Mariska Hargitay’s Latest Passion for Women Includes Someone Else, Too

Updated: May 07, 2024

A tireless advocate for women's wellbeing onscreen and off, the veteran Law & Order: SVU star has teamed up with Purina to help even more of the voiceless.

From Taylor Swift and Lindsey Vonn to women of all backgrounds who, on some level, relate intimately to difficult personal situations, Mariska Hargitay could argue her fanbase is one of the most loyal in show business. As Law & Order: Special Victims Unit celebrates its 25th season, Hargitay celebrates a complementary career milestone: It’s been 20 years since she founded Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004. According to its website, the foundation “has been a leading national organization with a mission to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end this violence forever.”

Superfans may also be aware that outside her work playing Captain Olivia Benson, Hargitay once completed training as a rape-crisis counselor…and? She loves animals. (One of Taylor Swift’s cats is named Olivia Benson, and in turn during the 2023 leg of the Eras Tour, Hargitay announced on Instagram that she’d gotten a new cat and, in a mutual ode to Swift, had named it “Karma.”)

All these passions have culminated in her latest cause, for which Hargitay has teamed with Purina to unveil “Courageous Together”: A new statue by Kristen Visbal (pictured), the same artist who created the “Fearless Girl” statue in Lower Manhattan in 2017. With “Courageous Together,” Visbal depicts a woman and her dog, connected by a purple leash as they take a courageous first step forward—together—as survivors leaving their abuser. By raising awareness, Purina hopes to help drive fundamental change to the landscape of domestic violence services for survivors with pets, so no survivor has to choose between their own safety and the safety of their pet.

Artist Kristen Visbal with "Courageous Together"courtesy Movi, Inc.
Artist Kristen Visbal with “Courageous Together”

A representative for Purina tells us the statue was commissioned as part of the Purple Leash Project, an initiative led by Purina and the nonprofit, RedRover, that aims to help more domestic violence shelters become pet-friendly so that survivors with pets can escape abuse and recover together.

Currently, fewer than 20% of domestic violence shelters in the U.S. allow pets. “They say almost 50% of domestic violence victims delayed leaving because they couldn’t bring their dog,” Hargitay told us in an interview on May 6 about how for her, this latest undertaking is a long-needed way to promote awareness…and healing.

Mariska Hargitay's cat and dog, Karma And KaiaCourtesy Mariska Hargitay
Mariska Hargitay’s cat and dog, Karma And Kaia

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The Healthy by Reader’s Digest: We’re pet lovers; we know you’re a pet lover—thanks for letting us share a photo of your dog and cat! Have you gotten to hear stories of the difference that it makes when an individual is able to leave an unsafe home with their pet?

Mariska Hargitay: Absolutely. Absolutely I have. The one that comes to mind is the woman crying to me saying—Oh, it gets me emotional—”If I hadn’t had my dog. If I hadn’t had my dog.” That’s what she said. She couldn’t even finish. But it was her lifeline. It was her lifeline, literally her lifeline. That’s why when this campaign came to me, I just thought it was profound and such a beautiful and human and kind and generous and necessary, deeply necessary, part of how we can support domestic violence survivors’ healing.

It speaks to feeling safe, and just the idea that a survivor would have to choose between her own safety and that of her pet is insane … So what Purina is doing is innovative and kind and generous, and then it’s like afterwards we go, “Wait, why didn’t we do this a long time ago? Why didn’t somebody think of it a long time ago? So the fact that we’re moving toward making shelters pet-friendly is exciting and just calms my heart and makes us all be able to exhale a little bit.

Celebrity Sightings In New York - January 26, 2024Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images
Fans greet Hargitay in Manhattan during ‘SVU’ taping in January 2024.

The Healthy: To stop and take stock of how adored you are, how so many people see you as a source of strength and compassion who helps them navigate their own experiences…what do you think that says about the world we women are living in?

