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Tia Maria Torres 

Underdogs

Wednesday, May 9 2007
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{mosimage}When Lefty first hit the streets of L.A. he had a bright-eyed swagger. But it wasn’t long before he found himself homeless, wandering the streets for handouts and foraging food from trash cans. He turned violent and hit bottom when he was tossed into a cell with five other inhabitants who fought tooth and claw. Through the steel bars, ears deaf to the howling around him, he stared out at a world that had once held such promise.

That’s when Lefty met Tia Maria Torres. Many people said Lefty couldn’t be rehabilitated, that his kind were just plain dangerous and couldn’t be taught to live a better life. Torres didn’t agree. Within a year, Lefty was working with Nick Cassavetes on his film Alpha Dog, with co-stars Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone. Not bad for a “killer” pit bull.

A.J. is a man who actually did try to kill somebody. On parole, he’s in Torres’ living room preparing a tattoo of his favorite pit bull. Five years ago, while still in prison, he made plans to start his life over again, and now works with pits like Lefty under Torres’ guidance. He’s holding a penciled outline of a dog’s face, drawn freehand. It’s a worn face, with scars and bald patches, but the eyes still have fire.

“You only have to see what animals can do to the human psyche. It’s just unbelievable to watch,” Torres says. “The fact that I’ve chosen these people at risk and then the dog of choice happens to be pit bulls — you’ve got the two, what we’ve now dubbed the underdogs of the canine world and the human world, and we’ve put them together. They can relate to each other. They know what it feels like to be stereotyped; they know what it feels like to be shunned.”

Overlooking the expanse of her compound just outside Agua Dulce in the Santa Clarita Valley, Torres is all about the underdog. Her home anchors the Villalobos Rescue Center, where right now it’s quiet. Only a few clipped barks crackle through the air, but 200 pit bulls can make quite a racket when they want to.

Here the pit bulls and their parolee handlers get a second chance. For some, it’s a last chance. In a city where nearly 70 percent of shelter dogs are pit bulls, lucky ones like Moose are rescued and retrained by Torres and now appear in music videos with the likes of J-Lo. Zeus left the South L.A. shelter for the set of CSI: New York. In all, Torres has trained more than 300 pit bulls from every corner of the city.

And she couldn’t have done it without the parolees. After five years in the program, ex-con Moe has completed his parole, shot a commercial for Adidas and gets movie work with Torres’ dogs. Felicia, still on parole, works at the nearby Brittany Foundation All-Breed Dog Rescue. Of the 15 parolees who’ve come through Torres’ program in recent years, only one has returned to prison.

“Originally, we met a woman at the parole office out here in Lancaster, and I told her what I did, and I told her that I was interested in hiring a couple of parolees at my dog kennel,” Torres says. “She asked what kind of dogs do I have. That’s always the million-dollar question that I hate to answer: ‘Uh, pit bulls.’ She goes, ‘Aww, that’s nice!’ I knew this was going to be okay, because I’m with my own people here. They’ve got an office full of pit bulls — they all walk on two legs, though. The next thing I know, she’s calling me every day.”

Torres sits alertly on her couch, three black cats weaving in and out of her crossed arms. She wears a cutoff T-shirt emblazoned with a pit bull in profile underneath blue lettering: “RACISM IS THE PITS.” Her house is a maze of partitioned sections — some for the dogs, some for people. What looks like a wrought-iron infant safety gate stretches four feet high in the entryway to the kitchen. A massive pit leans against the gate, eyes fixed on Torres and watching politely.

Raised in Hollywood, the daughter of a film director whose claim to fame in Torres’ mind was selling seminude photos of Vanna White from one of his films to the National Enquirer, Torres fled yacht-club brunches and ended up on the gang-riddled streets of downtown. Two years later, holding her daughter in her arms, Torres saw her gang-member boyfriend killed on their front porch. She became a gang counselor until burning out and going back to her childhood passion of animal rescue. The union of her four-legged and two-legged pit bulls, as she puts it, was only natural.

“The dogs don’t ask for much. Okay, they like to get fed, but if they had their druthers, they’d have someone take them for a walk, over food. It’s just the constant attention and socialization and meeting all the different types of people — these guys — so they get to interact with different personalities, which makes them more adoptable.”

At present, eight parolees care for and commiserate with the dogs. Four hours of work a day cleaning the kennels and caring for the animals, plus construction work on a new addition to the compound keep the crew busy; internships and job-placement advice prepare them for careers in animal services. The ex-offenders work alongside the regular staff of five, including trainer Louise Crane and Torres’ daughter Tania. Crane’s job as an assistant editor at a postproduction office in the city doesn’t stop her from running the rescue center’s youth-outreach programs. This mingling of family, parolees and two “fairly conservative” employees from West Hills “is an eclectic mix that works,” Torres says. “It’s a really colorful group we have here. Sometimes we get along and sometimes we don’t. It’s for the greater good. As long as you love the dogs, I don’t give a crap if you like one another.”

Torres remembers the earliest days of her parolee program, when she noticed that A.J. in particular was taking too long to clean the kennels. When she asked if there was a problem, he answered, “Well, I have to play with them all. I’ve got to talk to them. I know what it feels like to be in a cell.”

Torres stands up from her couch and walks through the garage into the maze of kennels and recreation enclosures that pepper the hillside behind her home. A radio plays music to keep the dogs calm. Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” is a hit in all of the kennels save one: an enormous Neapolitan Mastiff bellows as Torres approaches.

“He’s a jerk,” she says. “His name is Pazzo. It means ‘insane’ in Italian. You see, we’ll take those big huge ghetto dogs like him, those beefeaters that others won’t.” Pazzo’s head is the size of a car engine and his resonant growls sound like trucks downshifting on the Palmdale Freeway.

Torres admits that some of her dogs like Pazzo are unadoptable, too badly abused and too distrusting of all people, and have thus found a permanent home here. But most, she stresses, deserve a second chance.

“There’s a dog for everyone out there,” she continues. “You just have to know your life. It’s like, if you live in the mountains you get a Chevy 4x4, not a Porsche. The pit bull is the Ferrari of the dog world. You have to know what you’re getting into.”

After Pazzo lies down with a heavy wheeze, Torres says she remembers an American bulldog who was “not too good with people,” and who she feared would never be adopted and would have to be euthanized. With more than 50 “lifers” at her home, she had little room for another permanent member.

“So I was taking him out and loading him in my van, and one of my guys, Moe, who’s been here almost five years, said, ‘Where are you taking Yolo?’”

Torres explained that she was putting him to sleep.

“Why?” Moe exclaimed. “He didn’t do anything to us. But he’s good with us, and he’s done nothing wrong to us, so why should we kill him? You gave me a second chance.” Moe grabbed Yolo and hugged him.

“This big tough guy with tattoos just broke down,” Torres says. “Long story short, Yolo is still here, and Yolo will be here for the rest of his life. We’ve just got to make room.”

Making room, however, gets more difficult by the day. The monthly overhead to care for the dogs and pay the workers reaches $15,000, while the average vet bill runs upwards of $10,000. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Torres accepted 39 displaced dogs from New Orleans, which only added to the strain. And while donations increased after the disaster, they have since slowed to a near trickle. Torres refinanced her house and continues to receive film offers for her dogs, but her long-term funding plan is far grander.

“It costs the state of California approximately $60,000 a year to house a California inmate. But for $16,000 a year, I can pay him on a salary. I keep him out of prison. So hello California, I have saved you $44,000 per person. Can I have some of that money please?”

click to enlarge (photo by Kevin Scanlon)
  • (photo by Kevin Scanlon)

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