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Mariska Hargitay Shares Her Mission to Make Domestic Violence Shelters Pet-Friendly and Opens Up About Her 25-Year Role on ‘SVU’

Plus, learn about her own pets and how 'SVU' has been her "feminist story"

Over the course of her unprecedented 25 years (and counting!) as Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay has become a role model for countless women.

Playing a character who embodies strength and sensitivity as she investigates devastating crimes with care has given the actress a unique perspective on the traumas of the abuse that’s so devastatingly common for women. Off the screen, she’s made an effort to give back and use her platform to help victims.

In 2004, Hargitay started the Joyful Heart Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse survivors heal and working to create a future without sexist abuse. Now, the actress and activist is raising awareness about an overlooked but tragic issue: The difficulties women run into when leaving an abusive relationship and having to take a beloved pet with them.

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Hargitay has just partnered with Purina and RedRover, a nonprofit dedicated to helping animals in crisis, to support the Purple Leash Project, an initiative dedicated to making domestic violence shelters more pet-friendly. To spotlight this vital cause, they’ve unveiled “Courageous Together,” a statue showing a woman with her dog on a purple leash as they leave their abuser.

Mariska Hargitay at Purina's unveiling of “Courageous Together,” a new statue by Kristen Visbal
Mariska Hargitay with Kristen Visbal’s new sculpture “Courageous Together”MOVI, Inc.

The sculpture, by artist Kristen Visbal (known for the popular “Fearless Girl” sculpture in New York’s Financial District) was just unveiled in Times Square, and will then appear at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Queens, New York from May 11 to 14, before being taken on various stops around the country.

Mariska Hargitay spoke to Woman’s World about her involvement with this powerful project, being a pet parent and her long SVU journey.

Woman’s World: How did this partnership come about?

Mariska Hargitay:  I’ve been in this space for 20 years. It’s the 20th anniversary of Joyful Heart this year, and I think that Purina partnering with RedRover is so innovative. It’s an amazing way to support a survivor’s safety and healing.

What blew my mind was this statistic that almost 50% of survivors delay leaving their abuser because they’re concerned about the safety of their pets. It speaks to the importance of the pet to their own well-being. I thought that was a perfect microcosm of why this is so necessary, and it’s imperative that we do this work.

I thought the cause was genius, and was so excited to get involved. It’s just so human. The idea of somebody who’s already in the most difficult situation of their life, that they would then have to choose between their safety and their pet is not okay. It’s heartbreaking.

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Left to right: Artist Kristen Visbal, Purina CEO Nina Leigh Krueger, Mariska Hargitay and RedRover president and CEO Katie Campbell
Left to right: Artist Kristen Visbal, Purina CEO Nina Leigh Krueger, Mariska Hargitay and RedRover president and CEO Katie CampbellMOVI, Inc.

WW: You’ve seen the power of animals in your own life. Can you tell us a little about your own pets?

Mariska Hargitay: I have a rescue dog named Kaia and a Siamese cat named Karma. They get along so well. It was funny because we had our dog, and she’s part Shepherd, so she’s extremely protective of the five of us.

When we got the cat, people were like, “Okay, this is how you do it. You have to initiate them.” But the first time that we let her out, we wanted her to get used to her space, and we ended up not being worried about the cat, but about the dog.

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

Now they live for each other. My cat will be like, “I’m done with you,” and she’ll walk away and then the dog will be like, “Can we play more? Can we play more?” It’s just a beautiful relationship to watch.

My cat makes me really insecure. I try to get her to behave like a dog and have her come to me, but she makes me chase her. That’s the nature of the beast. 

WW: Your charity work has been informed by your SVU role. How do you feel Olivia Benson has evolved over the last 25 years?

Mariska Hargitay:  I’m in an extremely unique position to be able to grow a character for over 25 years. It’s this perfect feminist story in a way, because when I started on SVU, I didn’t know anything about law enforcement or these issues, and I was playing opposite an extremely powerful man who was number one on the call sheet.

On and off screen, I’ve been able to take an incredible journey of this character coming into her own and growing up before our eyes in terms of being a mother and a leader, and going up the ranks in a man’s world.

Mariska Hargitay celebrates the 25th anniversary of 'SVU' in 2024
Mariska Hargitay celebrates the 25th anniversary of SVU in 2024Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty

When I first got SVU, I knew that I wanted to do it my way, and I didn’t want to try to fit into the man’s world. I wanted to be the kind of detective that uses all her specifically feminine traits, her superpowers, because women do things differently than men do, and one of the ways that I wanted to do that was to really listen.

So I became a rape crisis counselor and I modeled the character as half cop, half rape crisis counselor. That’s informed the character that I play, and we’ve seen her grow into a leader and a boss lady.

WW: What kind of changes have you seen in the show as a whole?

Mariska Hargitay: Some people are like, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re still so invested,” or “I can’t believe you still love coming to work,” but she’s become a different character in a way, and there’s a different cast of characters.

Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson in 1999, the year 'SVU' debuted
Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson in 1999, the year SVU debutedHulton Archive/Getty

It’s been so beautiful, because in the first 12 years, the cast changed. We’ve had a revolving door of all these new cast members. In many ways, I feel like I’m on the same show, yet I’m on a different show, because I get to play with all these different energies. It’s never been boring, since I’m always still ultimately challenged.

I love it, and it’s difficult, and I take it so seriously and new issues always come up. I had different issues being a detective than being the captain of the NYPD sex crimes division.

WW: You’re also an executive producer on SVU and have directed episodes of the show. What has it been like stepping behind the scenes?

Mariska Hargitay: I always have my work cut out for me. Since I started directing and producing in 2015, I’ve had many more hats to wear on SVU, so that in itself is very challenging, to go from producer to executive producer to actor to director, and the last episode I directed, “Children of Wolves,” I also acted in quite a bit. I keep trying to push myself.

Mariska Hargitay directing an episode of 'SVU' in 2024
Mariska Hargitay directing an episode of SVU in 2024Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty
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