Imagine for a moment what life is like for an ex-con … You’re finally free after years behind bars, rehabilitated and ready to re-enter society, only to have doors slammed in your face. Unable to find a job, you are left essentially exiled from society as a result of your checkered past. Where do you go? How do you survive? With few options, many ex-cons return to a life of crime. However, a lucky few have found safe haven through an animal rescue organization called Pets in the Hood.
Pets in the Hood, part of the Lobos Rescue Center, is a multi-task program which caters to the “underdogs” of both the canine world and the human one as well. Deep in the desert, virtually in the middle of nowhere, lives Tia Torres, director and surrogate mom to over 200 Pit Bulls. Each day tattooed parolees, released from prison after serving time for such acts as attempted murder, armed robbery and drug dealing, come to work for her and spend their days caring for and rehabilitating rescued Pit Bulls. Some end up being adopted; most do not. They call these dogs “Lifers.” The once-hardened criminals working here can relate – they know what life inside a cage is like.
Moses, the facility’s first employee, has dedicated himself the past five years to the well-being of the dogs.
“I work seven days a week, all day long. It makes me happy because I don’t want to do anything else. Especially after being in prison for so long.”
Through working at the facility and participating in Youth and Adult programs, these ex-prisoners have become role models for a younger generation of at-risk youth who, by learning from the mistakes of these men and women, hopefully avoid their own mistakes. Torres is right at home here, raising her four kids right along side ex-cons and Pit Bulls. She is single-handedly stopping the cycle of animal abuse and gang violence by educating at-risk youth and showing them that their bark is always bigger than their bite.
The main focus of the program is the dogs, naturally. Pit Bulls are strong, energetic, agile and powerful dogs. They are also remarkably affectionate, and crave human attention. Rescued from gang fights, unwanted homes and other animal shelters and brought here, they are given a new leash on life. And, according to Torres, the same could be said for the employees too.
“When Moses came in, he was a little rough around the edges. He didn’t smile, he didn’t laugh, he just didn’t look happy. We purchased a Pit Bull named Roxanne from some gang members in the front of a 7-11 in West LA. [One day] I heard singing, and I crept around the corner and Mo had her on her legs, and he was dancing with her, singing ‘Roxane’ by Sting. I just giggled said ‘Ah ha, he’s finally becoming a human.’ That was the start of it; I said these dogs got something special.”
In California, it takes over $40,000 a year to keep a man incarcerated. It takes just $16,000 a year to employ the same man at Pets in the Hood. To wit, it costs about $1,200 dollars a year to care for each dog living here, but that same dog in a loving home costs as little as $650. It’s Torres’ mission to find each of these dogs a home. “If we’re lucky, we get one adoption a month.”
Currently, Pit Bulls make up about 70% of the dogs in the shelter system. Most of them will never be placed in loving homes as a result of their reputation. Torres runs into road blocks all the time that “normal” shelters never encounter.
“I know what it’s like to be the underdog when it comes to looking for funding and grants. I get shot down all the time. For example, a large dog food company was giving away free dog food. I called up and they said ‘Oh you’re the Pit Bull center? We can’t give you food.’ It would be a liability, see, because if they gave me food, and that food fed dogs that were adopted and then these dogs go out and kill somebody … this is what we’re up against.”
Slowly but surely, Torres hopes to change the tarnished image of Pit Bulls. Many celebrities, like Alicia Silverstone, Rosie Perez, Rachael Ray and Serena Williams own these loyal companions.
Every day isn’t an uphill battle, though. The parolees employed here have unbreakable bonds with the dogs and in turn, the dogs give them the unwavering love and loyalty they might not have known elsewhere, especially in prison.
Moses sums it up nicely: “They are a huge part of my life now. Before, I wasn’t really a dog person; now I have tattoos of them on me. They’ve changed my life. If it wasn’t for the dogs and Tia, I’d probably still be in prison.”
For more information, please visit: www.petsinthehood.org.