It's not how we think of America in 2007: starving pit bulls tearing one another apart, "bait" dogs torn apart in minutes, "losers" beaten, shot or electrocuted, all as spectators leer, cheer and place their bets.

But, as the indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick makes clear, such blood sport is common throughout the U.S., no longer confined to rural backwaters but increasingly popular in major cities and suburbs.

And, perhaps most frightening to pet owners, the vicious blood sport feeds off of stolen household pets used as "bait."

Although Vick pleaded not guilty Thursday in Richmond, Va., to federal charges that he sponsored and participated in a dogfighting operation, revelations since his arrest make it clear that dogfighting is riding a new wave of popularity.

Some blame hip-hop and rap artists, including Jay-Z and DMX, for glamorizing dogfighting while others note that the vicious sport seems most prevalent in areas with NFL and NBA franchises.

Vick is certainly not the only professional sports figure linked to dogfighting. Former NFL running back LeShon Johnson was arrested twice for his involvement in a dogfighting ring.

Former Portland Trail Blazers forward Qyntel Woods was suspended in 2004 after he was suspected of hosting fights. He pleaded guilty to first-degree animal abuse.

In an interview the the Baltimore Sun, John Goodwin of the Humane Society said dogfighting is an increasingly common outlet for the "type A" competitive personality of top athletes.

"I think there is a pervasive subculture of dogfighting in the NFL and probably in the NBA as well," Goodwin said. "And it needs to be rooted out," the Sun reported.

North Carolina Connection

Dogfighting has traditionally been identified with the rural South. While that may be changing, the South still has more than its share of cases.

The national pet abuse Web site tracks animal cruelty nationwide. It identifies North Carolina as a hotbed of dogfighting, with seven cases in 2007, more than Georgia, Texas, Ohio and other large states.

When the Humane Society of the United States rounded up three years of dogfighting magazines and cataloged their kennel and breeder advertisements, the North Carolina folder was the thickest, the Greensboro News-Record reported.

Besides rap music and professional sports, dogfighting also often involves drugs, guns and gambling, presenting law enforcement with a volatile mix: dangerous people and dangerous dogs.

"It's a violent sport, and there's money to be made," said Robert Reder, North Carolina state director of the Humane Society. "So you have greed and violence all packaged together."

Baltimore Gets Wired

In Baltimore, where the dognapping of twin Pugs created a firestorm of public outrage, city police say they will crack down on dogfighting, noting its connection to drug dealing and illegal gambling.

Police admit dogfighting has been popular for years in Baltimore, with fights often held in rowhouse basements but in a city overwhelmed by crime, it has gone largely unprosecuted.

Police say that's about to change. Police and city health officials have formed a multi-agency dogfighting task force. Detectives will investigate dogfight rings and collect evidence against organizers, trainers, breeders and spectators.

Most cities and states allow prosecution of dogfight spectators, but those laws are seldom invoked.

Bait Dogs

Perhaps most frightening to animal lovers is the dognapping of small dogs to be used as "bait" in dogfights. Bait dogs are also used in private training sessions, as fighting dogs are trained to kill, the U.S. Humane Society says.

Most of the bait dogs are stolen, often from backyards.

Heres a recent case investigated by Humane Society officials:

An Elvira, Iowa, family reported the disappearance of their two Labrador retrievers. When the dogs didnt return, the family made flyers and talked to their neighbors.

Thats when they discovered five other Labs had been reported missing in recent weeks. A nearby boat dock owner along the Mississippi River later found three dead dogs washed up on his property: a Pit Bull, a Labrador retriever, and a smaller dog. The Pit Bull and the Lab had wounds consistent with dogfighting.

The Humane Society also says pets are stolen by bunchers, who sell the animals to research facilities. These bunchers also acquire the animals through lost, stray and free to good home" ads.

Only an estimated ten percent of the dogs and cats stolen each year in the United States are ever found, according to the U.S. Humane Society.

What To Do

How can you protect your dogs and cats from being stolen?

The U.S. Humane Society recommends you:

• Keep your pet indoors, especially when you are not at home;

• Identify your pet with a collar and tag, microchip or tattoo. Sherrie T. of Baltimore says her kidnapped Pugs have microchips. They also had tags on when they were stolen, but Richies was missing when he was found;

• Be aware of strangers in the neighborhood. Report anything unusual to the police. Sherrie says her neighbors noticed someone hanging around her background -- and calling her Pugs -- shortly before they were stolen;

• Padlock your gates and make sure people can't access your pets over the fence. Sherrie had a four-foot fence, but says the gates were not locked;

• Keep your pet on a leash whenever you go outside;

• Support federal legislation to ensure that all cats and dogs used by research facilities are legally obtained.

The U.S. Humane Society also warns pet owners should never:

• Let their pets roam free in the neighborhood;

• Have their pets be visible from the street;

• Leave their pets unattended at any time.

If your pet is stolen, authorities say you should not over-describe your pet in a lost ad -- let the caller describe the animal to you. They also say you should be wary of offering a huge reward in the ad. Only give a reward when the pet is returned.

Some scam artists prey on pet owners whove lost their dogs or cats. They respond to lost pet ads, claiming to have the missing animal. They arrange a meeting with the owner, but when they arrive, they claim the animal is at a second location. They then offer to retrieve the pet, but only if the owner gives them the reward money in advance.

Pet owners whove fallen for this scheme have lost their money and hopes of finding their missing pet.