There’s a degree of celebrity afforded to the star of any TV show that’s been on cable for four seasons. And Tia Maria Torres doesn’t want any part of it.
“People say that, and I just don’t see myself as [a celebrity],” she says. “I’m not. I just pick up dog crap and play with dogs.”
Torres is the star of Pit Bulls & Parolees, an Animal Planet series that just finished its fourth season. The show follows her family, a revolving cast of ex-convicts looking for a fresh start, and the more than 150 Pit Bulls at the Villalobos Rescue Center in New Orleans. The dogs and their handlers are metaphors for one another: misunderstood, marginalized, the most deserving of a second chance, and the least likely to get one.
Torres’ compassion for underdogs began with a hardscrabble upbringing in southern California. “Without getting into all of the details, I ended up crossing over to the wrong side of the tracks, and I ended up hanging out with a rough crowd,” she says. Torres joined the Army to straighten her life out. When she was discharged, she worked as a counselor for the city of Los Angeles, helping gang members leave the lifestyle she also craved as a teenager. “This kind of genre of people has always been in my life,” she says.
An enduring passion for animals led Torres to initially found Villalobos in California in the early 1990s as a sanctuary for wolves and wolf-dog crosses (the name translates to “village of wolves”), but that all changed after a chance visit to an animal shelter.
Tatanka was a Pit Bull who was brought in from the scene of a double homicide — she was the guard dog. She was bound by “ropes and an entourage of animal control officers, like she was some African lion,” Torres recalls. The dog slipped free and ran toward Torres’ young daughters, who were sitting on a wooden bench. Panicked, Torres tried to reach her daughters. The dog tackled them onto the grass — and started licking their faces, eliciting a chorus of squeals and laughter from her daughters.
Instantly, Torres knew the myths that surrounded — and, to a large degree, still surround — Pit Bulls were bogus. She added the animals to her sanctuary’s population. Eventually, the breed became the sole occupants of the Southern California shelter. After meeting her husband, Aren, through a prison letter-writing program, Villalobos began employing parolees to work for the organization.
It turned out to be a great premise for a reality TV show. Production companies came calling in 2007 after LA Weekly profiled Torres and Villalobos, which was then operating in Los Angeles County, with offers of creating a reality show. The shelter’s finances were especially tight at the time, so Torres gave the project her blessing — as long as she was kept out of the spotlight. When a network representative became captivated by the novelty of a woman running a Pit Bull rescue that employed parolees, Torres knew she had to step in front of the camera to get the show sold. “Very reluctantly, pissed off, hiding behind dark sunglasses, I’d go to these meetings and act like I cared,” she says. “And here we are.”
Pit Bulls & Parolees depicts life in what is perhaps the largest Pit Bull rescue in the country: The dogs whose hard-luck stories brought them to the kennels, the eager adopters who want to take them home, the parolees’ successes and setbacks, and the day-to-day existence of Torres, her daughters, and adopted sons.
While Torres accepts that her show might have played a small part, she credits the rehabilitation of the dogs from the Michael Vick case for the changing public perception of Pit Bulls. Still, she says more Pit Bull owners need to be honest about the traits inherent in the breed. “Contrary to what the people who wear rose-tinted glasses seem to think, it is not all in how you raise them. It’s genetics. That said, I’m not saying [certain traits] can’t be curbed or can’t be managed. With any breed of dog, temperament is based on so many different factors.”
Pit Bull owners also inherit a unique set of responsibilities. By virtue of their power and presence, Pit Bulls -– even the well-behaved ones –- are easy targets for blame in dog-park scuffles in ways that Dachshunds and Chihuahuas never will be. “We have a saying in the Pit Bull world: Our dogs may not start the fight, but they’re definitely gonna finish it,” she says. “So why set them up for failure?”
For Torres, being part of the Animal Planet line-up has drawbacks as well as upsides. There’s the amount of time that goes into filming each episode, which might otherwise be devoted to running Villalobos itself. “People think that the cameras just follow you around. It is sooo not like that,” she says.
There’s also the fame that Torres could do without. She’s not comfortable talking with large groups of people. And sometimes, fame can be scary: Torres says that once, while she was out walking one of the dogs, an overzealous fan tackled her to the ground and had to be physically pried off. Those aren’t the sorts of things that get mentioned in pitch meetings.
But there are upsides to being a reluctant celebrity. The adoption rate at Villalobos has gone up “tremendously,” Torres says. The money from the show — and from gifts like Animal Planet’s $50,000 donation from last November’s You Watch, We Give event — helps keep the lights on at the shelter. And then there’s the underlying message, delivered to millions each Saturday night: Whether you have tattoos and a criminal record or cropped ears and a wet nose, you deserve a second chance. That’s a message worth stepping in front of the camera to make.
Do you know of a rescue hero — dog, human, or group — we should profile on Dogster? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.