The Villalobos Crew
Growing up in southern California, Tia Torres came from a broken home and experienced a tumultuous childhood. She longed for a family of her own from very early on and eventually began to adopt neighborhood dogs and stray cats. Because of this, Tia's stepmother encouraged her to pursue the well-being of animals as part of her life-long mission.
After Tia's father left, she was raised by her stepmother and Tia harvested a passion for four-legged friends. Upon leaving home at the age of 17, Tia began caring for other people and animals even if it meant making personal sacrifices. She created a family from these lost souls.
With hopes of helping people, Tia eventually worked for the Army and as a gang counselor where she met the father of her daughter, Tania. Unfortunately, Tania's father was caught up in drugs and became physically abusive toward Tia, which led to his arrest and subsequent prison time.
Years later, Tia met the man who became father to her second daughter, Mariah. He was involved with animals, and that was a perfect fit for Tia. In the late 1990s, during a visit to a local shelter, Tia met a pit bull that made a huge impression on her. Four-year-old pit bull Tatanka (as she would later be named) broke free from a kennel attendant and ran toward Tia's daughters. Tatanka knocked down the girls and licked their faces much to their delight. It wasn't long before Tatanka became a huge part of the family. With Tatanka, Tia built the Villalobos Rescue Center, now the largest pit bull rescue facility in the country.
The journey to save pit bulls was a rough one as pit bulls were in the news every week as public enemy number one. Tia worked feverishly trying to earn a reputable reputation saving the most maligned type of dog in the world. In March of 1999, things finally changed in her favor.
A pit bull attack on a two-year-old child prompted a city-wide panic. Hundreds of pit bulls were turned into shelters, let loose on the streets and some were even found tortured and tossed out like garbage. The shelters couldn't cope with the number of pit bulls being turned in, so they turned to Tia for help. After meeting with city officials, Tia created the Pit Bull Support Group, which combined free obedience classes, spaying and neutering, medical assistance and training seminars. Her goal was to restore a sense of calm in LA and let people know that their beloved pets were not going to turn on them. Having successfully launched this effort, Tia finally felt she made a true difference. Shelters from around the country asked her to speak as a pit bull expert and cities began to implement the same type of program and became proactive.
As Tia's career began to grow, her 12-year relationship with Mariah's father diminished, and shortly after he wanted her and the dogs off his property. After a lot of fundraising, borrowing money from friends and grant writing, Tia managed to make a deal that allowed Villalobos Rescue Center to remain on the property. Though it was scary going out on her own with approximately 100 pit bulls to care for and as a single mother, a positive change took place. During a rescue that concerned a dog whose owner was involved in a criminal case, Tia stumbled upon Web sites that advertised "prison pen pals." Tia spotted a man whose photo hypnotized her. He looked like a modern-day vampire, yet there was something gentle and kind about his photo. Not interested in yet another traditional relationship and considering a pen pal as "safe," Tia began a long-distance, letter-writing relationship with Aren Jackson.
Tia and Aren wrote back and forth for five years, having never spoken on the phone nor visiting him in prison. At one point, they lost touch until Tia received a phone call from him early in 2006 — Aren was released from prison after serving a 14-year term. Once they met in person, they were inseparable and eventually married. The couple realized how difficult it was for parolees to succeed in this society. Together, they came up with the idea of employing parolees to work at Villalobos Rescue Center. It was also during this time that Tia's daughter Mariah brought home twin teenage boys whose mother had abandoned them; Tia eventually adopted the boys into her "functional, dysfunctional family."
In 2006, with the help of her family, Tia built a program called The Underdawgz, which serves as an entity within the Villalobos Rescue Center. The Underdawgz pairs parolees and pit bulls — both men and dogs nobody else wants. The parolees feed the dogs, clean the kennels and learn how to train the pit bulls in preparation for adoption.
On Sept. 11, 2006, the facility was raided by the parole department. Law enforcement claimed it was a routine check up. They found some small stolen items on the property, which Tia says belonged to another parolee. Tia's husband was charged and incarcerated for the crime. With the case still pending, running the rescue has become emotionally and economically difficult for Tia and her family. Each day is a battle, but Tia finds conviction in her mission to turn society's trash into treasure and by the dogs who work their magic on the "baddest" good guys in town.