In this age of mindless reality television, it’s nice to find a show with some real heart and soul. Pit Bulls and Parolees is that show for me, and I assume for many other animal lovers across the country. The series premiered in October of 2009, but for Tia Torres and her four children (Tania, Mariah, Kanani, and Keli’i) the hard work and passion for helping dogs began long before they had a show. I recently visited the Villalobos (“Village of the Wolves”) Rescue Center, located right here in New Orleans, and talked with Mariah Harmony about her family’s story, the history behind the shelter, daily operations, and most importantly, the dogs!
I arrived at the shelter already feeling at home as I saw the front gate that I had seen so many times on the show. The heat was brutal, and I probably sweat a few gallons with each step. The humidity couldn’t dull my mood, though, because I was in heaven—pit bull heaven to be precise. There were a bunch of dogs being walked around out front, where there were baby pools, sprinklers, and plenty of grass. It pretty much looked like the best doggy summer camp ever.
Villalobos was not always in New Orleans. In fact, they have only been here for about five years. Originally from California, the rescue was started around 20 years ago when Mariah and Tania (both very young at the time) visited a shelter in Los Angeles with their mother. “We were at the shelter and my mom turns around and sees us on the ground with a huge dog on top of us. It was this big pit bull that a person had tied fishing line around her ears until the circulation was cut off and they fell off. She broke loose, chased after us, and licked us to death! That was our very first pit and her name was Tatonka, and she was the start of the Villalobos Rescue Center,” Mariah remembers with a grin. The shelter started off with mostly wolves and wolf hybrids, but quickly turned into a pit bull rescue with around 200 dogs total. “In California, we lived in the middle of nowhere. We would get dogs from court cases, fighting rings, abuse situations—you name it. 40% of dogs in shelters are pit bulls, so it’s the breed that needs the most help. It’s the breed that is forgotten about and one that society tends to be most critical about.”
Although the shelter was off to a great start, there were a lot of problems in California. The people were not very welcoming towards the pit bulls, nor were they thrilled about the employees being on parole. In 2011, the planets aligned when the family went on a rescue trip to New Orleans. “We completely fell in love with this place. My family automatically knew that this is where our hearts were, and this area needed more help than anywhere else in the country with their pit bull problem. They don’t have enough resources here. So we slowly moved 20 dogs at a time on school buses from California to here. My family split up for about a year and we were driving back and forth. This warehouse that we’re in now was stacked up with junk from head to toe. I remember my siblings and I had shopping carts, pushing the trash out. It was a whole process that took over a year and a half,” says Mariah about the move.
Since the move down South, the shelter has more than doubled in size, which says a lot about the current dog issue in New Orleans. “People literally drop dogs off at our doorstep. Sometimes they tie them to the gate when we’re sleeping. It’s been a lot more work being here, definitely more than we expected, but we know that this is where we’re supposed to be and people here have been so welcoming and excited that we’re here to help, and not scrutinizing us because we have parolees working for us. It’s 100% where we’re supposed to be and where our family’s heart is,” Mariah exclaims.
With hundreds of incoming calls daily, it can be a lot to take on, but they help wherever they can. Mariah describes a situation where a man showed up to surrender a dog that was tied up with a seat belt in the back of his truck. The dog jumped out and was hanging itself while the guy just sat there. An employee had to run over with a knife and cut the seat belt off. Crazy enough, this kind of thing is normal for a lot of people. Some don’t care, but others are just not educated about how to take care of a dog. Mariah, her family, and the employees of Villalobos work with people in the community to teach them the proper way to care for dogs, as well as help provide them with dog food and necessary resources. “I did a program called ‘Off the Chain’ where I would help people that had their dogs chained up. I’d help them build a dog kennel and doghouse. Mr. Murray was my favorite one; he had two dogs chained up in his yard. He was such a sweet man who was very sick, and when I talked to him he started crying because we were helping him. Just because someone has dogs chained up doesn’t mean they’re a bad owner. They may just need some help or may not be educated enough. .He said he didn’t have the money and didn’t know how to housetrain his dogs, so we helped him and he was so thankful. But then there are the assholes that are abusing their dogs and chaining them up with a 40 pound chain in their backyard. Since I do not have the authority to take someone’s dog, I always offer help first, instead of being an asshole and telling them they’re a piece of shit.”
