept clean and safe, but always cages) waiting for adoptions, even if sadly the number of rats and mice looking for a family is definitely low in comparison to wannabe adopters. So it was emotional for them to see the grass, the trees, to smell the fresh air outdoors, to feel the sun on their fur (it was a warm sunny day, the perfect day to experience how beautiful this world can be!). And it was emotional for me and the volunteers as well.
By the way: I think that mice and yet more rats are amazing models! They are handsome, interact a lot, are not afraid of the camera (even if it’s the first time they see one), and often they pose like professional models. Many people are still afraid of them, saying that they are evil or dirty (which is totally untrue): with my pictures I try to show how they really are and to showcase their beauty.
You are also activist for Heart Speak Network, a non-profit organization that’s uniting art and advocacy to increase the visibility of shelter animals. What’s your involvement?
I’m really proud to be involved in such a beautiful project, gathering amazing artists from all over the World! As a volunteer photographer, I provide high quality photos to animal shelters and sanctuaries: a good picture drastically increases the chance of adoption and I’m really proud that such a little commitment has the power to change lives. HeARTs Speak motto is “Seen = Saved” and this project has already impacted nearly 350,000 animals in 21 Countries.
I’m also a member of the new Italian network Artists United for Animals, a group of musicians, actors, writers, photographers gifting their art to raise awareness about animal welfare.
A good picture drastically increases the chance of adoption and I’m really proud that such a little commitment has the power to change lives.
I saw that you also take pictures for the donkey sanctuary ONLUS. Can you share some stories of the animals who made a special impression on you? (or maybe also from the shelter animals ^)
Of course there are so many! One of them involves Trilli: she was a tiny, fluffy filly ten years ago, when I first met her, during a very hard time in my life. There were so many visitors at the donkey sanctuary calling her by her name, trying to draw her attention. I was just standing there in silence, with a smile, and she chose to come to me: I’m sure she knew I needed her little gesture of affection, it was like saying “You will succeed, I’m by your side!” 🙂 Another donkey I carry in my heart is Ardito. He was rescued after being kept for a whole year in a tiny dark dirty shed, he was skinny and covered in slices, with curved hooves… but he was a kind, friendly giant even in those hard times. Now he’s fully recovered and his external look finally reflects his inner beauty.
Talking about other models, many left a deep impresssion on me. Just to mention three: Indiana Jane, a baby New Zealand rabbit found on the street, probably escaped from the lorry bringing hundreds of rabbits (her mum and siblings included) to the abattoir. She was homed at La Collina for a while, had a unique look (her face was flattened and a bit crooked) but yet more unique was her light – you know, one of those shining creatures enlightening everything around. She’s been happily adopted now. Console Marcello, The White Rabbit in Alice’s photoshoot, a New Zealand rabbit used in lab testing, as you could guess from the number tattooed on his ear: despite his hard past, he was majestic, brave and trustful. And Paquita, “the Little Mermaid”: a sweet guinea pig with a paralysis, which did not change her lust for life and for food. But every one of them has a special place in my heart.
Older and disabled animals have a lesser chance of being adopted. Is this a statement that you can confirm given your experience in animal rescue work?
Sadly yes, many people are looking for the “perfect” pet – with perfect meaning young (very young: dogs and cats even less than one year old are often considered too old!), in excellent health, good-looking. It’s harder for disabled animals to leave their shelter, but honestly many disabilities are not so hard to deal with, and their impact is most in people’s mind than in disabled animal’s life. As in every field of life, knowledge is the key: getting informed about disabilities or a specific issue can downsize the fear and help you see beyond.
Talking about my personal experience: my dog Biancospino has waited 2 years to be adopted just because he’s a Double-merle, deaf and vision impaired. He’s a good big boy, always happy, loyal, sweet and friendly with every being, and a great communicator despite his disability. This is what those who rejected him just because he’s a special need dog have been missing.
I’m also a firm promoter of the adoption of senior pets. Getting to spend many years with a pet is a blessing, seeing her or him becoming old… it totally breaks my heart when elderly animals are dumped like waste in a shelter or still worse. That’s why a good part of my pictures are dedicated to highlight the beauty of oldies, and the reason I have started my personal project Progetto Goldies to tell the stories of old or terminally ill pets and their people, pointing out not the sadness, but the love that those lives bring and, again, to show how precious sharing life with a senior or disabled animal can be.
What is the core message in your activism?
I decided to focus on beauty of animals, especially the ones subjected to lots of prejudices (being old, disabled, considered as “second-class” and sometimes pests), to point it out for everyone and try to let people see with my eyes. My pictures are not bloody or gore, there are many excellent others witnessing the evil in the relationship between humans and animals; I want to show something else.
I think empathy is the key to respect. If you try to put yourself in another skin, you will understand and feel more – and hurt less. Eyes are often the focus in my pictures, because I think that when you look someone in their eyes, even through a photograph, something magic happens, a deep connection based on honesty and sincerity – the first seed to let empathy grow.
Rachele Totaro – Interview CripHumanimal
– Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQ+ vegans, vegans of colour, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –