Grandma covers her body in tattoos of endangered animals to help save the planet (2024)

A 67-year-old woman is doing her bit to spread awareness about the plight of endangered animals by getting them tattooed all over her body.

Grandmother Debi Altfillisch McGregor, from Fontana, California, has always adored animals. The pensioner worked as a vet technician for 28 years, as well as working at a dog and cat adoption centre and animal hospital, and being the manager of a boarding kennel for 15 years.

Over the past few years, Debi has discovered her own novel way to bring more attention to the animals that are on the brink of extinction.

‘I have been trying, in my own way, to show and support endangered animals by having them tattooed on me,’ Debi tells

‘I had my latest one done in April, an Asiatic Bear, in watercolor.

‘I also have a group tattoo on my right arm with an elephant, polar bear, gorilla, pandas, a macaw, a toucan, a zebra and a white tiger.

‘I have an ocelot and a giraffe on my left arm and an extinct Javan rhino and a chimp as well.’

Debi got her first tattoo in her early 30s – a butterfly in a crescent moon – after splitting from her then husband, who didn’t approve of her love of ink.

‘Although he had tattoos himself, he didn’t think it was something women should do or have,’ says Debi. ‘I did it behind his back.

‘Since birth I have been around and loved animals. I have always believed in caring for all living beings and I am appalled that in 2021 so many animals are on the vulnerable, critical or endangered status list.’

Debi’s first endangered animal tatt was her extinct Javan rhino which is on her back and was designed by her youngest son around 25 years ago. Then, 18 years ago, she added a chimpanzee to her back as well.

‘Unfortunately, being in the sun unprotected has made them not as nice as the newer ones,’ she explains.

‘I chose endangered animals years ago because I couldn’t stand thinking about seeing any of those animals gone from our planet. I didn’t want my grandkids to only be able to see these magnificent animals in books.

‘It boggles my mind that some human beings are still of the mindset that bear bile or tiger penis powder or rhino horn powder are going to make them more virile.

‘Rhinos are in trouble because poachers take their horns. Environmentalists thought that if they cut the rhinos horns the poachers would stop. But what happened is that the female rhinos stopped caring for their young when their horns were cut. It’s just heartbreaking.’

Debi says her goal in getting covered in tattoos is get people talking.

‘I want people asking questions and being more proactive in saving any species that are in trouble or are endangered,’ says Debi.

‘People stop me in stores to comment on how beautiful they are, how colorful they are, or to comment on how realistic they look. Conversation started.

‘I love seeing the animals on my arms every day. I love the colors. I always need more colour!’

The animal collage on Debi’s arm took months to complete, and there are certain complications that come with having so many tattoos.

‘On some parts of my arms, usually the tops around the wrist and up to my elbow, I bleed under the skin,’ says Debi.

‘It’s because my skin is older. It never hurts but it looks ugly for a few days afterwards. I know it makes my tattoo artist Katie nervous whenever she works in that area.’

Debi says that it is usually other people who have tattoos who tend to comment on her body art.

‘My neighbors, none of them have tattoos, so even though they see them, it’s not a topic of conversation with us.’

But she says her granddaughter gets particularly excited whenever she gets a new one.

‘She has one as well, but she’ll probably get more. She’s into piercings,’ says Debi.

‘I read once that people either like tattoos or piercings, but not many people like both. But I do. I have my ears pierced and my tongue pierced. I did my tongue when I was about 50 years old. To each their own.’

Debi says she is pleased to see that attitudes about tattoos are improving, and their is now less stigma and judgement than when she was younger.

‘I think in the last 20 years, more women are getting tattooed,’ she says.‘Until I retired in 2008, I didn’t let my tattoos show when I wore my smocks at work just because it wasn’t “respectable” to have tattoos showing everywhere.

‘In early 1994, I applied at a big new pet outfit and I had tats that could be hidden. The guy who interviewed me had tattoos, but he wouldn’t hire me because of mine.

‘Now because I am getting older, I’m sort of rushing to get mine done to get the message out that so many animals are running out of time and need your help now.’

Debi has donated to the World Wildlife Fund every year for two decades, and she recently joined Animals Asia to help save bears from the bear bile industry.

‘That’s why my last tattoo was an Asiatic bear,’ she says. ‘I can’t not do anything! It feel like when I go out, I’m a flag waving, saying “Look, look! See these animals – they need your help!”‘

Animals aren’t the only adornments on Debi’s skin, she also has moving tributes to people she has loved and lost.

‘Ihave a memorial tat of a hummingbird for my childhood friend Lisa who died from ovarian cancer in March 2020,’ says Debi. ‘My oldest son died by suicide in May this year, so I plan on adding a memorial tat for him at some point.

‘I also have my biological siblings names on my right forearm. I was adopted at birth and wasn’t told. In my 50s, I found out I was adopted and went in search of the three living siblings I knew about.

‘I discovered I had another sister and a younger brother who they didn’t even know about who was also placed for adoption. I met my two oldest siblings in 2018 and found my brother in 2019.

‘One older brother passed at 10 months old in 1952 and two sisters don’t want contact with me at all. So three out of five isn’t too bad.

‘I also have the birth flowers of my two boys and my three grandchildren on my left arm.’

Her advice for other people who are interested in getting tattoos – absolutely go for it. But make sure you do your homework.

‘Not all tattoo artists are created equal,’ she says. ‘Look at their previous work, what are their specialties? Look around. Tattoos are permanent, so take your time.’

Do you have any amazing tattoos to share? We want to hear from you.

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Grandma covers her body in tattoos of endangered animals to help save the planet (2024)
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