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 has 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.
Adoptions averaged 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.
“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.
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.
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.