Mariska Hargitay Joins Effort to Make Domestic Violence Shelters Pet-Friendly So Families Can 'Heal Together' (Exclusive)

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As part of her work with the Purple Leash Project, the "Law and Order: SVU" star unveiled a new statue from the sculptor of "Fearless Girl"

<p>MOVI Inc</p> Mariska Hargitay with the "Courageous Together" statue by Kristen Visbal

MOVI Inc

Mariska Hargitay with the "Courageous Together" statue by Kristen Visbal

When Mariska Hargitay learned that almost fifty percent of domestic violence survivors delayed leaving their abuser because they didn't want to leave their pet behind, the Law and Order: SVU star took action.

"That fifty percent of survivors have to choose between their own safety and the safety of their pet is just untenable," the beloved star, advocate, and pet lover tells PEOPLE.

So she partnered with the Purple Leash ProjectPurina and RedRover's initiative to make domestic violence shelters more pet-friendly.

"For survivors after being physically hurt, the number one affliction is isolation," says Hargitay, 60. "And the idea of supporting a survivor's healing with their animal, that they could heal together was just so beautiful to me."

As a survivor herself and the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation — a nonprofit with a mission to transform society's response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse — she's long fought to help others heal.

<p>MOVI Inc</p> Mariska Hargitay helped Purina unveil "Courageous Together," a new statue by Kristen Visbal in support of the Purple Leash Project

MOVI Inc

Mariska Hargitay helped Purina unveil "Courageous Together," a new statue by Kristen Visbal in support of the Purple Leash Project

"A survivor having to choose between their own safety and the safety of their pet speaks to women and their nurturing essence –  and loving their pet as they would a child, that unconditional connection, it's so human," Hargitay adds.

On May 6, Hargitay unveiled a new statue in New York City's Times Square as part of her work with the Purple Leash Project. The artwork "Courageous Together" depicts a woman and her dog, connected by a purple leash, taking the first step forward together. Artist Kristen Visbal, known for the "Fearless Girl" statue, created the piece, which will travel to various locations across the country, including the 2024 Westminster Dog Show.

Related: Lucy Hale Wants to 'Shine a Light' on the 'Silent Issue' of How Domestic Violence Affects Pets

"It is elegant, powerful, and strong," says Hargitay of the sculpture commissioned as part of the Purple Leash Project.

"It has a way of starting a conversation with this woman, taking the courageous step forward with her beloved pet, looking at her, like, 'I got you, and I'm with you. No matter what.'" she continues, adding that the work is "so meaningful to me."

<p>MOVI Inc.</p> Mariska Hargitay with the "Courageous Together" statue in New York City

MOVI Inc.

Mariska Hargitay with the "Courageous Together" statue in New York City

As Hargitay has demonstrated in her own life, facing challenges is about taking the first step. The actress encourages others to join her in supporting the Purple Leash Project to help protect survivors and their pets.

"The first thing people can do is go to Purina.com/together and learn more about the Purple Leash Project, but also have conversations," she says. "Don't be afraid to talk about domestic violence and start a community – and listen. It's so important, especially with sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, to really learn how to listen and be present for somebody. Because when somebody bears witness to you, that is just a huge piece of their healing."

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The pet owner of dog Kaia and her cat, Karma, Hargitay, understands the connection and support a pet can give.

Related: Mariska Hargitay Celebrates 25 Years of Law & Order: SVU and Turning 60: 'This Powerful Woman Emerged' (Exclusive)

"At home, I found that with myself, and with my children especially, and my husband, when one of us is sick or when [her youngest son] Andrew's not feeling well, Kaia will go jump on his bed. And it's always mind-blowing to me how this animal is so intuitive and naturally protects and gives this unconditional love," she shares.

She's also experienced it. Says Hargitay, "Sometimes, even if I'm sad or have had a hard day, I can feel Kaia's watchful, empathetic, compassionate, protective gaze."

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