In hideous detail, the case of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who pleaded not guilty last week to federal charges related to dogfighting, has given Americans an unobstructed view of a criminal underworld. This savage pastime is America's most criminalized form of animal cruelty - banned in 50 states, a felony in 48 of them, and, as of May, a federal felony. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia also prohibit being a spectator at a dogfight. Yet dogfighting is proliferating in many parts of the country, as are the pit bulls enlisted as combatants.
Once confined to rural areas, dogfighting has found a welcome in urban communities and is often associated with gang activity, narcotics traffic and other social ills and vices. There are at least 10 underground dogfighting magazines, a growing selection of Web sites, and breeding operations with names such as Bad Newz Kennels, now made famous because of its association with Vick. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are at least 40,000 people who are professionals, hobbyists or street fighters - the three primary classes of dogfighters that we track.
For as long as human beings have had spare time on their hands, there has been a certain type of person who derives excitement and enjoyment from watching the violence and death of animals in staged combat. We think of the bloody spectacles of the Roman Coliseum as the excesses of a distant age. Though the spectacles are less elaborate in our day, they continue, and in some corners of society they flourish.
In America, dogfights almost always involve pit bulls, which are bred for power, speed and aggressiveness. Training further hones their fighting instincts - including the use of bait animals killed by the pit bulls to instill a more intense killer instinct.
In organized dogfighting, dogs are taken "off the chain" and game-tested in a short match with another dog. Animals are often killed when they do not perform well, as the Vick indictment lays out in such disturbing details - with tested dogs hung, bludgeoned and even electrocuted in a vindictive act of disappointment.
For the dogs that are conscripted for full-on fights, they are faced off against a dog of equal weight in an enclosed pit, with spectators lining the perimeter. The referee yells "let's go" and the dogs collide in the middle, biting and attacking in a punishing display of athleticism and tenacity, often referred to as "gameness."
Some fights may last 20 minutes; others can drag on an hour or longer. The match usually continues as long as the animals keep fighting and holding. Sometimes both dogs succumb, often to blood loss or shock.
In the laws of our country, Americans have rejected this use of animals - because it is cruel in itself and a breeder of other vices. But as the Vick scandal has now reminded us, our laws protecting animals from abuse are still in need of serious enforcement.
Wayne Pacelle is president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.
By the numbers
The estimated number of people in the United States involved in professional dogfighting, an illegal blood sport with fight purses as high as $100,000.
States where dog fighting is illegal. It's a misdemeanor in Idaho and Wyoming, and a felony everywhere else.
Dogfighting cases reported this year, according to animal advocacy group Pet-abuse.com. It cites reports of dogfighting cases increased from 16 in 2000 to 127 in 2006.