Tia Torres of the hit Animal Planet show, Pitbulls and Parolees, is a brand new NolaWoman, having only moved here just over a year ago. Torres and her team at the Villalobos Rescue Center, which includes her two daughters, two adopted sons and a crew of volunteers and parolees—all featured in the show—are now set up in the Ninth Ward on North Claiborne Avenue. The space is decked out New Orleans style with beads adorning the surrounding fence; there’s also purple, green and gold paint covering the interior walls and Mardi Gras masks hanging above each dog’s kennel.
“New Orleans is—well, talk about The Friendly City—we love it here. We’ve had nothing but wonderful reception,” said Torres when I sat down with her outside the Villalobos shelter. Her t-shirt and sunglasses both boasted fleur-de-lis emblems. “The people force you to be friendly! You have no choice but to hug. It’s a very infectious area.”
Raised solely by her stepmom, Torres learned at a very young age the difference between obligation and veneration: she knew that, often, obligations fall through, and it is the people with real love and passion in their hearts that are able to keep a family together. For Torres, that passionate person was her stepmother. “My stepmother, by trade, was a nurse,” said Torres. “She was a caregiver. So, I guess that just kept going with me. That being said, she—like myself—was very guarded when it came to people. So I guess, in taking on the parolees, I felt somewhat safe around them…they’re the same way.”
Though Torres never broke the law herself, she felt connected to men who did because they shared her suspicious demeanor. “It’s more than just cleaning up dog kennels and working with dogs,” said Torres, explaining the benefits of the program she founded called Underdawgz Inc., which employs men on parole in order to give them a second chance. Through taking care of and bonding with these dogs—specifically Pitbulls—who also are in need of new beginnings, many of the men develop a new appreciation for hard work and life out of prison.
According to Torres, Pitbulls struggle to find homes because they are perceived to be vicious dogs that will attack humans on a whim but that is not the case. Historically, Pitbulls were ranch dogs of different breeds, including terriers and bulldogs, which is where they get their tenacity and tendency to be feisty with other animals. “Over in England, they decided to make a spectator sport out of turning the dogs on bulls,” Torres explained. “Then, when the Animal Welfare Act came in, it became difficult to hide a bull in an area, so they decided to pit the dogs against each other.”
Although the dogs can exhibit aggression towards other animals since they are so often abused, Pitbulls are very rarely aggressive towards humans. “They’re bred to be resilient, and they’re bred to be good with people,” said Torres. “Everywhere you read it, the experts—the AKC, the UKC, veterinarians—will tell you that Pitbulls are great with kids. Yes, you’ll have bad seeds, but guess what? You have bad seeds with people, too.”
Torres and her team are dedicated not only to giving misplaced dogs a home, but also to giving certain human “bad seeds” a chance to be good again. “I am very vocal that I will not hire a sex offender (rapists or child molesters),” said Torres. “If you talk to the experts, the criminal psychologists and criminal psychiatrists, they tell say that there is no cure for sex offenders. So, if you’re the expert, you know more than I do, and I’ll believe you.” Torres’ men’s crimes range from petty thefts to murders, but they all have one thing in common: “We’ve never once had a problem with the guys [at the shelter]. Not once.”
The Villalobos team, originally based in Agua Dulce California, didn’t start with their story broadcasted on a reality television show. That bit didn’t come until later, when Torres and her family were struggling with the down economy and a community that resisted their presence. “At the same time this was going on, a big magazine out in Los Angeles just randomly did this thing called the Ten Most Important People in Los Angeles, and we got picked as one of them,” Torres said, clearly still in disbelief that she made the list. “Next thing you know, we’re getting calls from all these producers saying, ‘Hey, we want to do a reality show on you!’”
Torres was thrilled to promote the shelter and the Underdawgz program as well as to get some funding so she could put some real food on the table for her family. She also wouldn’t have to feed hotdogs to her Pitbulls anymore, as they had been forced to do for awhile with such little money. She was excited to start the process of getting the Villalobos story on the air.
“After pitching it to a couple of networks, somewhere along the way, someone said, ‘Who runs this place?’” Torres explained. When the producers found out that it was a "lady" who was in charge of all these dogs and “dangerous” men, they said, “You have to [be on the show]. That’s what’s going to sell it.” Torres said it was the most uncomfortable feeling in the world. As an extremely shy woman, she never wanted to be a television star. Nevertheless, she knew she had no choice in the matter and reluctantly took one for the team.
The success of the show, Pitbulls and Parolees, has turned out to be an amazing blessing for Torres, her family, the parolees she employs and the dogs she saves. The show has brought great publicity to the true nature of a breed, about which so many people have misconceptions, and created a new awareness for Villalobos’ cause. Torres is so happy to bring that awareness to New Orleans, which is a city brimming with her favorite dogs, especially due to misplacement after Katrina.
“The city of New Orleans is like a Pitbull,” said Torres. “It’s a very resilient city, it’s a very friendly city…it’s a city that’s willing to kick ass, you know, and stand by what it believes in. It’s also a very forgiving city and a very welcoming city. And that’s all the qualities of a Pitbull. It works out perfect that we’re here.”
The Villalobos Rescue Center is a non-profit, running solely on donations. Click here to make a contribution. You can also visit their site for more information on the shelter or to inquire about adopting one of their beautiful, friendly dogs.
All photos were taken by Elizabeth Mardiks.