Tia Torres grew up in a broken home in Southern California and experienced a tumultuous childhood. She longed for a family of her own and began to take in neighborhood dogs and stray cats at an early age. Tia was raised by her stepmother, whom she calls “mom.” The two shared a love of animals and together they struggled to keep the family, which included horses and these “gifts from Mother Nature” as her stepmother called them, united. Times were tough, both financially and physically, and her stepmother raised her and took care of a menagerie of animals all on her own. To this day, Tia equates her strength and discipline solely to the way she was raised. With no father figure in Tia’s life, her mom showed her that if you have the loyalty of an animal companion, you don’t need much else.
At the age of 17, Tia left home and in tow were her entourage of pets including her two Arabian horses, an Angora goat, and her Catahoula Leopard Dog - Cougar. Together, they moved from place-to-place, as Tia struggled to keep all the four-legged family members together. They went through adventure after adventure and sometimes found themselves homeless and sleeping in her van or horse trailer.
Many years later, Tia enlisted in the Army and became a truck driver. After completing her service, she was then hired by the City of Los Angeles as a youth gang counselor. Working with those who walked a fine line between the law and breaking it was always something that interested Tia. This job took her into the housing projects and drug houses that would ultimately lead her into a career of working with parolees.
After some time, Tia’s love for animals would come full circle. It was a chance meeting at a Los Angeles Animal Shelter that would start her love affair with Pit Bulls. A little brindle nubby-eared dog had been confiscated from the scene of a double homicide/drug deal gone bad – the only survivor. Tia watched as animal control officers walked the muscular, female Pit Bull into the shelter. Just as they were putting her into a kennel, the dog slipped out of her lead and began racing through the shelter and made a beeline for Tia’s then toddler daughters, Tania and Mariah. The dog made it to the girls before Tia and they were now lying on the ground with the dog on top of them. This Pit Bull, who had come from unspeakable conditions, was licking them, rolling around with them and slapping them with the now famous “Pit Bull Happy Tail.” The girls exploded into giggles and all their lives were changed forever. At the time, Los Angeles County did not adopt Pit Bulls out but Tia petitioned for the dog regardless. It was only because of her existing relationship with animal control that they released the dog that would be named “Tatanka” into her custody and she became the start of something very big.
Villalobos Rescue Center was a wolf and wolf hybrid rescue and that time, but “Tatanka” was the start of the Pit Bull rescue. Before long, Tia was rescuing two of society’s cast off canines in full force. Wolves and Pit Bulls were portrayed and maligned as “creatures of the night” and Tia fought to prove that they are gentle and loving animals. In March of 1999 the rescue catapulted into the limelight, when Tia and the Los Angeles City Animal Services teamed up to create “The Pit Bull Support Group.” The group was a free service offered to anyone who owned a Pit Bull or Pit mix, providing spay/neuter assistance, training classes, and anything and everything “Pit Bull related.” Who would’ve guessed that this group would grow into thousands and continue on for 11 years? It was during this time, that Tia took on a wayward young man who had recently been released from prison. He would be her first official parolee hire and the word spread quickly.
Two more lost souls also appeared around this time. They were twin teenage boys who were having a difficult time and needed guidance. As friends of Tia’s daughter Mariah, they were brought on to work weekends at first, and then began “hanging around” more often. Because their home life was not a suitable situation, Tia took them “under her wing” and adopted them. The Hawaiian boys, Kanani and Keli’I, were now officially Tia’s sons.
Villalobos Rescue Center was now a rescue for primarily dogs, but it was quickly taking on rescued humans as well. It was next to impossible to find work as a parolee and Tia’s husband (on parole at the time) had a parolee agent, Mr. Angeles, who truly cared. It was actually his suggestion to take on more parolees to do community service that spawned the idea of creating a “real” program. Tia’s work with the Pit Bulls and parolees caught the attention of a popular magazine in Los Angeles and she was dubbed as one of the city’s “Most Important People.” This also caught the eye of reality TV producers.
Tia turned down several production companies because she was a private person and didn’t want to be on TV, but diminishing donations soon took over and she gave in to a world that she didn’t see coming. Despite the popularity of “Pit Bulls & Parolees” and the increase in adoptions and donations, California’s sinking economy still took a serious toll on Villalobos. Plus, the county where the rescue had been residing for 18 years had adopted stricter rules, which brought on increased scrutiny of the business. Keeping Villalobos alive was becoming next to impossible. As Tia watched rescue facility after rescue facility close down, she knew that something had to change. So, after about a year of planning, Tia made the biggest change of the rescue’s long history. She needed to save the 200+ Pit Bulls, handful of domestic house cats (her black cat pride), pack of assorted animals (rooster, reptiles, bird, etc.), 4 human children, parolees, and a gang of misfit lost souls. There was a lot of pressure on her shoulders and the Big Easy was calling her name.
Like so many who helped during Hurricane Katrina, the city kept drawing Tia back. During one visit to New Orleans, she “felt the magic” and she couldn’t stop thinking about all the aid that could be given there. Finally, the decision was made to leave California behind and start a new life in the South.
In 2010, Villalobos Rescue Center undertook one of the biggest adventures of its lifetime. Utilizing moving trucks, a motor home converted into a doggie limo, and even a school bus, the team made about 8 trips across country. And on January 1, 2011, Tia arrived with the remaining 50 dogs and Villalobos Rescue Center found its new, hopefully forever, home.
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