- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pit bulls and parolees. Tia Maria Torres has opened her heart and home to the unwanted.

On 17 acres in the rugged terrain of California’s Canyon Country, Ms. Torres provides a place to live or work for six parolees, 225 pit bulls, 204 volunteers, two French bulldogs, 19 cats, a husband and four children.

Ms. Torres, 49, started Villalobos Rescue Center - the largest pit-bull rescue facility in the United States - 14 years ago. She added former convicts three years ago with prison pen pal and tattoo artist Aren Marcus Jackson, who would become her second husband.

The rescue operation has been a money pit, requiring creative financing. Ms. Torres tried to open a brothel to pay the bills, but it burned down. Now she’s turning to reality TV - “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” which airs next month on Animal Planet - to help cover the $20,000 in monthly bills and a $25,000 vet tab .

“I was almost a madam,” Ms. Torres says. “Somebody told me then that I was trying to open a cathouse to support my doghouse.”

Adoptions at the rescue center averaged 10 a month recently, but it is running close to its 250-dog capacity.

“If I took every dog I got a call on, I’d be taking in 100 a week,” Ms. Torres says.

Producer Michael “MikeyD” Dinco was a student in a pit bull class Ms. Torres taught years ago. During a visit after the parolee program started, he knew he had to film a TV pitch.

The show was developed about the time NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting case showed how pit bulls had become victims of humans who electrocuted, drowned, beat and hanged them.

“As horrible as it was, it changed everything for the pit bull. Shelters are looking at the dogs differently, the public has a lot more empathy, and adoption rates are going up,” Ms. Torres says.

Even so, about 13,000 pit bulls were euthanized in Los Angeles County last year, city and county statistics show.

Parolee Armando Galindo, 39, has been with Ms. Torres for 16 months, after serving 3 1/2 years for forgery. A counselor referred him - it didn’t matter that there was no pay.

“I had given up hope basically,” Galindo says. “All I needed was somebody to give me an opportunity and tell me I still had value and could do something with my life.”

The television show will focus on the interaction of the dogs and men. “The dogs bring out the best in these guys,” Ms. Torres says.

The parolees work for food, shelter, gas, cigarettes and the dogs. Only two of 20 parolees who have been at the rescue center have had to go back to prison.

Each episode will feature one dog, one rescue, one adoption and the drama and chaos at the center, located 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. “Pit Bulls and Parolees” also will spend time in court, where Ms. Torres’ husband is fighting a rap for possession of stolen property.

He and Ms. Torres became pen pals in 2001 while he was serving a 14-year sentence for a shootout with Orange County sheriff’s deputies. They married on Halloween 2006 after he was paroled on the conviction for assault with a deadly weapon. He was arrested a year later and blamed when one of the parolees was found with a pair of driver’s licenses, Ms. Torres says.

Bills have been harder to pay with him in jail. Last year, Ms. Torres refinanced her house and used grants, donations and her pay from training and boarding dogs.

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