RALEIGH — The image of the American pit bull terrier was once the smiling dog living in a shoe with Buster Brown.
But today, many see the pit bull as something very different: the center of a rural, Southern white tradition of animal baiting, or the vicious devil dog snarling on the covers of rap CDs or mauling other dogs for big-time purses, as in the recent indictment of NFL star Michael Vick.
"It's important to understand that this isn't about race, but it is about culture," said Cindy Cooke of the United Kennel Club. "One is rural, and the other is urban. But both are equally horrible."
The blood sport has operated underground for years, but many agree the hip-hop use of pit bull images moved it out of the shadows -- and the Vick case placed it at center stage.
The star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Va., on charges of sponsoring, along with three others, a brutal dogfighting ring on property he owns in Smithfield, site of their Bad Newz Kennels.
The document outlines a cruel operation in which dogs are forced to do battle for purses as high as $26,000. The men allegedly "rolled" young dogs in test bouts, and those animals lacking the killer instinct were "executed" -- shot, drowned, electrocuted, hanged or, in one case, bodyslammed to the ground.
"People have this image of them as some kind of uberdog," Cooke says. "More powerful, more fierce, more terrifying."
This could not be further from the description put forth by the United Kennel Club. "The essential characteristics of the American Pit Bull Terrier are strength, confidence, and zest for life," the group's Web site declares. "This breed is eager to please and brimming over with enthusiasm. APBTs make excellent family companions and have always been noted for their love of children."
The American pit bull was developed in the late 19th century by British breeders. They were "looking for a dog that combined the gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the Bulldog," the kennel club says.
But to a dogfighter, "gameness" is code for a dog's ability to keep struggling, even as its body goes into shock from blood loss.
The breed's image remained largely positive until the late 1970s, when some attacks on children started to turn the public's perception, said Karen Delise, who has studied fatal dog attacks for 15 years and is the author of the book "The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression."
Delise blames the music industry, the media and the Internet for making the pit bull the devil dog du jour.
"It's all tied into the hip-hop culture, the image and projection of a dog as an extension of your manhood," she said. "The pit bull is the ultimate accessory."
Many breeders take great pains to distance themselves from the blood sport.
Tom Garner, who lives outside Raleigh, is a leading breeder. A 1985 dogfighting conviction, he says, was the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In an e-mail response to the AP, Garner said he would not knowingly sell to someone who wanted to fight one of these "magic animals." But dogs are out of his control once they leave his yard.
"I am aware that some dogs from my bloodline are fought," he wrote. "This is analogous to criminals using Toyotas for getaway cars because of their reliability. Certainly Toyota doesn't set out to build getaway cars, but nevertheless the criminal will often find a way to get the item that serves their purpose."
Authorities say North Carolina has become something of a center for pit bull breeding and fighting. According to the indictment, several of Vick's dogs came from North Carolina.
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