By STACEY PLAISANCE
NEW ORLEANS — A pit bull is trapped at the bottom of a pumping station near a New Orleans levee. Rescuers joined by a Louisiana prison inmate out on work release are frantically seeking to pull the dog to safety. This is real-life drama and the television cameras are rolling.
Tia Maria Torres, star of Animal Planet's "Pit Bulls and Parolees," has moved her long-running reality TV series from southern California to New Orleans, where hurricanes and overbreeding have left many pit bulls abandoned or abused. Not to mention, she will have to contend with the blood sport of dog-fighting, a scourge in Louisiana and illegal in every state.
Torres, the tattoo-sporting founder and owner of the nation's largest pit bull rescue center, has long paired abused and abandoned dogs with the parolees who care for them. She launched the Villalobos Rescue Center more than 20 years ago in greater Los Angeles and last year relocated to south Louisiana.
The show's fifth season premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. (ET/PT) and joins a growing list of Louisiana-based reality TV shows, among them the popular A&E series, "Duck Dynasty," and the just-premiered A&E series, "The Governor's Wife," which follows the flashy former Louisiana governor, Edwin Edwards, and his much younger third wife.
For the first time, "Pit bulls and Parolees" will include an employee who is an inmate on a special work release program who is nearing the end of a 10-year sentence for drug and firearm possession. Matt Eldridge, an inmate from a correctional center in Jackson, La., has 15 months to go on his sentence.
"How fantastic that they offer that," said Torres, who has never done jail time and doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs, but feels misjudged -- much like the people and dogs she works so hard to help.
Torres said she moved to Louisiana because she knew there was a need.
"Everybody said there are a lot of leftovers from Katrina, a lot of stray dogs, a lot of dogs that need help," she said. "I'll be the first to admit. I said, 'Hey, I'm from Los Angeles. I can handle it.' And I did not see this coming."
Hurricanes quickly proved a challenge to Torres and her parolees.
Last year, the cameras were running as Torres worked to rescue her own dogs from her suburban New Orleans home, which flooded during Hurricane Isaac. In 2005, thousands of dogs were abandoned during Hurricane Katrina, and once flood-ravaged neighborhoods became breeding grounds for generations of strays loosed on city streets.
"We've basically become the dog pound," Torres said. "We've never had so many dogs, ever."
The center's main shelter, a 50,000-square-foot warehouse, is home to more than 200 dogs. Dozens of others are kept at six so-called satellite locations in houses in the metro-New Orleans area. There's no longer a Villalobos Rescue Center in California. Torres moved the entire operation, including the dogs she wasn't able to find homes for, to New Orleans.
Taking in so many dogs has come with a price. Her bills for rent, utilities, payroll and veterinary expenses have more than doubled, from roughly $20,000 a month in California to well over $40,000 a month in Louisiana.
The lack of resources in Louisiana, including low-cost spay and neuter programs, was a shock, Torres added.
"In Los Angeles, we were spoiled," she said. "We had so many animal shelters. We had state-of-the-art animal shelters. We had lots of foundations that would donate for spaying and neutering, for medical costs, a lot more rescue groups. But here, we feel alone."
At the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of only a handful of animal rescue agencies in New Orleans, more than half the dogs there are pit bulls or pit bull mixes.
The stigma associated with the breed is the most challenging issue when it comes to adoption, said the LSPCA's director, Ana Zorrilla. She said the solution is spaying and neutering the dogs and providing proper training and socializing.
"They're great companions to families when trained well and socialized well," Zorrilla said. "Tia's program has brought a national spotlight on the challenges of pit bulls across the country, not only in New Orleans. I think any attention that helps the larger community see them as valuable dogs, as dogs that have great potential for companionship, of being part of a family, I think that's wonderful."
As in past seasons, Torres said, upcoming episodes will include heart-rending rescues, adoptions and the struggles associated with the center's daily operations.
"It's going to make you cry, and it's going to make you smile all at the same time," she said. "The adoptions, there's going to be some that, I'm going to warn you now get out your box of Kleenex, and there are going to be some that are going to make you stand up and cheer."
Viewers can also expect to see more of the parolees, including Earl Moffett. After serving two 11-year prison sentences for robbery convictions, Moffett now gives tours of the center to fans of the show and visitors looking to adopt a dog. After a recent tour, he posed for pictures with some fans from Alabama.
"Never in a million years I thought I would be a part of something like this, but I'm loving it," he said. "After serving 22 years in prison, that's like a whole 'nother life right there, so this is very much a new beginning for me."