When your left shoulder is highlighted by a tattoo depicting a Hollywood-perfect image of Lon Chaney Jr. in his most famous role as The Wolf Man, and the late Chaney happened to be your godfather, you get some idea of how the wearer of this body art ended up in her present vocation.
The right shoulder? That spot sports the visage of a lantern-jawed pit bull, the dog America loves to hate and sometimes hates to love – but does it anyway. But this particular pit bull on the shoulder of Tia Maria Torres is a tribute to “Duke,” who earned his place on her skin when he rescued her from an attacking Rhode Island Red rooster.
After these first impressions of Torres, you know immediately her’s was a destiny written in the stars.
The red-haired, slender Torres is the “star” of “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” the reality television show offered up weekly (and seemingly daily) on the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet.
Torres was born in Southern California and spent most of her “50-ish” years there, and we’re not talking Bel Air. Rather we’re talking about “rural areas” and the neighborhoods of the Los Angeles gangs, a stint in the U.S. Army and on the floor of more than a few trailers after her first husband “began to beat me senseless on a nightly basis,” according to one story she told a friend. “Little did I know it was spawned by his crack cocaine abuse. Oh, God, I can’t even tell you how long that went on. A couple of years or more.”
Years later, she met her current husband, who is in a California prison on a bad rap, says Torres.
The story goes that it all happened during that early 1980s era when she was part of the vampire craze, thus she entered her “vampire period.” She was trying to track down the owner of a dog so he could release the dog to her. The owner was in a California prison. Torres used an “inmate locator” Internet site and eventually found the guy. They became pen pals and she was smitten when she ran across a photo of him and decided he “looked like a vampire.” Long story, short: he was released from prison and the two were married on Halloween 2006. He later was returned to prison on that “bum rap” where he remains.
Today, Torres sits on a chair in the yard of the Villalobos Rescue Center in a war zone area of the lower 9th Ward. It is a cool, sunny morning. She shakes her head and smiles as she recounts the strange odyssey that has been her life.
As she talks, a camera crew from “Pit Bulls and Parolees” is shooting for a segment to air sometime this summer. Scattered around the massive area that’s dotted with warehouse type buildings whose uses include kennels and kitchens, parolees in hard worn jumpsuits and young volunteers walk dogs and handle a variety of other chores.
“I grew up as a cowgirl on a ranch and was raised by my stepmom who was a single mom. She was a cowgirl, too. So animals were a part of my life from the very beginning. In fact, I didn’t know any other part of my life except animals. I did the typical things kids do; I had strays of every kind of animal you could think of. I started off working with wolf and dog mixes. My estranged brother who was in and out of my life showed up at my door one day with a wolfdog as a gift. Back in the late 1980s everybody in Los Angeles had a wolfdog. This was about the time the movie, White Fang came out and everybody wanted one.”
But like most fads, the wolfdog craze had a short life and all of a sudden people were looking to get rid of their animals.
“People heard that I had these wolfdogs and they started bringing theirs to me. Next thing you know, I’m a wolfdog rescue. That’s where I came up with the name, Villalobos Rescue Center because Villalobos means ‘village of wolves.’”
While on one of those rescue missions, Torres got a call about a shootout that left two cocaine dealers dead. These guys left behind their guard dog, a pit bull, tied to the axel of a truck. And just like that, Torres was in the pit bull saving business.
That business grew exponentially and what with pit bulls being the main cog in her burgeoning dog saving industry, not too many communities around Southern California were inclined to show a lot of humane hospitality.
“I moved out of L.A. County and bought property in the mountains. The weather and the desert were brutal, horrific. But I did everything by the book: I got my permits, and everybody seemed to be on board with us moving there. Literally, the day before we moved in and went to our meeting with the commissioner, they changed their mind.” She continues, “They decided we were dangerous and were a detriment to the neighborhood with our pit bulls and the parolees we were putting to work and helping to rehab. At that final hour they rejected our permit. So every penny I had saved and borrowed to buy this property, and I never got to live one day in that house. To say I was at the point of desperation would be putting it mildly.”
But the memory of post-Hurricane Katrina round trips from California to New Orleans to rescue dogs left homeless by the storm stuck in Torres’ mind.
“I remember those many trips to New Orleans and how, in spite of all the devastation, the people there were so incredibly friendly and welcoming. I particularly remember how pit bull-friendly New Orleans was. I had done my homework and looked at Arkansas and South Carolina as possible places for us to move. But I kept coming back to New Orleans. It was the people here. The people made up my mind. The police would stop by and wish us well and offer to help. Fire trucks stopped and the fireman said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood!’ The SPCA said we need you here. The mayor’s office even sent somebody to welcome us to the city. We had four feet of trash covering everything when we got here. We moved 33,000 square feet of trash with some old shopping carts we found in one of our buildings. Men came in after they left work to help us. The trash company donated a big dumpster. Restaurants donated food.” She continues, “My mind was made up. When we settled on this building we were told this neighborhood was where the bodies were dumped and where the cars with the bodies in them were burned. But the people from all over this neighborhood came over and welcomed us and offered to help us clean up. In California, the ranch we lived at for 17 years, we had neighbors we never met. That’s just the California way. Here in New Orleans everybody wanted to chip in. I love these people!”
Just about as much as she loves her dogs – and not just pit bulls. Torres has taken in just about everything from German shepherds to Chihuahuas. She has even landed a “hospice … a house in the country,” as she puts it, so dogs that are terminal or are considered un-adoptable can live out their years in the open and won’t have to die alone in a kennel. “It breaks my heart to just think of that,” she says. “Now, we know, they’ll be with their friends.”
Tia Torres’ Villalobos Rescue Center is home to about 250 dogs on a good day, and the cost of keeping all this up and running costs about $45,000 a month – all paid for by donations. “I have to really watch my pennies,” says Torres, who starts her day at 7 a.m. and ends it around 2 a.m. the next morning, seven days a week. And when you show amazement that she lives in an office at the kennel since Hurricane Isaac wiped out her house, she just shrugs here shoulders in one of those “I’ve been down and out before,” type gestures. “And with the type of people we have in New Orleans … well, you know a good day can’t be far behind.”
Even Lon Chaney Jr., coming off a bummer of a full moon trip, would have to agree with that.