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Pit Bulls' Bullish Rescuer

The breed doesn't deserve its bad reputation, says a woman who takes them in. Of course she also keeps wolves and tigers.

October 23, 2002|Nora Zamichow | Times Staff Writer

Tia Maria Torres is a patron saint of lost causes -- she rescues pit bulls, dogs so notorious that many shelters immediately kill them.

A pit bull bit off part of a mail carrier's nose last summer in Los Angeles. Another pit bull mauled a 2-year-old in La Habra, tearing into his face and scalp. It's also the type of dog that sleeps curled up by Torres' head, while another snores beneath her feet at night.

Torres provides sanctuary and training in Agua Dulce for about 80 dogs at the Villalobos Rescue Center, one of the nation's largest pit bull rescue efforts. She takes in dogs no one else wants. She teaches free obedience classes at city shelters. She pairs pit bulls with juvenile delinquents in a program called Pets in the Hood. Courts throughout California send her problem dogs, telling the owner that the animal either trains with Torres or dies.

In Los Angeles, it's like swimming against a tsunami. Of the 70,000 dogs at city shelters each year, nearly half are pit bulls or pit bull mixes, said Jackie David, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration of Animal Services, which runs the city's six animal shelters.

When possible, Torres finds homes. A Burbank-based German shepherd rescue group, for instance, places 20 dogs a month. On average, Torres places one.

"We take the animals that people want to walk across the street from," said Torres. "I give priority to hard luck cases."

These are dogs like Piglet, who was stabbed and then doused with battery acid. And Peanut, whose face resembled hamburger after being confiscated from a man suspected of staging dog fights. And Poppy, one of 39 emaciated dogs found chained to a barn in Bakersfield.

"Tia shows that these animals can be trained and can be good pets," said David. But even among dog lovers, rescuing pit bulls is controversial.

"The nicest thing you can do for those dogs is euthanasia," said Eric Sakach, director of the West Coast regional office of the Humane Society of the United States. "People who think you can rehabilitate these dogs are well-intentioned but naive."

*

Torres is more comfortable with animals than with people. She sees pit bulls as big-hearted animals that are always loyal and, when necessary, fierce. It is how she sees herself.

On a recent afternoon, hearing panicked barking, Torres ran into the kennel of Jack, a border collie with a history of biting. A rattlesnake, coiled and hissing, was trying to strike.

Torres pulled Jack to safety, even as he tried to bite her. With a rake, she prodded the snake into a crate and slammed the door shut. She carried the snake away from the kennels and, to the chagrin of her kennel cleaner, released it by the road.

"I'm very superstitious," Torres said. "Since I stopped killing rattlesnakes, they stopped biting my dogs."

Torres, 42, describes herself as the "wild child" of animal rescue. At one L.A. animal services commission meeting, rescuers of different breeds showed off photographs of saved dogs to officials. Torres had no pictures. So she peeled off her shirt, showing the tattoo of her pit bull, Duke, on her right shoulder and one on her back of her daughter's pit bull, L.A.

Torres occasionally has the foul-mouthed bluntness of a short order cook. Take, for instance, the message on her telephone answering machine, in part:

"Help me remember when I'm having a really bad day that it takes 42 muscles to frown and only four to extend my middle finger...."

On most warm days, Torres wears a jog bra, leopard-print boxer shorts and sneakers. She gathers her red-brown hair in a bun atop her head. She wears no protective gear; she says that in 11 years of rescuing pit bulls, she's never been bitten by one. She does, however, don leather gloves.

"I don't want to break my nails," she said. Torres' long nails are painted burgundy. When she dresses up, she cultivates a vampish look: thigh-high leather boots, low-cut blouse, heavy eyeliner, dark lipstick and loose hair.

Torres likes her Bad Girl image, though she neither drinks nor uses drugs. Recently, after a presentation on pit bulls, police officers complained to Torres that the dogs seemed to react negatively to their uniforms. Describe your uniforms, Torres said.

Boots, badge, black shirt and pants, an officer volunteered. From a bag, Torres pulled out black leather pants, Spice Girl boots, rhinestone stars and a transparent black negligee. "Something like this?" Torres asked the audience.

"Honey," one man answered, "you put that on and I'll get on all fours and bark like a dog."

*

Torres allows no barking in the kennels at Villalobos, which is just behind her home. If a dog barks, Torres barrels out of her office and yells, "Quiet!" Most times, her voice is sufficient. If a dog doesn't respond promptly, she uses a hose to spray the offender.

Torres believes pit bulls suffer an undeservedly bad reputation. So the dogs at Villalobos receive obedience training. When she places a dog in a home, she wants to know the animal will be a good ambassador for the breed.

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