During his five years in the drug game, Shawn Banks ran street corners, robbed dealers at gunpoint, and bet thousands of dollars a week on dogfights in his North Philadelphia neighborhood.

"It was just part of the norm," said Banks, now 40, sitting on a couch Thursday afternoon at the Hunting Park Recreation Center. "I never thought what I was doing was wrong."

Then, in 1995, someone kidnapped him and put a gun to his head.

"That was it for me," Banks said of his gangster life.

Escaping death, he sought redemption for all he had destroyed. He started a nonprofit in 2001 called Philly-Wood 7 that mentors youth. And he recently hooked up with the Humane Society of the United States as a community organizer in its campaign to end dogfighting in Philadelphia.

"Basically, I connect them to the hood," Banks said, then grinned, at the center Thursday to support a news conference that officially opened the local effort.

While campaign representatives and local officials spoke, Yukon Cornelius, one of 200 pit bulls the Humane Society rescued from a dogfighting yard in Ohio, sat next to Banks and licked his smiling face.

The End Dogfighting campaign combines positive dog training, community outreach, and violence-interruption skills for teens and young adults.

"One of the great problems that we have seen," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), "is that young people, men and boys, they're getting pit bulls for the wrong reasons. They're getting them as a kind of macho display, or as a fighting instrument, or for some other purpose that is not related to having a loving pet.

"This has become an epidemic in America."

The HSUS runs similar intervention programs in Chicago and Atlanta. The effort began in 2006. With its expansion into Philadelphia, classes taught by professional dog trainers will be held at the office of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA) on East Erie Avenue in Hunting Park until a permanent site is found. Community organizers such as Barnes will also visit schools to spread awareness. The campaign is funded through private donations.

"Rather than just say, 'Don't fight dogs,' " Pacelle said, "we say, 'Love your animal. Train your animal.' And we will provide a setting to give them a new experience with their pit bulls."

Youths will learn to value the physical prowess of pit bulls in a different way, Pacelle said, through activities such as training their dogs to go through obstacle courses, jump on platforms, and other feats that showcase discipline and training.

"It's a way that these young men and boys can have pride in the animals," Pacelle continued. "And what we've seen is, it's not just a great outcome for these animals. It's a great outcome for these young men and boys."

Philadelphia has long been a hotbed for dogfighting, said Sue Cosby, head of the PSPCA.

She told those gathered that her office shelves were stacked with annual reports that date the agency's first dogfighting investigation to the late 1800s.

"The new problem," Cosby said, "is that we continue to see a dramatic rise in statistics. We had less than 300 cases reported just three years ago, and now we're seeing about 1,200 cases annually" across Pennsylvania.

Cosby attributed the uptick to a push for tougher laws - in some states, including Pennsylvania, participating in or even watching dogfighting is now a felony - and to increased community awareness.

In Hunting Park, Banks, a North Philadelphia native, said dogfighting happened every day, from a few kids letting dogs go at each other in the street or in back alleys to organized, underground rings run by drug dealers in abandoned buildings, like the ones he once gambled in.

"People make a living off of it," Banks explained.

He described his role in the campaign as something of an ambassador.

"We're just trying to change their mind-set before they go to jail," said Banks. In talking to youth, he said, he often cites as an example Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who served 18 months in prison for dogfighting and has since joined the End Dogfighting campaign. "I'm trying to connect with the young ones to tell them to stop. You don't want to wait until it's too late."

Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601 or kgregory@phillynews.com.