Dogs are abused and neglected all the time, especially in this city. It’s no surprise that working in animal rescue can come hand in hand with depression. The team at Villalobos has to see the vast spectrum of cruelty towards these animals at the hands of humans each day. About this Mariah says, “My partner, the first time that he started working with us out in the swamps, called me crying because we got a dog dropped off that had been shot in the head. That’s a normal day for us!” She also mentions a story about a dog that had a 40 pound chain around its neck. The rescuers all thought he was probably around ten years old when he was actually only a year and a half. He just looked like that because of what he had been through. To pay tribute to these dogs, the rescue center has a wall of chains just inside the front entrance that includes the same humongous chain. “All of this is normal for us. I don’t want to say you get jaded, but you have to put on tough skin. That’s worth it for me, though. The biggest reward is to get to drive a dog to its new home. To get a picture afterwards of a dog lying in bed with their new family or going to the beach is the best thing. I’m such a sucker now and cry every time I get an email like that. It’s why I wake up in the morning. It’s why, when a dog gets shot in the head, I have to put my big girl pants on and deal with it,” Mariah says.
Because this is such a difficult and emotional job, it’s no wonder why the rescue center is very strict about their adoption process. The team works extensively with the dogs from the start and helps them with any fear or aggression-based issues, medical problems, and basic training. “We will never ever set a dog up to fail and that’s why we’re so strict with adoptions. We’ll never push a dog that shouldn’t be pushed. It’s pretty much like we’re playing doggy matchmaker,” Mariah says, laughing. There are cases where the shelter doesn’t feel that a dog should be adopted out, which isn’t a death sentence, since Villalobos is a no-kill shelter. In fact, the rescue has a bunch of “lifers.” They have 14 acres of property in the swamps out in Assumption Parish where they are building a sanctuary for the lifer dogs to live out the rest of their lives happy and in peace.
As for the parolee aspect of the rescue, it began early on through the efforts of Tia, along with her husband who had been in jail for a long time. “They realized how pretty much impossible it is for parolees to get jobs. You’re in prison for like 14 years and then they push you out of there when you have no idea how society even works anymore, and they expect you to just jump on your feet and go running! That’s impossible for any human, and on top of that, a majority of places will not hire you if you’re on parole, no matter what the crime. They aren’t getting the tools necessary to go out into the real world. That’s another reason why we’re doing what we’re doing: because not only do they have a job with us, they have a job that genuinely cares about them and what they want to do in life. Some of them want to work here forever and work with dogs, and some of them want to go on to other things. One wants be a club promoter, or one wants to do art, etc. We try and help them do those things, and the dogs are teaching them responsibility. It’s kind of funny: you see these big tough guys with tattoos all over their face, but you peek around the corner and they’re singing and doing baby talk in the kennels,” she laughs. “These dogs help them bring their guards down and teach them that it’s okay to be sweet and you don’t have to be so tough all of the time. The guys get to go back to their families and wake up and think ‘Holy shit! I’m making a huge difference.’”
While great relationships are forged between the employees and dogs, that is not to say that there aren’t ever any slip-ups, about which Mariah says, “We’re always here to catch them and help the guys when we can. When they want help we’ll give it to them. Our success rate is a lot higher than the failures. There have been very few employees that have ever gotten in trouble again, and those are the ones that didn’t want to get better. For the most part, they end up staying with us for a long time, and most end up adopting a dog,” she says. Just the same as Mariah and her family don’t give up on their workers, they never give up on a dog, thanks to Tia, who Mariah describes as having a soft spot for anything with a broken wing. Just because they have a television show does not mean that Mariah and her family live lavish lifestyles where they can relax and do whatever they want. Every penny and drop of sweat goes towards helping the dogs. The show, the support from fans, donations, and volunteers all keep Villalobos alive and running. “People tend to think that we have a lot more than we do. This is a non-profit organization and we’re making minimum wage paychecks. All the money goes to these dogs. I know we have a TV show, but it’s really expensive to do because it’s a documentary. It takes seven months to film and they try to help cover all the costs. There’s a huge cast and crew that has to get paid. This isn’t The Real World where you’re getting paid $30,000 an episode. All money goes right back to the rescue. You think we want to be on TV?” she shakes her head, “We’re doing this to spread the message and to help these animals.” Filming a show while operating a rescue center is hectic, but the rescue has nothing but high praise for the production crew. They only hire people that are really into what Villalobos is doing. “You see guys behind the camera crying and trying to hold it together because their hearts are in it just as much, so that’s been a blessing for us. If not for the show, the rescue would have been in jeopardy. It got to spread the message to so many more people than we would have been able to reach. I can’t explain to you how many people have written us saying, ‘After watching your show for so long my opinion on pit bulls has completely changed and I’ve adopted one!’ Or someone who used to go to a breeder to get dogs says that they made steps to rescue a dog instead. That’s why we did the show: so people could see what really goes on here and what these dogs have gone through.”
For more information on the Villalobos Rescue Center, visit vrcpitbull.net/dog The Torres family has also opened up a bar in Chalmette called the Tayho Tavern and a store in the French Quarter called Tayho. All proceeds go back to the shelter.