Mariska Hargitay: Well, when I started Joyful Heart 20 years ago, one of the goals is obviously to support survivors’ healing, but also transform the way society sees them, transform the way how survivors are met. And unfortunately, there’s not enough information out there about the neurobiology of trauma. That’s one of the things that is most important to me: To educate the public, the general public, and also law enforcement because I’ve learned so much about it. The fracturing that goes on with somebody’s memory, the fight or flight response—I deal with this a little bit in my film that I made called I Am Evidence for HBO, and talked about the backlog of untested rape kids. But so many people misinterpret how a survivor responds because they make up something in their head like, “Well, it was a real rape, she would’ve fought back.”

They don’t understand yet: A trauma response and what it means to freeze. So I think that when more people educate themselves, and that’s what I say when people say, What can I do? What can I do? I say, talk about these issues. Bear witness, learn how to listen to someone, believe survivors, but also to learn about the neurobiology of trauma, to learn what happens when somebody is assaulted, when somebody is traumatized, when somebody feels like prey. What happens in the animal kingdom with a predator and prey? What does the prey do? Freeze. You freeze. One of the comments that I heard that was so—I mean, it just took me out, and it’s in the film. Somebody in law enforcement actually said this. This woman was gang raped, and he said, “Well, she just laid there, so she must have liked it.”

And you just go, Whoa.

It’s hard to comprehend that somebody would say this, or they would be that out of touch or clueless. Also people don’t understand about rape—that I don’t know exactly the statistic, but it’s mostly acquaintance rape and not stranger rape. So that is also something for hard for people to understand. Consent needs to be taught in every school by every father, by every human being alive. That’s why I’m just so excited to be teaming up with Purina, because we have like-minded missions and we want to support survivors’ healing and make the world a little safer and have a little more humanity in supporting each other.

The Healthy: All those years ago, did you sense that Olivia Benson was going to give you such a clear purpose in your own life? I think that’s what we all admire so much: You could have just gone to work and done your job, but you’ve made this your life’s work.

Mariska Hargitay: Thank you. Thank you for that. I was really blown away by the statistics, and when I learned about them in the first year, I just couldn’t believe that everybody wasn’t talking about it. It’s an epidemic and this kind of violence that’s perpetrated on women, and that’s been accepted by patriarchy, and the fact that people have been shy to talk about these issues—I’ve wanted to shine a big light on it my whole life. I was lucky enough to have this platform to talk about it.

And the way that we move forward as a society is to talk about it and change it and not accept it. The power of women’s voices is unstoppable, and it’s so beautiful in chorus. So beautiful. So it’s been really a gift for me to learn about this and need to respond this way. And I think Joyful Heart was my answer to being immersed in these issues and needing to do something about it, needing to share the weight and see how I could help and join in the chorus of all these amazing women and these amazing survivors that have come forward and told their stories.

And to help educate and learn, to listen and educate, help educate men so they can drop into their humanity and do things differently. Just because it’s always been done that way doesn’t mean that it’s right. So it’s a journey, and I think that as we keep talking about it loudly with conviction and lovingly, and we’re going to change it.

"Law & Order: SVU" 25th Anniversary CelebrationVariety/Getty Images
Hargitay and co-stars Ice-T, Peter Scanavino, and Octavio Pisano at the “Law & Order: SVU” 25th Anniversary Celebration in January 2024

The Healthy: What is one self-care practice that you refuse to skip?

Mariska Hargitay: Well, I’m a big bath taker. I find that for me, I need water to settle my nervous system.

But I think that one of the biggest one is I only spend time with people that are good for my nervous system. That’s been a game-changer for me, of trusting my gut and trusting my intuition when I don’t feel right, no questions asked. I get out of the situation and I don’t spend time with the person because I trust my body’s wisdom, my body’s knowing. I trust my unconscious, all of that. And that’s been very honoring because listen: As women, we push through and constantly want to take care of everybody, but learning to have my own boundaries and that kind of self-care is making myself at least as important as the other person. That was a tough one for me.

Listening to my little quiet voice inside. That’s the way I want to encourage people to do, because if we’re real still and we listen, we know the answers.

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