It’s not an easy life for Tia Torres and the folks at her Villalobos Rescue Center. After shoving off from Los Angeles and setting up a new life for herself, her family and the dogs in New Orleans, she’s already underwater. I don’t mean that in the real estate sense. As we talked about the Season 4 premiere of Pitbulls and Parolees on Animal Planet — tomorrow night at 10pm ET/PT — she explained that the recent hurricane had resulted in flooding in the rural, swampy area where she and some of her employees live. She also had a lot to say about her mission, and what’s different about it all since they moved to the Big Easy. (Hint: It’s not at all easy.)
Channel Guide Magazine: Let’s start out by talking about the move to New Orleans. How did that all go, and how have things shaped up for you in Season 4?
Tia Torres: It took us about a year to plan, and a year to actually make it happen. It started off where I knew that we needed to leave California for several reasons. One was financial; two was the change in all of the laws, and the rules and the regulations out there. And probably the third was — I don’t know, just for us personally, it just didn’t seem like Los Angeles County, at least, was very receptive to the program that we were doing. … Everything had been great. I don’t know if it was the TV show bringing more attention to what we did, but they just didn’t seem to like what we were doing.
It was mainly by law enforcement. … One example was, for whatever reason, the sheriff’s department started coming by our place in the middle of the night — like 1:00 in the morning — and they would put their spotlight in through my windows. I’m sure just to wake me up. [Laughs.] There was no other reason. The first time, I thought, “Accident.” After a couple more times, it’s like, “Why are they doing this?” We had a couple of days where we had a lot of volunteers over, helping us walk dogs, and the sheriff would come by and just park outside the place and just watch. And so the volunteers would sit there and say, ‘Wow — you weren’t kidding.’ I said, ‘Told you.’ [Laughs.] So that was one of the reasons.
CGM: Getting things up and running in New Orleans — how has that been going?
TT: We’re still doing it. We hit the ground running, because when we were moving, we were filming, and when we finally got everything moved here, we were still filming. It’s hard to juggle both, so as we speak, as I sit here, we are still painting and putting things together — trying to do both.
CGM: It sounds like doing Pit Bulls and Parolees has made your life harder, but has it made the mission easier? Is it a good trade-off?
TT: It’s made the mission easier, but my life harder. You get both answers on that one. Because sometimes, for instance, bringing attention to our mission has absolutely changed, I think, the public perception on pitbulls. I mean, we get so many people saying, ‘Wow, I never would have known if I hadn’t seen your show.’ So that’s great. It’s raised our adoption rate, but I think what happened in L.A. County — because, aside from us, L.A. County and California were going through their own problems. People forget that we’re not just pitbulls. We also work with these guys coming out of prison. And it’s no big secret that California leads the way in problems with their penal system and their rehabilitation programs for guys coming out of prison. I mean, it’s all you ever hear — the overcrowding and the budget. So I think maybe with us having the show, it brought more attention to that. And maybe California and Los Angeles County was like, “Uh-oh. This lady is kind of exposing us.” I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know the reasoning behind things. So the show has helped the dogs tenfold, but as far as our parolee program, it was rough. I mean, we had one of our guys actually harassed quite badly by law enforcement when they saw him one day. And then they actually made comment, basically, “You’re on that Pitbulls show.” And just really harassing him bad — and it got physical. In Louisiana, we’ve been received 10 times differently — open arms, “California’s loss is our gain”; the parole department out here has been absolutely fantastic. Just so, so appreciative. Everybody here has made it so easy for us to exist. Everybody here has been so appreciative. Everybody here has been so nice — it’s just a completely different attitude.
CGM: What can we expect to see in this season?
TT: It’s a different world out here. The rescue stories, to me, are way more heartbreaking. A lot more heartbreak just because of what’s out here. Because there are no resources out here in Louisiana. Los Angeles had tons of resources for dogs and for pitbulls needing help. Out here there are none. Hardly any. I live outside of New Orleans — I live out in the country, out in, like, a swamp area. And they don’t even have animal shelters out here. They’re very few and far between. So if you’re a stray pitbull, you’re a stray pitbull till you die. Because there’s no one who’s really going to come and get you. It’s rough — it’s really rough. … What’s really cool about being out here in Louisiana is that the lifestyle’s so different. The visuals you’re going to see are really cool. You’ll get to see the way life is in the city of New Orleans, and then a little bit of how I live out here in the swamp — out here in the country. So it’s pretty cool, the two different worlds.
CGM: As I understand it, the stats on pitbulls is pretty staggering. It’s something like one in 600 gets adopted every day.
TT: Yeah, I know. The intake absolutely outweighs the outtake.
CGM: How do you personally cope with that reality — that not all of them can be saved?
