ANIMAL FIGHTING - a blood sport played with unwitting contenders who feel unimaginable pain - is on the rise in Philadelphia, even as the city came under the national spotlight when notorious convicted dogfighter Michael Vick signed with the Eagles.

The bust of an alleged dogfighting ring Sunday on Bringhurst Street near Wakefield, East Germantown, was the latest of 400 cases investigated so far this year by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

That's well over the 237 cases investigated in all of 2008, said Gail Luciani, spokeswoman for the PSPCA, which did not have statistics immediately available for the type of animal involved in each case.

But clearly, "dogfighting is a problem here," said Marsha Perelman, chairwoman of the American SPCA and a Philadelphia resident.

"There's insufficient funding to enforce laws, insufficient funding to take care of dogs taken in raids and a court system that puts a low priority on dogfighting cases," she said.

Yesterday, authorities charged two men arrested Sunday, James Hargrove, 43, of the residence, and Tyrik Carr, 18, of Ashmead Street near Rubicam, with cruelty to animals and conspiracy.

The PSPCA was tipped off to the house by a caller to its hot line who said there was a dead dog in the rear of the house.

Investigators said they found two dead pit bulls and five that were injured.

Anti-cruelty experts said that dogfighting appears in virtually every state and with greater frequency along the Eastern Seaboard but that it's hard to determine how Philadelphia ranks among other cities.

"That's like asking how many people use crack-cocaine," said Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and senior vice president of the ASPCA's anti-cruelty field services. "It's an illegal and underground activity, so it's difficult to track."

John Goodwin, manager of the Humane Society of the United States' Animal Fighting Campaign, said dogfighting started to become prevalent in urban areas in the latter part of the 20th century, after the activity became a felony in most states.

"When you take something that has become a felony, the only area with any growth for something like that is where you have people . . . who are already involved in a host of other crimes," he said. "The growth of dogfighting has been among hardened criminals."

Lockwood said there was also a correlation between the growth of inner-city dogfighting and a rise of bans on pit bulls.

"It started sending out the notion that if you want to be an outlaw, get yourself a pit bull," he said.

But all types of people - including teachers, doctors, police officers, soldiers and, now, a professional football player - have gotten into dogfighting, the experts said.

Perelman, who attended yesterday's roundtable between the Eagles and local animal-welfare groups, said that Vick's publicrelations representatives approached the ASPCA before he signed with the team to participate in education outreach about dogfighting.

The ASPCA refused to work with Vick, but Perelman said she attended the meeting to give the Eagles a "clear understanding" of what they need to do address dogfighting in Philadelphia.

"This is a problem which is not going to be resolved by school assemblies," she said.

"I don't know anybody who knows what [Vick] specifically did, not only in the ring but outside of the ring, who would ever think this man could ever be reformed."

Vick watched his fighting dogs kill his pet dogs, and he killed losing dogs by drowning, electrocution and beatings, Perelman said.

She said that when Vick left prison he was a cautionary tale about how dogfighting can destroy a life, but the "instant" he signed with the Eagles, that cautionary tale disappeared.

"He's now famous, rich, has cars, drivers and police escorts," Perelman said.

"He can no longer be a compelling figure to say to anyone 'Don't do what I did' because most of the kids he's speaking to, they want to be like Mike."