It’s funny, this city.
Three years ago, I was an intern at LA Weekly. Aside from my normal internship underling duties, every week, an editor asked me to turn in short stories that I felt would be a good fit for the Weekly. It was a wonderful and daunting challenge: I went through story after story, draft after draft, only to be told that the subject matter or the treatment of it didn’t quite fit.
But I kept going. I kept going because more than anything else, I didn’t know what else to do.
And a question burned: Were none of my stories working because I plain didn’t understand Los Angeles? Did I just not get what Los Angeles was, deep, at its core; could I not feel its essence?
I’d been volunteering at the South Los Angeles Animal Shelter for more than a year at that point. I’d help clean out the cages, walk potential adopters around the facility, answer questions, play with the animals. I figured this world, at least, would turn out to be a decent story, so I interviewed one of my supervisors at LA Animal Services. I
n the course of the interview she mentioned, offhandedly, a woman who lived in the deserts north of town who rehabilitated pit bulls. From the moment I heard the story of Tia Maria Torres, it sounded different.
Several weeks later, I drove out of the city to a compound near Agua Dulce, off the Palmdale Freeway in the Santa Clarita Valley. Tia, along with her “guys” – parolees looking for a second chance (and in some cases, chances far beyond a second) – cared for nearly 200 pit bulls and a few other abandoned, troubled dogs.
To support herself and her work, Tia hired her dogs out for movie shoots and other Hollywood work, these “sinister” dogs with their tough complexions perfect for Tinseltown’s labeling and stereotyping factory: every producer’s need to identify, in a flash cut confined to the unforgiving box of the silver screen, the good and the bad. Much of the time, the movie work wasn’t enough, and Tia had mortgaged everything she had to keep the place afloat while still finding space for dogs displaced during Hurricane Katrina.
Each day, she hoped to adopt out the dogs that could be adopted, knowing full well that some dogs would never be able to be placed in a new home. These dogs became her “lifers” – and she made room for them even when she didn’t have any.
To say that Tia’s story is an L.A. story is an understatement. In a city where nearly 70 percent of all the dogs in shelters are pit bulls and media coverage of infrequent pit bill attacks makes them almost impossible to adopt out, in a city with a stable cadre of citizens who routinely buy and train pit bulls to be ferocious protectors only to chain them to the fences of shelters when they are no longer needed, Tia fills an absolutely essential void in a uniquely Angeleno way.
Where else in the world could someone so ferociously fight for the dignity of the misunderstood and the vilified with the money earned in the apparatus of Hollywood, the purveyor of some of our worst misunderstandings and easy stereotypes? Where else but Los Angeles would Tia, who grew up in privilege as the daughter of a movie director, only to turn her back on the “yacht-club” lifestyle and run with gangs, only to see the destruction wrought by violent street life and then devote the rest of her life to both saving and restarting the lives of those she once called “the underdogs of the canine world and the human world?”
When I met her the first time, in her living room, she was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Racism is the Pits.” She meant it then, and she means it now.
Just last week, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from Tia.
“Hi there Joe,” she writes. “A few years ago you did an article about me called ‘Underdogs.’ Well look what it turned into because of your article!!”
Despite the fact that I had very little to do with the cause to which she’d devoted most of a lifetime, she was modestly referring to a new series on Animal Planet called “Pit Bulls and Parolees.” Her show. Her new show. The visual, visceral chronicle of her efforts long overdue.
I still don’t know if I understand Los Angeles, what Los Angeles means or what Los Angeles is, but Tia helped me understand that this is a city, a battleground, of identity. Los Angeles, the City of Angels, playing host to the constant conflict between who you are – a question only you can answer, and never fully – and what people see. The struggle to be better, to get a second chance even if the road is long and filled with setbacks, because being an underdog here keeps you honest, hopeful and hungry.
Underdog to Top Dog: Pit Bulls and Parolees
It’s funny, this city.