Primate Rescue Center

Beloved Blue Rocks Cowboy Monkey Rodeo Riles PETA

Erika Fleury August 12, 2016

Monkey see, monkey do, monkey cause PR nightmare.

The Cowboy Monkey Rodeo, a Wilmington Blue Rocks tradition in which a chaps-wearing capuchin monkey straddles a border collie and herds sheep for laughs, could be driven out of town soon.

Grady is a capuchin monkey now living at the PRC. 

Animal rights activists have mounted nationwide protests against the event, blasting rodeo operator Tim "Wild Thang" Lepard for a history of U.S. Department of Agriculture violations related to his treatment of the primates. Supporters, meanwhile, praise the rodeo as family-friendly fun in which the stars are treated with respect both on and off the field.

"It's just a bizarre event. People don't realize the cruelty that goes behind it," said Lia Delardo, a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals volunteer from Philadelphia who helped organize a protest outside Frawley Stadium last month when the rodeo performed. She was joined by a handful of animal advocates, including those from Delaware Action for Animals, who accused Lepard of yanking all the teeth out of his monkeys and forcing them to cling desperately to dogs who run up to 30 mph and stop suddenly.

Lepard, a former bullfighter and rodeo clown based in Mississippi, said all his monkeys' teeth are intact, he pampers them like "family" and, if you know anything about monkeys, you can't force them to do anything. Though they may be plied with Pop Tarts, a monkey will hurl dirt at a sheep who annoys him. Of the protesters, Lepard, 54, said, "They need to be prayed for because what they're doing is lying."

Minor League Baseball President Pat O'Connor refuses to climb up into the saddle. In response to a PETA petition signed by more than 47,000 people, O'Connor recently released a statement that said his organization "neither supports nor encourages the practice of using animal acts of any kind, especially animal acts for which the Humane Society has expressed serious concerns, to entertain our great fans." The baseball executive stopped short of an outright ban. "We encourage clubs to ensure that the promotions they host do not endanger the health or safety of any animal," he said in the statement.

The professional baseball league, with 244 member clubs, did not respond to a request for comment. Blue Rocks spokesman Matt Janus initially agreed to a phone interview, but then issued a statement saying that the organization continues to investigate the matter and "takes concerns regarding animal welfare very seriously."

The team is caught between a rock and a hard place. Animal advocates have threatened to boycott future games, while at least one cowboy monkey enthusiast warns he'll do the same if the Blue Rocks bow to public pressure. Already, the Lexington Legends and Williamsport Crosscutters have axed monkey rodeos.

Wilmington artist Nick Blanco, in an impassioned letter to the editor published in The News Journal last week, wrote that he was angry and disgusted by the protesters' "utterly invalid and exaggerated" claims. "True animal cruelty," Blanco said, is dogfighting, hunting and puppy mills. "All the animals in the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo are treated like kings," wrote the 32-year-old, who met Lepard and his menagerie once a couple of years ago. To show his appreciation for the creatures' prowess, Blanco painted cartoonish tribute portraits and gave one to Lepard. He says the event draws huge crowds who marvel at the spectacle. When the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo takes the field, the crowd erupts like it's a Grand Slam. "I felt like it was the coolest thing in the freaking world," added Blanco. "I've never seen that stadium sold out ever except when cowboy monkey shows up."

Dover vegan Charles Wolfe couldn't disagree more. He's done so on Facebook, before the Blue Rocks deleted his comments, he said. The 35-year-old admits he's never watched the cowboy monkeys in action, but he questions the audience's judgment. "They just look at them as entertainment — the same way people look at circuses," he said. "They're going and they think it's a good laugh. Some people just don't value the animal's life the way others do."

For years, animal protection groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (of which the PRC is a founding member) have lobbied against monkey rodeos for causing undue stress to the performers, preventing them from engaging in natural behaviors and posing a public safety risk.

Weighing in at less than 10 pounds, capuchins can be highly aggressive and inflict serious injuries and transmit disease, according to the Humane Society. Lepard has been reprimanded at both state and federal levels for allowing the public to get too close to his monkeys, but the monkey whisperer says he can't turn down children demanding a high-five.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals joined the fight several months back by targeting minor league baseball stadiums. The organization held three protests this year, including two in Wilmington last month peppered with signs such as "Monkeys treated cruelly. Stay away!" and "Animals are not ours to use."  Of the three other protests on the horizon, two are scheduled in Wilmington when the monkey rodeo is expected to return to Frawley Stadium on Aug. 26 and 27. "When the monkeys used in these inhumane rodeo-style stunts aren't being violently and dangerously jerked up and down in front of a screaming crowd, they're confined to cages and denied everything that's natural and important to them," PETA primatologist Julia Gallucci said in a recent email.

Lepard fired back that protesters have accused him of tethering the monkeys to the dogs' backs, when, in reality, the monkeys wrap their tails under the dogs' bellies to maintain a secure grip. "I see so much neglect," the monkey maestro continued. "Why don't they look at these poor horses starving to death that are standing in pastures with no hay?"

Lepard's rodeo isn't the only game in town. Kenny Petet's capuchin, Whiplash, has never actually suffered whiplash, according to his owner. Based in Texas, Petet, another rodeo clown, runs his competing monkey rodeo with 19-year-old Whiplash, two border collies and a drove of Barbados sheep. In the last three years, Petet was cited once by the USDA for failing to submit an event itinerary, according to federal records. Whiplash has been riding since age 2, when he was owned by Tommy Lucia, who was cited by the USDA for failing to provide a veterinary care program and an environment enrichment plan for his primates, according to the Humane Society.

