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COLUMN ONE

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

Since she began running Villalobos, Torres said, only one dog has been returned because it was too aggressive. Of the hundreds of dogs she has rescued, Torres has had a handful killed for the same reason. And when she cannot place a dog, it remains with her for the rest of its life.

"Tia does the dirty work that no one else will do," said Cinimon Clark, a Los Angeles dog trainer who specializes in pit bulls and Neapolitan mastiffs. "Her dog runs are spotless, her dogs are quiet."

Torres' office is sprinkled with photographs of pit bulls in their adopted homes. Here's the Christmas shot of Gus and Cleo, wearing red antlers, sitting on their owners' laps. And a beach shot of Whisper, a deaf pit bull adopted after living with Torres for four years. And Blinky and Brad lounging in their owner's bed.

Nothing is more gratifying than placing a pit bull in a good home. Torres says. "That's the ultimate, ultimate, ultimate."

*

Torres' rose-colored adobe ranch house sits on 10 acres of scruffy high desert, about 40 miles northeast of Los Angeles, nowhere near a supermarket or movie theater. There are no green lawns here; it's a land of dust and sand, chaparral and tumbleweeds. It is home to her two daughters, Tania, 17, and Mariah, 11, as well as two girls whom Torres has taken in. It's also home to seven black cats, two parakeets, a tarantula named Itsy-Bitsy, and 11 dogs, ranging from a Chihuahua to a 180-pound Fila Brasileiro mastiff. (Because the Fila Brasileiro bit Tania in the buttocks when she was wrestling with her sister, Torres is cautious about inviting people inside her home.)

"Call us the Osbournes," Torres said, referring to MTV's series about rock star Ozzy Osbourne's family, "toned down a notch."

Family dinners? No such luck.

The living room was stripped bare after Torres had a fight with Mariah's father some years ago and dumped the furniture in the yard. Torres had a worker cut up the sofas and chairs and put them in a garbage bin. Now, the living room has only dog crates.

Torres no longer sleeps in the house. She spends nights on a couch in her office, a trailer lined with dogs in crates. Although the dust-ridden trailer has no running water, Torres stays there so she can better hear the dogs in case of such trouble as windstorms or rattlesnakes. A chain-link fence encloses the office and the kennels, where most of the dogs stay. Each dog has its own fenced area and a plastic shelter. Only one pit bull, the elderly Tatanka, is permitted to roam freely. The other dogs go out on walks or spend time in a fenced paddock.

Torres grew up in the San Fernando Valley. When her father and stepmother split up, she lived with her stepmother, a horse enthusiast. Torres' pets included raccoons, a ferret, a bobcat and dogs. As a teenager at Chatsworth High School, she competed in rodeo, specializing in barrel racing, goat tying, and roping. As an adult, she enlisted in the Army, worked as a gang counselor, and managed a country-western bar. Today, she's estranged from most of her family; but still close to her stepmother.

Torres likes to say that a woman's children and her dogs say a lot about a person. In her case, Torres is proud of her daughters. Tania has piercings and tattoos, Torres said, but she lives at home, doesn't use drugs and helps with chores. Torres points to Mariah as a proficient dog handler, who's appeared on "Leeza," the daytime TV talk show, to defend pit bulls.

Torres has two personal dogs, Duke and Joe. She trained Joe, a black pit bull, to be a certified narcotics detection dog -- a task she thought was a good challenge for the high-energy dog. When Duke was brought into the animal shelter, his previous owner complained, "Not mean enough." Duke has been with Torres for five years.

"We're like Siamese twins," Torres said. "We don't go anywhere without each other."

*

Tatanka was the first pit bull Torres rescued. She was 4 years old when she was found chained to a truck axle at the scene of a double homicide at an illegal drug lab in Lancaster. Torres had gone to the animal shelter with a friend who was getting a collie. They spotted Tatanka and Torres asked to see the dog. It sprang free from the handler and charged Torres' daughter, who was sitting nearby on a bench.

Tatanka reached the little girl and began licking her face. Torres was hooked.

It was clear, Torres said, no one wanted pit bulls. So she stepped up. And since she rescued Tatanka 11 years ago, Torres' kennels have grown. So, too, have expenses. She spends $22,000 a year for kibble alone.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 last year, donations dried up. Torres was left with only one reliable sponsor, John Chambliss, president of the Simon Wolf Organization, a company that makes X-rated films.

When Torres started doing rescue work in the early 1990s, she began with wolves and wolf hybrids. The first came from her brother. Today, at the top of the hill behind her home, cages hold 20 wolves and wolf hybrids.

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