LOS ANGELES — Pit bulls and parolees. Tia Maria Torres has opened her heart and home to the unwanted.
On 17 acres in the rugged terrain of Canyon Country, Torres provides a place to live or work for six parolees, 225 pit bulls, 204 volunteers, two French bulldogs, 19 cats, a husband and four kids.
Torres, 49, started Villalobos Rescue Center — the largest pit bull rescue in the United States — 14 years ago. She added ex-cons three years ago with prison pen pal and tattoo artist Aren Marcus Jackson, who would become her second husband.
But the rescue's been a money pit requiring creative financing. She tried to open a brothel to pay the bills, but it burned down. So now she's turning to reality TV — Animal Planet's "Pit Bulls and Parolees," which airs next month — to help cover the $20,000 in monthly bills (including a ton of dog food a week) and an ever-growing $25,000 vet tab.
Prostitution to help pit bulls?
If it had worked out otherwise, she jokes the show would have been called "Pit Bulls, Parolees and Prostitutes."
"I was almost a madam," Torres said. "Somebody told me then that I was trying to open a cathouse to support my doghouse."
Adoptions average 10 a month recently, but they are running close to their 250 capacity. "If I took every dog I got a call on, I'd be taking in 100 a week," Torres said.
Producer Michael "MikeyD" Dinco was a student in a pit bull class Torres taught years ago. During a visit after the parolee program started, he knew he had to film a TV pitch.
The show was developed around the time NFL quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting case showed how pit bulls had become victims of humans who electrocuted, drowned, beat and hanged them.
Changing pit bull stereotypes
"As horrible as it was, it changed everything for the pit bull. Shelters are looking at the dogs differently, the public has a lot more empathy and adoption rates are going up," Torres said. "The dogs that died at his hands were the sacrificial lambs. Almost like war heroes, they died for the rest of the dogs."
Even so, about 13,000 pit bulls were euthanized in Los Angeles County last year, city and county statistics show.
To some, the dogs will always be better off dead. Torres has been targeted by "haters" who picket her home, jam her e-mail and hound her.
They are outnumbered, though.
Opportunities for ex-cons
Parolee Armando Galindo, 39, has been with Torres for 16 months, after serving 3 1/2 years for forgery. A counselor referred him — it didn't matter there was no pay.
"I had given up hope basically," Galindo said. "All I needed was somebody to give me an opportunity and tell me I still had value and could do something with my life."
The television show will focus on the interaction of the dogs and men. "The dogs bring out the best in these guys," Torres said. Her daughters, — Tania, twins Kanani and Keli'i and Mariah — also star.
Animal Planet bills the show as "a chance at redemption, rehabilitation and rebirth for both man and man's best friend."
The parolees work for food, shelter, gas, cigarettes and the dogs. "We call them the baddest good guys in town. They are polite, thankful. They are two-legged versions of the dogs we take in," Torres said.
Only two of 20 have had to go back to prison.
Each episode will feature one dog, one rescue, one adoption and the drama and chaos at the center, located 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Torres' main dog, Lefty, is no stranger to show business. He appeared with Justin Timberlake in "Alpha Dog," the story of Jesse James Hollywood.
"Pit Bulls and Parolees" will also spend time in court, where her husband is fighting a possession of stolen property rap.
He and Torres became pen pals in 2001 while he was serving a 14-year sentence for a shootout with Orange County sheriff's deputies. They married on Halloween 2006 after he was paroled on the assault with a deadly weapon conviction. But he was arrested a year later and blamed when one of the parolees was found with a pair of driver's licenses, Torres said.
Bills have been harder to pay with him in jail. Last year, she refinanced her house and used grants, donations and her pay from training and boarding dogs.
Volunteers helped too — they come every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Carol Mallet, a Marie Callender's server from Lancaster, has been going every Saturday for 18 months.
"I didn't think I'd go back after the first time," she said. "But they get in your heart. They love you. There's no reason they should love human beings because they've been so horribly abused. Yet they do, unconditionally."
Torres said she grew up in an affluent neighborhood but ran away at 17, ending up in the San Fernando Valley living with friends. Her gangbanger boyfriend (her oldest daughter's father) was shot by rivals on his mother's doorstep, and although he survived, he disappeared when his daughter was 3.
Torres turned to youth counseling, spent six years in the Army and worked for Juvenile Hall. She also got her first pit bull, a 3-year-old she named Tatanka.
She learned about pit bulls from Tatanka and about parolees from Jackson. About the same time, Tatanka died and Jackson was jailed.
"It's tough," she said, "and if it's hard for me, I can imagine how it is for these dogs and the guys."
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