A CANE CORSO might look like a pit bull on steroids, as one expert described it.

But don't let any backyard breeder fool you about these big Italian mastiffs that, with their ears cropped, can look like American Staffordshire terriers, a breed often lumped in the pit-bull category.

More Cane Corsos have been dumped in the Philadelphia area than in the rest of the country combined - presumably by disappointed purchasers who wanted to enter them in dogfights or just keep them to look "bad," a local rescuer says.

Amy Parsons, treasurer of Big Paws, Big Hearts, a Philadelphia-area Cane Corso rescue group, thinks that people who buy the dogs want "a big, tough dog breed to fight" but soon learn that they're not fighting dogs.

"We think that's why a lot of them are getting dumped," she said.

Chris Schindler, manager of animal-fighting law-enforcement for the Humane Society of the United States, said the agency had never heard of a Cane Corso being used for fighting.

But the dogs are a "very popular breed" for buyers "looking to get a dog that's big and bad-looking," said Nicole Wilson, an animal-abuse investigator for the Pennsylvania SPCA.

She said the agency was seeing "a lot of cases of neglect and cruelty" involving lack of food, water, shelter and veterinary care for Cane Corsos. She couldn't give a specific figure.

Female Cane Corsos can weigh as much as 100 pounds, males as much as 120 pounds. Despite a good temperament, the dogs require an owner who is firmly in control, Parsons said.

Since February, when Big Paws, Big Hearts started to assist national rescuers, the local group has taken more than 55 Cane Corsos from shelters in Philadelphia and from Camden, Trenton and Delaware County.

"We have some dogs that were used for breeding purposes and then dumped," Parsons said. One of the older dogs was thrown out of a moving vehicle in the Northeast. "We just took in a litter of puppies" along with their mother from Trenton, she added.

"Sometimes we get dogs in that have scars on them that are indicative that they have been forced to serve as 'bait' dogs," used by dogfighters to attack as part of training, Parsons said.

The Cane Corsos - some of which are strays - taken in by the local rescuers must be trained to trust people and other animals, and are placed in foster homes or on Petfinder.com to seek permanent homes.

Petfinder last week listed 127 Cane Corsos and Cane Corso mixes from around the country.

"We've turned down a large number of additional dogs because we don't have the space," said Parsons.