TT: When we first announced that we were coming here, the general consensus was, “Oh, boy — you’d better boot up and suit up, because it’s way worse out here.” And we’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah — what do you know?” Well, I will be the first to admit I was completely caught off-guard. The number of pitbulls out here that are abandoned, neglected and abused is four times, five times, 10 times worse than in Los Angeles. That is something I know, especially, my older daughter is having a really hard time with it. She even told me, “What do I do? How am I going to get through this?” You know, you do — if you’re going to survive this lifestyle, if you’re going to survive this business, you do have to suck it up because it will consume you. It will eat you up, and you won’t last. It’s not that I’m calloused to it or I don’t care. It’s that I have to just look at what’s right before me. Because I’ll end up in therapy or I’ll end up dead. You’ll just end up going crazy. It’s rough. It’s not something that I recommend, for someone to wake up to in the morning and say, “Hey, you know what? I think I’m going to start a pitbull rescue.” That’s probably one of our most common phone calls and emails. “I want to start a pitbull rescue just like you.” And they say, “What advice can you give me?” The first thing I tell them is, “Don’t do it.” … You will see more heartache than you do happiness. That’s just keeping it real.
CGM: I think there’s something of a trend in pitbull advocacy and adoption right now, in part fueled by your show as well as by Pit Boss, but there’s always the stigma of pitbulls to contend with. For that matter, you deal with the stigma of Parolees as well. What do you think the average person can do to diminish that?
TT: Well, when asked that question, I think I’m the reality check. Sometimes people don’t like my answer, but I’ve been doing this long enough where I can have kind of an attitude. The biggest problem with the pitbull stigma is the owner. And hold on before you even go there — I don’t mean the owners that abuse their dogs. A lot of times, these pitbulls end up in trouble because their owner is a good owner who’s in denial. I cannot tell you how many times I get a phone call or an email saying, “Help me — my dog just got confiscated by Animal Control.” And I’m like, “What happened?” “I don’t know! I took him to the dog park — ” “OK, stop right there.” Anybody who’s been in pitbulls as long as I have knows dog parks are a no-no with pitbulls. It’s just an accident waiting to happen. So basically, these owners have set their dogs up for failure. I tell people, “If you’re going to get a pitbull, you need to do your homework.” You need to know that you’ve just taken on the Ferrari of the dog world. And that’s how I see them. That’s what kind of irritates me. … You have to accept the fact that these dogs are of terrier descent, which means they have the potential to be animal-aggressive. A hard-core pitbull owner that’s going to hear this is going to be nodding their head right now, going, “Yep, yep — she’s spot-on.” So when I have someone say, “No, it’s just how you raise them!” I’m like, “OK, you scare me. You shouldn’t own a pitbull just based on that comment alone.” … That’s a long-winded answer, but the quick answer is, to help break the stigma, don’t put the dogs in a situation where they end up being the stigma.
CGM: Do you have a particularly memorable rescue that stands out, either from the pitbull side or the parolee side?
TT: For this season, the parolee side is going to be Earl. America is going to fall in love with Earl. He’s the most genuine, kind, soulful man. He’s just — he’s a dream. He’s an absolute dream. Every mom is going to want to claim him as her son; every woman is going to want him as their husband; every child is going to want him as their dad. He’s the real deal. … As far as dog rescue, I would have to say the St. Roch Ghost Dogs — a family of dogs that had been living under a house in New Orleans since Katrina. The mother dog — she just kept having litter after litter, after litter. Anyway, they were completely feral. Couldn’t get next to them. It took us a week to get them, but that was a pretty cool story. It was very stressful — one of my tougher rescues — but really cool.
CGM: How do you wind down after a long day of dealing with the people and the dogs, and everything that is involved in running Villalobos? Does it ever get to be more than you can bear — and when was your last vacation?
TT: I have never had a vacation. Ever. Vacation, to me, is when we are on the road, filming. I just got back from New York and Kentucky, back to back, doing two adoptions. … That, to me, was like a vacation, if you could call it that. I love to drive, so I have a lot of fun driving on the road. That’s fun, for me — being on the road and driving. If you can call that a vacation, that’s a vacation. I got to see Manhattan for about a minute when I went up to meet everybody at the Animal Planet office. It was like, park underground, go upstairs, meet everybody at Animal Planet and come back out. And as I was walking to my car, that’s how I got to see Manhattan. That was my vacation.
Right now, I don’t have a home. My home got wiped out in the flood. My days end at about 1:00 in the morning, because I’m trying to answer emails until about 1:00 in the morning. I would have to say my guilty pleasures are watching Sons of Anarchy, True Blood and Vampire Diaries. [Laughs.] Those are my guilty pleasures. I watch them, and then go to sleep. And then I wake up to start the day early in the morning.
Tracy Werner of Natural Pet Market contributed to this story.
Photo: Animal Planet/Bob Croslin