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Organized dog fights are found in Mass.

Officials say operation secretive, small-scale

NEW BEDFORD -- The first scarred body of a pit bull was found Saturday, floating off a beach popular with fishermen. The next day, the second pit bull drifted into the marina, its body skin-pink and bloated.

Authorities and animal rescue officers say the animals' injuries were consistent with dog fighting, confirming that the brutal activity is taking place in the Bay State.

The deaths may be linked to an underground, informal network of small-scale dog fighting that stretches across state lines, said Christopher J. Charbonneau, a humane officer with the Animal Rescue League of Boston who is working on the case. In such networks, he said, owners are more concerned about winning street credibility than large sums of money.

"It's so clandestine," Charbonneau said yesterday, standing near where the first dog was found off West Beach in the city's South End. Usually, he said, all that investigators find is the body of a dog that has outlived its profitability or has served as bait for other dogs to practice fighting.

The disturbing dog-fighting subculture gained national attention last month when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was indicted on federal dog-fighting charges. In response, Senator John F. Kerry filed a bill that would make it illegal to train, deliver, own, buy, or sell dogs for fighting or to be bred for fighting.

State Representative Louis L. Kafka is pressing legislation that would increase the penalty for watching a dog fight to five years in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both, making the penalty as large as that for participants and breeders.

Charbonneau clicked through photos on his laptop of the remains of the dogs found over the weekend, their wet fur outlined against bright blue stretchers. In the past, he has watched videos of fights found in old homes or confiscated in drug raids.

"If you can stomach to watch an entire fight, there's something wrong with you," he said. "I've been doing this for 18 years, and I still get sick."

He said he fears that people who view dog fights might become desensitized to other types of violence and become more likely to commit crimes.

Vick's popularity hasn't helped, he said. "You see kids on the street saying they want to be like him. We say, we'll see you in six years in the House of Correction."

Yesterday, a man in a silver truck who pulled up to the spot where the first pit bull was found said dog fighting had gained popularity in New Bedford's South End after a 2005 documentary called "Off the Chain."

"Everybody knows, everybody here in the South End," said the man, 34, who identified himself only as Paul for security reasons. "They do what they see in the movie."

Scott Giacoppo, deputy director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, used to investigate animal cruelty cases in a previous position, when dog fighting made up a third of his caseload.

"It's a very secretive and underground society," Giacoppo said. "To get to one of these sites, you have to be sponsored by someone who's already in. Security people will check you out before you even know where the location is. We just can't infiltrate that."

Although dog fighters have gone underground with the rise of reality television shows like "Animal Precinct," in which animal-control officers hunt down animal abusers, Giacoppo said dog fighting has remained steady during his years on the job.

"It's no different than the Roman gladiators," he said. "It's all people who get a kick out of watching the torment, the blood, the torture."

The Animal Rescue League of Boston is offering a $5,000 reward for tips on the deaths of the pit bulls, and the Humane Coalition for Animals of Greater New Bedford is offering $1,000 of its own. To report tips, call 617-426-9170, ext. 110.

April Yee can be reached at ayee@globe.com.

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