Tia Maria Torres
Owner and Pit Bull Rescuer/Trainer
Tia Maria Torres grew up in Southern California and, coming from a broken home, experienced a tumultuous childhood. Early on, she longed for a family of her own and eventually began to adopt neighboring dogs and stray cats into her fold. Because of this, Tia’s stepmother inspired her to pursue the well being of animals as part of her life-long mission.
Raised by her stepmother after Tia’s father left them, she 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 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; this 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 an important 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 either turned into shelters, turned loose on the streets or even found tortured and tossed out like garbage. The shelters couldn’t cope with the number of pit bulls, 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. 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 websites 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 but considering a pen pal “safe,” Tia began a long-distance, letter-writing relationship with Aren Jackson, AJ.
Having never spoken on the phone nor visited each other, Tia and Aren wrote back and forth for five years. 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. After Tia saw how Aren was harassed by local sheriffs, 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. Later that year, 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, and rather than investigate which parolee they might belong to, Tia’s husband was charged and incarcerated for the crime.
Tia’s oldest daughter has had difficulties since she was a child. Within the first five years of Tania’s life, both her father and godmother were, on separate occasions, victims of tragic injuries that led to her father’s paralysis and her godmother’s death. Those tragedies, as well as another years later involving Tania’s half-brother getting killed in a gang-related shooting, have forced Tania to develop a tough skin, yet she maintains a dry and wicked sense of humor.
An avid animal lover, she has been surrounded by wolves and other exotic animals at an early age since she has worked as an animal trainer for movies and television. Now, hoping to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Tania wants to take a more active role at the ranch, starting with administering canine medication to nearly 200 dogs that live at Villalobos. She has three dogs of her own, all rescues that came through Villalobos’ doors – Bluie, a huge “blue” pit; Wedgie, a French bulldog with major attitude; and Hollywood, a nutty English bull terrier. Tania also has a bird named Cash, whose loud call sounds like a cell-phone ringtone.
Unlike her older sister Tania, Mariah was born into the pit bull world. She got her first pit bull, L.A., when she was just old enough to hold a leash. Very spirited from the moment she was born, Mariah’s childhood was a series of contradictions: she was happy to roll around and get dirty with the dogs but also quick to clean up and successfully compete in beauty pageants.
A natural with people and speaking in public, at only eight years old, Mariah spoke in front of the LA City Commission, the mayor and hundreds of people at a meeting about spay/neuter laws. To this day, Mariah speaks frequently at high schools and other community events about the rights of the breed, the evils of dog fighting and the undeserved pit bull stereotype.
Mariah continues to have wide and varied interests. While she still keeps one foot in Villalobos helping her mom and sister, Mariah hopes to try her hand at fashion design and possibly seek a degree in criminal psychology. Her current dogs are Tater Tot, formerly known as Tank, a rescue dog from the first season of the show; Sloth, a special needs pit that’s deaf and epileptic; a French bulldog named Momo; and lastly, a misfit mutt that’s part black sharpei, part Labrador, named Theo.
Kanani and Keli’i
Tia’s Adopted Twins
Tia's "adopted" twin Hawaiian sons, Kanani (pronounced Kaw-Naw-Nee) and Keli'i (pronounced Kay-Lee-Ee), who is also known as Moe, not only provide the comic relief around the ranch, but their natural ability to work with the most difficult dogs proves them invaluable.
The twins had a rough time growing up. During a chance meeting at school, Tia's younger daughter Mariah befriended them. When life at home became difficult, they began to spend more time at the ranch working on weekends and helping out with various projects. They soon became the newest members of the Villalobos Rescue Center family.
The boys share a big pit bull named Monster who travels with them everywhere. Besides being major animal lovers, they are multi-talented in their artwork and love to draw and paint. They also play several instruments and formed their own mini band. But their passion is their motorcycles. Kanani loves his street bike and performs in an extreme sport called "stunting". Yes, that guy you see standing up on his seat and doing a wheelie might just be Kanani. Keli'i likes to play "dirty" by flying up in the air and doing flips on his dirt bike. Of course this doesn't always sit well with the neighbors, but the twins love to live life "dangerously fun".