Despite the backlash, Petet and Lepard claim that business is as strong as ever.

As of last week, no one from the Blue Rocks had contacted Lepard about canceling his two appearances later this month, he said. He said the team plans to sport monkey-themed jerseys to support cancer research.

Last year, Lepard traveled to about 150 events, including festivals, rodeos and sports venues. According to his Team Ghost Riders website, his neon tassel-wearing monkeys have performed before the NFL, NBA, NASCAR and they're working on the NHL (no word yet on how they’ll negotiate the ice). Team sponsors include Wrangler, Dodge and Coors, according to the site.

The Blue Rocks can take credit for Lepard's minor league baseball debut. In 2006, more than two decades after the cowboy monkey rodeo kicked off, Joe Valenti, then-Blue Rocks marketing director, stumbled on a YouTube video and was hooked. He brought the monkeys to Wilmington and the crowd went bananas. YouTube videos show four bighorn sheep bolting down the field in a pack while two Western-themed monkeys, hunched like jockeys over black-and-white collies, close in on them. An omnipresent male voice with a Memphis drawl narrates the scene, describing a little boy born in 1962 whose only "dream and goal in life was to own a monkey." That's Lepard and that little boy got his wish at age 16 when, after his parents divorced, he was gifted a capuchin from South America. No longer did he have to tote around a sock monkey or "Curious George" book. This was the real thing — and he was mean. Charlie bit his owner's hand, but, eventually, trusted Lepard enough to put him on the back of a Shetland pony. And then an English sheepdog. And finally a border collie.

Like many dreams deferred, Lepard's monkey business took a backseat to wilder and crazier pursuits like the entrepreneur's brief career taunting bulls. After undergoing nine surgeries, he decided comedy was less physically taxing. And perhaps more lucrative. In a 2013 interview with The News Journal, Lepard said he charged promoters up to $12,000 for an NFL game. During that same interview, Lepard said he had never had any quarrels with the U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Every inspector and every USDA person that I've ever come in contact with has never had a problem."

USDA inspection reports dating to 2007 show that Lepard has been cited a handful of times for relatively minor infractions, including maintaining cluttered monkey housing with mechanical parts and "numerous mouse droppings." In 2011, he was cited for expired heartworm prevention medication found in his trailer. In March of this year, he got dinged for using a heartworm preventative intended for horses on his dogs without knowing the correct dose. The inspector warned that could cause "serious health problems."

Lepard, who won 13 gold buckles on the rodeo circuit, also failed to make himself available to inspectors five times over the last decade, according to federal records. Lepard said it's difficult to coordinate random inspections when he's on the road. As a licensed exhibitor of exotic animals, Lepard submits a daily itinerary to federal regulators and agrees to biannual USDA inspections of his monkey trailer (outfitted with 3-foot-tall USDA-approved steel cages), and the 9-foot-tall monkey house on his property, which boasts swings, a swimming pool and "Animal Planet" on television.

On top of the house is a steel silhouette of the four sheep, three dogs and three monkeys, including Charlie, who perished from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2000. Lepard said his trailer's muffler was damaged while on the road, and his animals' quarters filled with deadly gas. "These animals mean more to me than anybody out there," he said, adding that he gives his primates time off if they're having a headache or just a bad day. The females compete less frequently, he said, since they're on edge during their cycle. He doesn't make them wear the hats.

Today, seven monkeys live in the monkey house, since Lepard breeds and rotates his entertainers. The USDA clamped down on monkey imports in the 1990s. The babies are bottle-fed, after some of the mothers tried to attack them. "I didn't want to hear all the screaming," Lepard explained. The collies are rescues and Lepard houses them in six-foot-long indoor/outdoor kennels with automatic feeders.

Another seven monkeys live at the Tupelo Buffalo Park, the largest zoo in Mississippi. Lepard said he will swap out the animals to avoid overtiring them. At Rodeo Austin in March, his animals completed 47 performances in 15 days. It can take a full day to drive between locations, but Lepard says he allows for frequent breaks and recently upgraded to a larger trailer with double the monkey leg room.

Lepard is one six individuals with annual monkey permits in Delaware. State records from last year show that he is permitted to exhibit four monkeys, ages 2 to 18, three border collies, ages two to four, and four sheep, ages two to six. (Lepard notes that he retires his dogs and sheep after three to four years). The state Department of Agriculture did not consult with the USDA on Lepard's application, according to state agriculture spokesman Dan Shortridge. Similarly, the state Office of Animal Welfare has not interfered with Lepard's business; nothing in state code prevents the use of animals in entertainment. The office has received general complaints related to the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo, but none alleging specific cruelty, animal welfare director Hetti Brown said. The office is tasked with handling exotic animal cruelty complaints, but its primary focus for "advocacy and education is for companion animals," she said.

After nearly four decades in the business, Lepard boasts that only one monkey was injured — a female who hit her eye in 1996 while exiting the trailer. It's no different than falling from a tree in the wild, he said.

Whiplash and Lepard's primate clans have benefited from international exposure, such as morning news programs, late-night shows, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, commercials and even a 2012 Cameron Diaz comedy, "Gambit." In 2006, Whiplash starred in a series of Taco John's commercials in which he spread taco joy across the city and countryside.

Petet, who acquired Whiplash five years ago and gives him an entire room in his house, said he won't exploit his Pedialyte-drinking, Oreo-licking, toilet paper-shredding, baby blanket-snuggling star, whom he likened to Roy Rogers or John Wayne. He refuses promoters' request to parade around his monkey and have him "shake hands like a Baptist preacher."

"They want him to be the butt of a joke," Petet said. "I won't do that. He's a hero."

- Delaware Online

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