"There's no question that it exists and that it's pretty prevalent," said Kim Hammond, chief veterinarian at the Falls Road Animal Hospital. "We see these big, mean, muscular pit bulls and they look like they've been mugged. They've been bitten all over the face and body, and they're very aggressive with other dogs."
In such cases, the Falls Road hospital reports the owner to police.
"We don't mess around," Hammond said. "We try to nail them. The problem is that the police have limited resources to investigate. But we try to make it not so fun for these folks to come to our hospital."
Hammond said the hospital sees a few animals a month that appear to have been in fights. He said that rate has remained steady for many years.
The Baltimore-based Adopt a Homeless Animal rescue specializes in saving pit bulls, and volunteers see the grisly effects of dogfighting every week, said Russell Ashton.
"We sadly see it all the time," she said. "Dogs who've been used to fight, dogs used as bait."
Ashton said fighting pit bulls are particularly muscular, often covered in scars or open puncture wounds and sometimes have theirs ears clipped to prevent opponents from grasping them.
She said dogs used as "bait," weaker animals set between two hungry fighters to get them riled, show up in even sadder states. Many have been declawed or intentionally blinded: "anything to make them as defenseless as possible," Ashton said.
She said that of the 500 to 600 pit bulls the rescue has handled, more than a third have been "bait" dogs and about 50 to 60 have been fighters. When she goes to the city pound, however, she sees far more former fighters than she could ever adopt.
"It's unbelievably prevalent," she said. "And it's all over, from the boondocks to the inner city to Hampden. It's big sport, big-money betting."
Evidence of the dogfighting culture sometimes flares up in court. In 1996, for example, a Baltimore County Circuit judge sentenced an Essex man to more than 10 years in prison after a police raid on his home found 43 pit bulls and a blood-smeared area of the basement apparently used for dogfights.
The city's connection to dogfighting even made it into an episode of HBO's The Wire. A drug lieutenant, "Cheese," shot his pit bull after the animal was wounded in a losing fight.
That highlights an important point about dogfighting for those who battle it.
"No matter how you feel about protecting animals, generally, the people involved in dogfighting are not good people," said Frank Branchini, director of the Humane Society of Baltimore County. "They're probably doing a lot of things wrong."
A Chicago Police study of dogfighting incidents between 2001 and 2004 found that in 382 cases, 59 percent of dog owners had known gang affiliations and 86 percent had been arrested at least twice.
Owners range in seriousness, Goodwin said, from those who put their pit bulls into hastily thrown-together scraps in neighborhood basements and warehouses to those who breed champions and use runners to ship dogs around the country for high-stakes battles.
Goodwin went on an Ohio raid in March that hit eight breeding houses and one fighting venue on the same night. Such stings are becoming more common, he said, as authorities realize they can nab drug and weapons dealers by tapping dogfighting rings. He hopes the Vick case will cause more people to call the police when they see evidence of dogfighting.
"Certainly, there's a spotlight on it right now," he said. "We can hope that people become aware that it's happening in their areas and turn the criminals in. Maybe some good can come of it."
Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.