For five years, Animal Planet has followed Tia Torres on her twofold mission: rescuing abused and abandoned pit bulls and giving paroled prisoners a new start by employing them at her Villalobos Rescue Center. "Pit Bulls & Parolees" returns for a sixth season on Oct. 4, followed by an after-show special in which Torres will answer questions from Facebook, Twitter and a live studio audience in Louisiana. She filled us in on what to expect.
MNN: What will we see this season?
Tia Torres: A lot more tears, unfortunately, because it's rough out there for the dogs. We're in Louisiana now and the rescues are so different from what we did in California. We do a lot of work in New Orleans and a lot of work out in the country, the swamp area where there are no animal shelters. We're getting dogs chained to our fence, thrown in our dumpster, left in boxes and cages in front of our building.
How did you first become involved in dog rescue? Were you always an animal lover?
My stepmother, who raised me as a single parent, was an animal person — dogs and horses. First, I got into wolves. I guess you could say it was in my blood. My godfather was Lon Chaney Jr., who was the original movie "Wolfman." Wolves are portrayed in movies as these vicious animals, and they're so shy. They're misunderstood. I began a sanctuary for them. Then, while on a chance visit to an animal shelter in L.A. County, a pit bull was brought in after a double-homicide meth lab bust. The dog's ears had been cut off. That poor dog! That was the first pit bull. Since then there have been thousands.
What is it about pit bulls in particular that compel you so much?
They're literally the underdog, and I relate to that. My kids [daughters Tania and Mariah and adopted twin sons Kanani and Keli'i] and I are very honest, non-judgmental people, and it's very frustrating to see the way people demonize and treat these dogs. They're so friendly and don't realize they're being abused. The human treats them like crap and the dog will lick them in the face. These dogs don't go out and get in fights because they think it's fun. People get them into it, and that creates a bad element of people who want to own them. A lot of backyard breeders want puppies to make a buck and they can't keep all of them, so them dump them at the shelter.
Why do you think they get such a bad rap?
They're big, tough dogs — that's why pit bulls and Rottweilers are chosen by drug dealers as guard dogs. I wish I had a dime for every person who said to me, "What about these pit bull attacks?" There are millions of pit bulls in this country, and not to downplay the severity of a dog attack, but if you have 10 attacks this year by pit bulls, it's a drop in the bucket.
How did you start working with parolees?
A woman who worked with me rescuing wolves had a brother who got out of prison and she didn't want to leave him home alone to get in trouble and asked if she could bring him to work. So he started helping out, and I saw that his outer shell was very tough. And I started watching him and after a few weeks he started singing to the dogs. That was the first. Being around the dogs teaches the guys to be patient and compassionate, caring about something other than themselves for maybe the first time in their lives. Sometimes it takes some guys longer. You know, they've been in prison. They're a little rough around the edges. But the dogs do the rehabilitation.
How many parolees have you helped?
We keep it to a very small group so we can give individual attention. I'd say in the last six or seven years, a couple hundred. We have a low recidivism rate. Earl Moffet is the poster child for what this program is all about. He was a true convict, in there for the long haul, in for robbery, selling drugs. For him, to get out in his 40s, it's tough to start all over again. But I guarantee you he will never go back to prison. We got him into another program in New Orleans and they helped him buy his first house.
Whose idea was the TV series?
LA Weekly voted me one of the 10 most important people in Los Angeles for the work that we did with parolees. Producers read the article and started hitting me up about a reality show. I said no, but the rescue started to lose donations and we were going to have to close our doors. So I thought, "I have to do it now."
Are you glad you did?
It's hard on us because we're a real, functioning business. But it helps the dogs so much that the positives outweigh the negatives. It's absolutely changed the image not only of the dogs but of the guys as well. It's helped increase adoptions. It's helped bring in more donations for our nonprofit. But on the flip side, that exposure has also somewhat backfired on us. We are now getting more dogs than ever dumped on us.
Tia Torres (right) at a veterinarian's office with a pit bull during an episode of "Pit Bull & Parolees."
Why do you think the show is so popular?
Our honesty. No hair and makeup. I don’t care about that. This is the way we roll.
What do you want to accomplish in the future?
In the South, the biggest problem we see is a lack of resources to get their dogs spayed and neutered. We would like to get some kind of free program available.
What messages are important for the show to convey?
Our show is the epitome of not judging the book by its cover; some tough-looking guys and tough-looking dogs and yet inside they're marshmallows, it's such a lesson to teach children to not be so judgmental and give somebody a chance before you start passing that judgment. Also to value life — these guys help take care of the dogs, I help take care of the guys. They make money and can pay their bills. It's amazing how much power an animal has over humans if we just allow it. It's a good power, a good thing.
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