By Michelle Sathe
Her name was Tatanka and she was just another shelter dog with a sad story, until being adopted by Tia Torres in 1993.
"She loved my kids. I had no preconceived notions about her breed," Torres recalled.
Tatanka was a pit bull, Torres' first, but certainly not her last.
Since adopting Tatanka, Torres has taken in thousands of pit bulls at her non-profit, no-kill Villalobos Rescue Center in Agua Dulce, where more than 200 dogs currently await adoption.
"They're like Gremlins, they just keep on multiplying," she said.
Torres takes in her charges from all over the country - fighting dogs, shelter dogs, hurricane dogs. Like Tatanka, who was the only living thing left after a double homicide at a methamphetamine laboratory, they all have tales to tell. Soon, some of them will become stars on national TV.
Villalobos Rescue Center, staffed by Torres, her children, and six ex-convicts, will be the topic of "Pit Bulls & Parolees," a reality series based on her "UnderDawgz" program to air on Animal Planet in September.
Torres hopes the show will give people a new perspective on pit bulls, which have the unfortunate distinction of being the number one breed put down at shelters across the country, and the staff who care for them.
"This is a place of hope, of both people and dogs getting another chance," Torres said. "How can you condemn these dogs or these guys for trying to do right? To right their wrongs?"
Mouths to feed
Each day, Torres arises to the needs of 200 dogs, which includes 2,100 pounds of food a week.
Recently, they received a 3-ton donation of treats from Rachael Ray's Nutrish brand dog food. Ray, the famous Food Network star, cookbook author, TV show host and magazine publisher, has a pit bull of her own named Isaboo.
The donation is a welcome gift, said Torres, who will use the treats for training and as a food supplement. Her dog food sponsor has recently dropped off, citing the bad economy, and donations are way down.
Still, she trudges on. There are mouths to feed and kennels to clean.
"Sometimes I think, I am so tired, I can't do this anymore," Torres said. "But it's like being a mom, I have no choice. I have to get up and take care of them. It's not even a question."
Help comes from her six workers, parolees who often have a hard time finding work once they re-enter society.
"The Antelope Valley is filled with them," Torres said. "A lot of them write me from jail to see if they can work here."
The men are often referred to Torres through their parole officer and she has many names on a waiting list. Currently, she can only afford a small staff, though she dreams of having one worker per 10 to 20 dogs.
As she makes her rounds, Torres greets each dog by name. Scooby, a blind, massive red and white male, is a particular favorite.
"He's tough as nails," Torres said with pride.
When asked why she loves pit bulls, she doesn't hesitate to answer.
"I like their looks, they're just something so cool about them," Torres said. "But my favorite thing, ironically, is how disloyal they are. My dogs will go off with anyone. They love everyone. They're so friendly, it's comical."
The Vick contradiction
NFL star Michael Vick was indicted in July 2007 for sponsoring a grisly dog-fighting ring that included 55 pit bulls. Evidence of cruelty and the remains of seven dogs were found on the Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks' property in Virginia, sparking a wave of shock within the sports community and a nationwide outrage among dog lovers.
Surprisingly, according to Torres, the aftermath of the Vick case has been positive for the pits at Villalobos. Over the last two years, adoptions have increased from two per month to the current average of 10.
"I've seen a huge difference in the way people view pit bulls. Maybe they realize the problem is mostly with the owners, not with the breed," Torres said. "Even shelters, especially in Los Angeles, are getting proactive about how to deal with the breed. Pit bulls are becoming a favorite within that system."
Since 1999, Torres has partnered with Los Angeles City Animal Services to provide a free eight week training course for pit bull owners.
Conducted at the North Central Animal Shelter near downtown, Torres helps trains her human students to take charge of their dogs. Included are basics such as sit, down, and stay, as well as how to specifically deal with aggression issues - not towards humans, but towards other dogs.
"Pit bulls can get along with other dogs. It's just normal when they don't," she said.
Walking it off
At Villalobos, aggressive dogs are kept up in front of the 4.5 acre facility in 12' x 12' kennels, where there is less noise and more space for them to become acclimated.
Further up the hill, in the garage and other covered structures on the properties, most of the dogs are kept in 6' x 8' kennels close to one another.
A rotating roster of 160 volunteers comes to the remote location three times a week to walk and socialize the dogs.
Tyr, a large white male, is hanging out in the front open area with a volunteer approximately 10 yards from another pit bull.
"That amazes me," Villalobos said as Tyr casually observed his canine counterparts. "When he first came here, it took two people to walk him. There was no way could he be near another dog."
Jeremy Griffin of Saugus, a tattooed young man who works in a plastic injection molding shop, said he considers volunteering with the dogs a break from his every-day routine.
Griffin started volunteering at Villalobos after his parents adopted a 9-year old pit bull named Lucas from the rescue.
"His tail hasn't stopped wagging yet," Griffin said with a smile.
Today, Griffin has just finished walking a black female pit bull. The duo rested under a shade tree for a few minutes before the dog had to return to her kennel.
Griffin petted the pit affectionately. He is teaching her not to jump and how to remain calm in new situations. Anything to help make them more adoptable, Griffin said.
"Pits have so much more personality than other dogs, they just need a responsible owner that gets them," he said. "Pits are super cool."
For more information on Villalobos Rescue Center, visit www.vrcpitbull.com.