Underdogs: Animal Planet’s Pit Bulls & Parolees
Underdogs abandoned by society, wayward canines and criminals are given another chance at Villalobos Rescue Center, featured on Animal Planet’s Pit Bulls & Parolees. Meet Tania Torres and Mariah Harmony, two young ladies who work at the center and are strong enough to take on the demons of damaged cases and rehabilitate them together.
People look at you and sneer, they avert their eyes, they cross the street—being a pit bull or a tattooed person on a public sidewalk is not all that different. The incarcerated are stigmatized in much the same way as those who are inked and the dog breed America fears most. Although the penal system is designed to rehabilitate, society often views convicts who have been given their freedom not as human beings but as, well, vicious dogs.
It takes a big heart to recognize that the negative actions of either group of “beasts” are often the result of having been mistreated or misunderstood. To make it your life’s work to help these lost souls is heart-meltingly commendable.
And that’s just what Tania Torres and Mariah Harmony do at Villalobos, their mother’s pit bull rescue facility that also welcomes parolees so that the two damaged groups can heal together. The Torres sisters are changing lives, one dog, one person, and one Pit Bulls & Parolees viewer at a time.
INKED: How did Villalobos begin?
Tania: We started out as a wolf-hybrid rescue.
Mariah: One day when we were little, our mom took us to an animal shelter. One of the pit bulls managed to get loose and came running toward us.
INKED: Were you okay?
Mariah: Yeah, [she] pretty much knocked us down and licked us to death.
Tania: Her name was Tatanka. Our mom fell in love with her on the spot.
Mariah: That pretty much started the whole rescue.
INKED: So you two have been a part of it since the beginning?
Tania: Yeah, we were raised into it.
Mariah: I was pretty much born into a dog kennel.
INKED: Pit bulls aren’t that popular. How was the reaction of your community?
Tania: Nobody really accepted us. They thought that everybody we worked with were monsters and the dogs we were saving were monsters. Where we lived at the time, we were being treated like criminals. We were not hurting anybody, and we were just trying to make the world a better place.
Mariah: It’s always been the same. People that love us are going to stand by us, and the people that don’t like what we do absolutely hate us. There’s almost no gray area.
INKED: Do you see that changing anytime soon?
Tania: Over the years it’s been getting better. I think that as time goes by, people are starting to understand the breed and not believe everything that they hear.
Mariah: Because of the show, we get letters all the time from people saying that we’ve changed their opinion or their parents’ opinion, and it’s opened their eyes.
Tania: Things will change. There are a lot more positive stories coming out of the media. More and more people are starting to own pit bulls. If you’re out and you see the dogs with kids and with families, you can’t help but think about it, and it changes people’s minds.
INKED: Do you feel that your work can change the negative image of the breed?
Mariah: People get bit by other breeds all the time but that doesn’t make good news. Pit bulls are what the media wants to show.
INKED: So it’s your family against the mainstream media. That’s no small feat.
Mariah: No matter what we do, there’s always going to be a bully breed. That’s never going to go away. It’s how the news works, it’s how people’s brains work—it’s more exciting to them.
Tania: Everybody wants to hear about the pit bull attack. Nobody wants to hear about the cocker spaniel that bit a kid. We’ve come to terms with it.
INKED: But in all fairness, these negative stories aren’t fabricated.
Mariah: Yes, owners need to be responsible. For instance, I have a dog that needs to be medicated. He’s chemically imbalanced, he has a lot of issues, and I know that, so I don’t yet take him around people. You need to be aware. All you can do is be a responsible owner and make sure that your dog is taken care of properly so that you are not the one having an incident.
Tania: There are people that hate what we do and hate the breed and they’ll shove that down our throats about whoever got bit in what state. We’re not claiming perfection at all. We just love this breed of dog.
INKED:Your family also helps the recently paroled adapt to life on the outside. By watching them work with the dogs, do you find that they are both going through similar crises?
Mariah: We really don’t have to do much—they fix each other. It’s rewarding, but people are going to try to put us down even more than they would if we just had regular employees.
INKED:So the dogs make it easier for the parolees, and vice versa.
Tania: I can’t speak for all of the guys, but if I’m having a bad day the animals change me. They make me happy, and they make me trust. For these guys that are getting out of prison, or a dog who’s just been abused, they’re both distrusting of most people. So when you put the two together they just sort of learn from one another. They learn how to trust and how to forgive. You see a completely different person at the end of the day and a completely different animal. It’s kind of surreal.
