The kid was 13, maybe 14 years old. He and a friend were talking to Sgt. Steve Brownstein, who heads Chicago's Animal Abuse Control Team, in the dim hallway of a Southwest Side apartment complex.

Brownstein and fellow police officers were investigating a tip that two fighting dogs were being kept in the building. The two boys said they had been taking care of the dogs, pit bulls named Pinky and Shiny, discovered in an unlit, trash- and feces-filled, 9-by-12 electrical closet.

"Have you had dogs before?" Brownstein asked.

"Yeah," the kid said.

"What happened to them?"

"They died in fights."

The boy also said he had another dog that was killed when someone broke into his home.

"Does it bother you that somebody killed him?"

"Not really."

Dogfighting is a crime in every state. In Illinois, it is punishable by up to three years in prison, a $50,000 fine and confiscation of assets if they can be linked to the fights. But police and animal welfare officials say it is rampant in Chicago and the suburbs, getting more popular every spring, especially among kids.

"In many neighborhoods where gangs are strong," Brownstein said, "you now have 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds conducting their own dogfights. Or being spectators at the fights people are holding."

Dogfighting is violent, cruel and illegal, but that's where points of agreement stop. Finding the fights and stopping them are hindered by disagreement over who should take the lead: police, who have the authority and training to deal with the people, or animal control officers with the training and authority to handle the dogs.

The role of animal welfare groups is also a matter of passionate debate.

There are no precise numbers regarding dogfighting. It's an underground activity, after all, usually relegated to apartments, basements and abandoned buildings. Dogfights are held at all hours and can cross all economic levels.

A few are professional events at which thousands of dollars are wagered and a dozen or more fights might be on the card. More common are fights as a gang activity, letting leaders posture and intimidate younger gang members.

Most fights, though, involve youths and are for entertainment.

Maurice Holmes said that for youngsters, dogfighting is a way to pass time.

"The average kid, they'll get a dog and make 'em fight a cat, or make 'em fight each other," he said. "A lot of kids go in alleys, pick up strays, then let 'em fight till they kill each other. Or they kill 'em."

Brownstein, though, draws no distinction between high-stakes events and kids fighting their dogs in a boarded-up two-flat.

"Dogfighting to me is not a sport, it's not professional activity. Dogfighting to me is an act of mutilation. I give it no respect," said the 22-year police veteran whose three Animal Abuse Control Team officers pursue the crime daily. "It's criminal activity."

The brutality does not end with the fight. Losing dogs are often shot, set afire, tied to train tracks or left to die in abandoned buildings.

"The end of a fight, the burning of the dog, the killing of the dog, it's a message being sent to their peers," said Mike Roach, director of field services and investigations for Chicago's Anti-Cruelty Society.

"This isn't a dog issue," said Gene Mueller, president of the Anti-Cruelty Society. "It's a kid issue. It's a society issue. You want to find the perfect way to desensitize a kid so he'll kill that anonymous gangbanger from three blocks over? Give him a puppy and let him raise it. Then let him kill it. I guarantee that will desensitize that kid."

Stephanie LaFarge, senior director of counseling services for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the relationship between young people and the dogs they fight is complex.

They claim to love their dogs, she says, and they often have excellent dog handling skills.

"Most of us who abhor pit bull fighting find it hard to look through a lens that there's anything good about this," she said. "But when you talk to the youth who are doing this, they have so few other things going for them. And the dog gives them so much stature, confidence, companionship and identity, all the things we normally want adolescents to have."

She said there is not enough evidence to prove kids who fight dogs grow up to be troubled adults.

Kenneth Shapiro, executive director of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, located near Washington, D.C., is not so sure. He said an early indicator of juvenile violence is animal abuse.

"If you have a kid 6 years old who's involved in something that everyone recognizes as animal abuse, that is a very important marker," he said.

Sgt. Steve Brownstein of Chicago's Animal Abuse Control Team says dogfighting is a criminal activity.