And during the off season, snowboarding is their other passion. They are experts on the slopes. There isn't a sport they can't tackle or a project they can't figure out. Together Tia's Hawaiian "Twievels" are double trouble, but curling up next to their Monster to play video games is the way they like to end each day.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Earl was raised an only child and brought up by a single parent. He often found himself on the streets hanging out with the older kids and says he only knew how to follow by example. As a result, Earl often found himself in quite a bit of trouble. On a fateful night in 1986, Earl, then only 17 years old, was with people whom he believed to be his friends. He was sent to prison for armed robbery and attempted murder. He received a 22-year sentence but only ended up serving 11 years and four months. Soon after his release, he was in trouble again, a charge of possession with intent to distribute and was sent back to prison. It was here, during a game of football with other inmates, where Earl lost the function of his right arm. Despite his disability, Earl has a slight advantage over the other parolees; he worked as a dog handler while he was in prison. Despite his turbulent history, Earl remains loving and caring, always putting others before himself. VRC is his first official job, so he feels he has a lot to prove – to the rescue but more importantly to himself.
Jake's connection to Villalobos runs deeper than any of the other parolees working at the rescue. The oldest male in a family of 10 kids, Jake, born in Los Angeles, met Tia and her girls long before he was a parolee working at VRC. Jake's mother, who is a dog trainer, met Tia in the early days of Villalobos and fostered several of Tia's earliest rescue cases. They formed a friendship that lasts to this day. Jake has had several run-ins with the law, resulting in short stints in and out of prison. But on a fateful night in 2009, while he was riding a borrowed motorcycle, police attempted to pull Jake over for speeding. Knowing that he was carrying an unlicensed gun, he didn’t stop. The cops followed Jake on a high-speed chase that resulted in a crash and Jake's arrest. Charged with felony evading of an officer and possession of an illegal firearm, Jake spent 10 months in prison.
Jake has since regained his place at the rescue after his stint in prison and is once again Tia’s go-to guy and senior parolee (even though he has since successfully completed his parole program). He was pivotal in the success of moving Villalobos Rescue Center across the country, which was no easy feat. He has taken a liking to New Orleans and all this city has to offer and notices not only a change for the better in all of the dogs but himself as well.
Update: Jake has since left Villalobos to start a new life.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dameon, has become an integral part of the Villalobos family. Dameon was one of the first juveniles in the state of California to be tried as an adult. His incarceration began at the age of 17, when he was found guilty of an armed robbery charge, and his jail time didn’t end until 14 years later. Despite his misfortune and missing out on some very pivotal years of his life, Dameon remains positive and optimistic. He’s fun loving and care free and tries to make everyone around him laugh. And why not since he just successfully completed his parole sentence and for the first time, is a free man! As one of 10 siblings, Dameon is accustomed to being a part of a big tight knit group, which may be the reason why he fits in so well at VRC. When Tia and the gang found out that all of Dameon’s extended family is from the south, New Orleans in particular – it was a no brainer that they would ask Dameon to join them on their move across country. After all, he did have an instant undeniable connection with the dogs from day one. He gets it; these dogs are stuck in their own prison all day. He makes it a priority to treat them the way he knows that he would want to be treated.
Randy Walker is originally from Queens, New York. He considers himself a Yankee at heart but has taken a liking to the city of New Orleans and the Southern way of life. A self-described career criminal, Randy has spent his entire adult life in and out of prison. As a young kid growing up in New York, he was brought up in an era where being a good thief was an honorable profession. If you ask him, he has spent his entire life doing exactly what he wanted to do – and with that, comes consequences and repercussions. His latest stint in prison was for burglary and criminal possession of narcotics. Unfortunately Randy's time with Villalobos is cut short when Tia fires him midway through the season.
Tyler, a native of New Orleans, is one of the youngest parolees working at the Villalobos warehouse. At just 19, Tyler is a hardworking, determined young man, and the priority in his life is his little girl, 14-month-old Arianna Mae. Tyler regrets missing the first 10 months of his daughter’s life as she was born during the time he was locked up. Tyler is a former drug addict who was always hanging out with the wrong crowd. He was sent to prison for distribution of narcotics and burglary and served 11 months. Tyler used his time while incarcerated to figure some things out: who his real friends were, how to stay clean, and what kind of father he wanted to be for his little girl. Tyler definitely has a lot on his plate and is often stressed and tired. But, despite everything, his heart is in the right place and he is trying to do the right thing.