Mariah: Especially the guys that have done a long stretch—they come out and it’s like they’ve got shell shock. You see them slowly start to come out of their shell, and it’s always with the dogs. You’ll sneak in on them and hear them using baby talk or singing to the dogs. It’s comforting for the guys to be around them.
INKED:Do you search for employees, or do they find you?
Mariah: My mom has gone to parole hearings and said that she was looking for guys to hire. Now that they know where we are, people have come to the house and filled out an application, and my mom will set up an interview.
Tania: The only thing we don’t do is hire sex offenders. It’s our only rule. I would rather help someone that killed somebody than someone that molested a child. I know that sounds mean and people are going to hate me for saying that. I don’t care about getting hate mail over that.
INKED: Clearly you’ve gotten this far by sticking to your guns.
Tania: We’re very opinionated. Working with the type of dogs that we do, and the people that we do, we kind of have to be. If we weren’t, then people would just chew us up and spit us out.
INKED:Your mother comes across as a very strong woman on the show.
Mariah: That’s always been how my mom is. That’s how my sister and I were raised to act. My mom is the epitome of a pit bull: She’s extremely strong, she’s nice when she needs to be, she’s mean when she needs to be. She just has this strength that a pit bull has, and she won’t apologize for who she is or what we are.
INKED:At the same time, she wouldn’t have started this organization without being a forgiving, nurturing person.
Tania: My mom is absolutely a forgiving person—sometimes too forgiving.
INKED: Is she as patient with the two of you as she is with the dogs? Tania: It’s always different when you’re the child, way different. How did she react to your tattoos?
Tania: There were a few that she wasn’t happy about. She wasn’t too pleased with the ankh next to my eye, but she got over it. Right now I’m working on a sleeve at Great American Tattoo Company, and I think my mom is more on board with that one.
Mariah: I got my first one when I was, like, 14 or 15. It was the ankh on my ankle. The next one I got when I has 16—it’s the one across my stomach that says, “Pirate’s life for me.”
INKED: I assume your mom didn’t know about that one beforehand.
Mariah: She knew about the first one and said that I wasn’t allowed to get any more until I was 18. But one day I was stretching and heard her scream. I was busted. I’m surprised she didn’t come flying across the kitchen at me. She flipped out, but she still loves some of them.
INKED: Mariah, you have a back piece of your sister where she’s portrayed as snow White eating the world like an apple. What’s the story?
Mariah: Everyone says my sister looks like Snow White. She and I have always depended on each other. Besides our mom, we’re all that we have. We used to say that it was the two of us against the world. That’s why I had John Miller tattoo her as Snow White eating the world.
INKED: What was it like seeing yourself tattooed on your sister’s back?
Tania: It’s funny. I’d bought a shirt a while ago with Snow White eating the poisoned apple. One day it went missing, and for months I couldn’t find it. I was throwing a fit. Then, randomly, my sister comes home with my shirt in her hand. I was like, Seriously, you took my shirt? You heard me crying about it. And then she shows me her back, and it’s basically the same exact picture except that instead of the apple she’s eating the world.
INKED: It’s seems kind of hard to be mad at that.
Tania: I’m a sap. I wanted to cry. I threw my arms around her and gave her a big hug, of course.
INKED: Your family recently packed up and moved Villalobos to New Orleans. It seems a lot different from the California desert.
Mariah: Back in California, we weren’t far from L.A., but we still lived in a teeny, tiny, little part of the country where there’s more churches than there are trees. It was very judgmental. I think that my family and I were the only ones in the area with tattoos.
INKED: And Louisiana is different?
Mariah: Here, it’s not as eclectic as California, but there are so many travelers that come through, and they’re all covered in tattoos.
Tania: The biggest difference between Louisiana and California is the people. It seems like in New Orleans they genuinely appreciate us and what we’re doing.
INKED: You’ve set up shop in a place that’s become an icon for redemption. do you feel more at home?
Tania: We’ve gotten a lot closer. We were all so miserable in California. The town we lived in, everyone hated us, the cops wouldn’t leave us alone, we weren’t happy living in the desert. Once we moved we had a chance to be happy and start over. This place got destroyed and had to be rebuilt—it’s their second chance—and I think that the location has a lot to do with our acceptance. The people here have been through more pain than most.
For more information about the Villalobos Rescue Center, visit: http://www.vrcpitbull.net/dog/