Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine
Years ago when Annie Torres was struggling to make ends meet and she’d find a homeless dog in desperate need of medical attention, she didn’t hesitate to take the pooch to the veterinarian. Torres would then live on hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, putting the vet bills first.
“There were years we really struggled,” says Torres, who lives in Woodland, California, with her father, Gus. “But it was worth it. It meant that an innocent dog would not get put to sleep because they could not get vet care.”
In the two decades since saving her first dog, Torres, 46, has made it her mission to rescue as many injured or homeless pups who have cross her path as she can. She’s single-handedly saved over 200 pooches found roaming country roads or slated for euthanasia in shelters at a cost of over $50,000 – all from her own pocket.
Torres finds most of them homes, oftentimes driving hours – and once days cross country – to personally deliver them. Those Torres can’t place, or whom she falls in love with, she permanently keeps. Currently, 12 pups fill her 3-bedroom ranch home.
“She is an amazing person, one of a kind,” says Dr. Richard Thornburgh, D.V.M., Torres’s veterinarian who has treated Torres’s injured pooches for the last 15 years at a discount or for free. “She has a huge heart.”
This past year, Torres decided to take her devotion one step further. She’s long been sickened by the millions of dogs who end up in shelters and are killed each year, and dreamed of decreasing the number of dogs entering shelters in the first place.
Then a homeless puppy Torres was fostering died in her hands. “I remember that devastating feeling,” she says, “that there must be something I can do to stop this.”
In October 2015, Torres created the non-profit Crash Fund to provide free spaying and neutering for area dogs, raising $10,000 that paid for 100 dogs to get spayed and neutered for free between May and July. (She put in $1,500 of her own money.)
Thornburgh and his staff at Valley Oak Vet Hospital in Woodland donated their time, while Torres supplied the surgical necessities, microchips and vaccines. More clinics are planned for the future.
“When people call me up after their free services and say how grateful they are they did the right thing and don’t have to dump puppies at a shelter, that takes the sting out of what’s happening every day. I have to focus on the good we can do one dog at a time,” she says.
One particularly special dog is Pickles, a gray and white pit bull abandoned in 2013 at a local shelter with a serious bowel injury and slated for euthanasia. Torres received a call about Pickles and whisked her to Thornburgh, who performed three lifesaving surgeries free of charge. Says Torres: “It was love at first sight. We all saw how special she was.”
Now the world does, too. Pickles’ adventures and Torres’s hilarious comments are followed on Facebook by the dog’s 128,00 fans. Torres named her spay and neuter effort “No puppies for hussies,” after Pickles.
“I call her the hussie,” says Torres, laughing, “because she shakes her booty at the other dogs.”
This hussie has her own pin-up calendar, which helped raise money for the first round of spaying and neutering. Torres named The Crash Fund after one of her brood – Crash – a pit bull puppy she rescued after his breeder dropped him, shattering his elbow.
Torres’ passion for saving dogs began around the same time she started working in 1996 for Landing Products, a manufacturer of propellers for remote control aircraft, including drones. The owner took Torres under his wing, and six years ago, he turned the company over to Torres and a business partner after he was diagnosed with fatal pancreatic cancer.
While Torres’s macaroni and cheese days are over now, she says financial security pales to the joy she feels when saving a mistreated pup.
“Seeing a dog dumped, a poor beaten-down creature, and showing them love and watching them blossom and turn into the most incredible living creatures you can imagine,” says Torres, “is reward beyond money, beyond anything you can imagine.”