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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Animal activists and law enforcement agencies say the Michael Vick case has brought to light a savage underground culture that has seen a new surge in popularity.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: Working cautiously with an assistant, Tim Harkness bends down, examining a muscular black pit bull.

Dr. TIM HARKNESS (Veterinarian): (Unintelligible) keep away from other dogs.

MANN: Harkness is a dog lover and chief veterinarian at a clinic run by the Humane Society on the outskirts of Houston. He shakes his head in disgust.

Dr. HARKNESS: Now, what they've done to this dog turned my - they've branded him for identification purposes.

MANN: The letter M has been burned into the skin of the dog's hindquarters. The animal sits patiently as Harkness, a trim, gray-haired man, turns its muzzle gently to the light.

Dr. HARKNESS: If you look at his face, you can see old fight wounds, scarred up. You can see his ears have been shredded.

MANN: This dog and its scars are evidence in a criminal case, one of a growing number of investigations into dogfighting around the country.

(Soundbite of dogfighting video)

MANN: Welcome to the brutal and secretive world of professional dogfights. This video, confiscated by the Humane Society of the U.S. during a dogfighting raid and provided to NPR, shows two pit bulls in a crude wooden ring. Goaded by their owners and cheered on by the crowd, the animals tear at each other's faces and throats.

(Soundbite of dogfighting video)

MANN: Dogfighting is a felony in 48 states. But for years the secretive network of trainers, breeders and owners manage to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement. That's changed in recent months, with high-profile busts of suspected dogfighting kennels in Illinois, Texas, Virginia, and Ohio.

Mr. JOHN GOODWIN (Humane Society): I was on a dogfighting raid in Ohio back in March.

MANN: John Goodwin is a dogfighting investigator with the Humane Society. He works regularly with law enforcement on some of the country's most harrowing cases.

Mr. GOODWIN: We found one female pit bull, and the entire front half of her lower jaw had been broken completely off.

MANN: In some cities, Goodwin says, the number of pit bulls turning up at animal shelters with scars and fight wounds has risen tenfold.

Mr. GOODWIN: Up until about 10, 15 years ago, this was pretty much an entirely rural activity. Now there's still a lot of dogfighters in the rural areas, but they've kind of been overtaken by an urban crowd.

MANN: Goodwin blames dogfighting's latest vogue on pop culture icons, including pro athletes like Michael Vick and hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and DMX, who've made pit bulls a part of their rebel image.

(Soundbite of DMX video)

MANN: In this DMX music video, two dogs are shown in the fighting pits, snarling and snapping. High-profile investigations are putting more pressure on dogfighters.

But in some parts of the country, the illegal contests still enjoy a remarkable level of cultural acceptance.

Ms. REBECCA CORNFIELD (Animal Control Officer): Oh, it's common.

MANN: Rebecca Cornfield says she herself went to dogfight years ago, before she became an animal control officer in Bay City, a rural town an hour outside of Houston.

Ms. CORNFIELD: But it happens a lot here. It happens everywhere, but all these old, abandoned houses, when I went to the fights it was always in an old abandoned house.

MANN: In small towns where dogfighting is a tradition, Corenfield says top trainers and breeders are established members of the community.

Ms. CORENFIELD: There's high rollers, like real high rollers, that you know they're doing it. It's so hard to prove though. If we can get the money to get somebody undercover in there, we'd be able to bust them. It's just - there's not the money or the manpower.

MANN: Investigators say high-level dogfighting rings are harder to infiltrate than drug cartels.

Unidentified Man #1: Good boy, Barney. Good boy. Good boy, Barney.

MANN: But despite dogfighting's savagery, a public debate continues over the seriousness of this crime. In Idaho and Wyoming, staging a battle is still only a misdemeanor. Here in Texas, where dogfighting is a felony, stiffer prison sentences have triggered controversy.

Here's popular Houston talk show host Chris Baker.

Mr. CHRIS BAKER (Radio Host): You just think people are, like I did, that people are conditioned...

Unidentified Man #2: They are conditioned because...

Mr. BAKER: ...to take the side of the animal.

Unidentified Man #2: ...media they watch.

Mr. BAKER: That's nuts. I just...

MANN: This spring, when Congress debated new federal legislation banning the interstate trafficking of fighting dogs and roosters, 39 representatives voted against the bill. Eleven were from right here in Texas. In a twist, most of the bill's opponents say they aren't fans of dogfighting. Instead, they're conservative pro-life Republicans like Congressman Steve King from Iowa who says it's wrong for the federal government to criminalize pit bull trafficking while allowing legal abortion.

Representative STEVE KING (Republican, Iowa): My vote says that human life needs to be elevated and stay above animal life. And I think it devalues all human life when you set the life of an animal up above that of a human.

MANN: But most Republicans, along with more than 500 law enforcement agencies, did endorse the bill. The Humane Society's John Goodwin says that support reflects the fact that dogfighters are often involved in other types of crime.

Mr. GOODWIN: It goes hand in hand with gang activity, with narcotics.

MANN: The bill passed overwhelmingly, and President Bush signed it into law in May. But veterinarian Tim Harkness says tougher laws and longer prison sentences won't help the pit bulls already being brutalized by fighting rings. The thousands of fighting dogs recovered every year in the U.S. are kept alive only as long as they're needed for evidence. They can never be adopted out as normal pets.

Dr. TIM HARKNESS (Chief, Veterinarian, Houston Humane Society): They're unsociable. They're extremely dog-aggressive. It would be a liability to people if one of these animals were to attack a child, which has happened in Houston. They will be euthanized.

MANN: This reality is painful for Harkness. In most cases, he doesn't believe in euthanizing animals. But he puts a hand on the scarred back of the pit bull branded with the letter M and says it's time to end this dog's suffering.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

WERTHEIMER: The thousands of pit bulls killed each year because of dogfighting represent only a tiny fraction of the millions of dogs and cats that are euthanized in America.

Unidentified Man #3: You turn the animal over to a shelter, animal care agency, and think that, well, that animal is going to be adopted. That's not always the case. Healthy and adoptable animals are euthanized for a lack of space and because you just run out of options.

WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY, Brian Mann examines what experts call the tragic overpopulation of pets in this country.

You can trace the history of dogfighting from ancient Rome to post-Taliban Afghanistan at npr.org.

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