Kali and Marika have been stuffed with nandrolone and carnitine, doped and "dried," waiting to represent the Wild Boys Kennel against rivals Top Line. And so it would end: the former died, the latter won. Zeus instead had been tested with a couple of sparring matches, waiting an encounter with Dwaith: they tore each other to pieces, and a winner was declared on points, as gang members dubbed "the Belgians," "the Frenchman" and "Marko the Serb" looked on.

Such sequences are described in a recent report from an Italian investigation into dogfighting, featuring mainly pit bulls. It is a grim story of a fight club for dogs with secret Facebook groups, bets worth thousands of euros, and a transnational network that trains and places these canine champions in secret rings around Italy.

The blood sport first peaked in the late 1990s, as the Naples-based Camorra mob network earned tens of million annually. But according to the LAV (Italian Anti-Vivisection League), dogfighting in Italy has picked up again over the past two years, with 5-10% growth in complaints received by authorities. These days, the criminal organizations running the fights are more fragmented and often connected with foreign networks. Authorities estimate that the industry across Europe brings in some 3 billion euros, where bets range from a minimum of 250 euros in low-category rings and peak at 10,000 euros when challengers are examples of an eminent pedigree, often showcased across hidden internet sites.

The dual goal is to build a dog's muscle mass and to stimulate aggression.

The investigation found that new recruits are being drawn in from the growing number of stray dogs in Italy, currently approaching one million animals. And although laws have been designed to crack down on organizers of the bloody matches, sentences never exceed two years. This is because the recognition of genuine criminal links is complex. And behind such extreme and profitable animal brutality, other forms of crime are often masked, such as drug trafficking.

To understand the scale of violence performed by some groups, one can examine the details of the charges in the criminal report: "They organized the sale or exchange of large dogs of the Molossian breed, from Italy or imported from abroad, and raised in various places for use in fights. They subjected the dogs to solitude, strict diets, and continuous psychic tension, as well as narcotics and other prohibited substances."

Screenshot of a dogfighting betting website — Source: Pedigree database

Marco Calì, head of the police detective team in Genoa conducting the first round of investigations, noted the methodical approach to the racket. "What amazes me is the cynicism towards animals and the structure of the operation, such as the creation of small gyms and systematic harassment to increase performance." The dual goal is to build a dog's muscle mass and to stimulate aggression. The result is "great harm or death to an unknown number of animals," says Calì.

As in the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the first rule of any fight club is to never talk about the fight club. The participants on secret Facebook groups have teams, rankings, trades and transfers, and closely guarded details about upcoming matches. All of it is illegal, and yet a real community with jargon and secret words. The glue for the enterprise is the shared, insane passion for the sport — the sport of dogs that kill other dogs.

If the owners do not want to have problems, they entrust their animals to the organizers and they enjoy the fight from home, thanks to the images taken with smartphones and shared online. For lovers of these challenges — including the versions featuring boars or pigs — the training phase is the litmus test to understand if your dog will be a champion or not. One of the unavoidable features of sparring matches is the use of an electric collar, to punish the dog with a shock when it does not respond to commands. The use of violence is excessive: beatings, fasting, massive drug doses and constant kicks to increase aggression.

It is non-stop training to create killers and, ultimately, to make big money. Ciro Troiano of the zoomafia task squad for LAV, says the evidence has been systematically gathered. "We've found puppies with injuries or dead animals with scars, theft of large animals, seizures of pit bull farms, Internet pages that glorify the fighting," he explained. "These are all signs that reveal a submerged and ruthless world."

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