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Former Gotti crew tough guy opens up about becoming an animal lover, changing his ways

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James Giuliani is shown in a promotional photo for "Diamond Collar."OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

For 20 years James Giuliani was an enforcer for the Gotti crew but an abandoned dog turned his world upside-down. Now the 46-year-old former tough guy co-owns a pet store and grooming salon with his girlfriend Lena Perelli called "Diamond Collar." He also searches the streets for dogs and cats and tries to find them homes. You can see Giuliani in action on Oprah's network, OWN, in a reality show called "Diamond Collar." He spoke to FOX411 about his transformation.

FOX411: So was “Goodfellas” like a documentary for you?
James Giuliani: Yeah it was! I knew practically everyone in the movie. They grew up in my neighborhood. There's no happy ending being on the streets. Nobody retires from being a tough guy. There's no retirement package with that. Eventually you've got to make a move. It eats you up. Your demons eat you up. All the violence and all the bad you've done over the years eventually you get a conscience and I was struggling with that.

At this point in my life I don't want to do certain things that I used to do. I'm respected for that. Nobody says, “Get the f--k out of here, you're a punk.” No, they extend their hand to me. They say, “You've found your purpose in life,” and I did.

FOX411: How long were you a gangster?
Giuliani: I was a gangster for probably 20 years. I was doing anything that made me money. I lived by the code of the street.

FOX411: I assume you landed yourself in jail.
Giuliani: It was all different kinds of bits. There was a two year bit. There was a year bit, a six month bit. We call them skid bits. Gun charges, an assault charge, stuff like that.

FOX411: How did you get into rescuing animals?
Giuliani: I was getting real down on myself. I was at the crossroads of my life. I was abusing alcohol and drugs. I was turning into a crazy person and I wasn't liking myself anymore. Something happened where I met the right girl and she started pounding it into me. It was funny actually, the first week I met Lena she broke my jaw. She gave me a right hook to the jaw and said, “Wake up!” I needed someone like that in my life…

She was a big animal lover and I wasn't. I found this beautiful little baby on the street, his name was Bruno, and Lena made me take responsibility and basically made me in charge. So I fell in love with him and he ended up dying on me and it was a very bad thing. I buried two brothers, my parents. Death to me is something that happens, and I get through it but for some reason his death was something that hit me in a different spot in my heart.

Lena saw that and said, “Look at your life and how you're wasting it when you could be helping dogs and cats like Bruno.” From that day on, I decided never to get drunk, pick up a drug, get out of my violent ways.

FOX411: Did you relate to Bruno?
Giuliani: One hundred percent. He rescued me. If I would have never met Bruno. I was destined for the boneyard, either that or jail for the rest of my life.

FOX411: How many years since you had your epiphany?
Giuliani: That was eight years ago. I'm now 100 percent sober. I haven't been arrested for a crime. I put everything behind me. I can't rescue animals from prison so even raising my hands to people, stuff like that, I try to put my hands in my pocket right now instead of their face because I need to be here for my animals. I need to be helping.

FOX411: So you rescue abandoned animals.
Giuliani: I take animals from the street. I rehabilitate them, and then we try to find them homes. It's totally cage free. All the dogs, cats and rabbits live together in harmony. I want them to have a home environment.

FOX411: I bet you weren't an animal lover [earlier in your life]. I bet you would kick dogs.
Giuliani: I was one of those guys. I was a selfish person. That's why it's so important for me to be where I am because I change people's minds. I'm 6 foot 2, 240 pounds and they see me, a tough guy rescuing a kitten. I've changed so many minds over the years. Now I've got tough guys calling me about abandoned animals, and they would never have done that. They've seen my transformation, it's getting to their hearts and that's my accomplishment.

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