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The Mastermind of Monkey Rodeo

Watching a monkey ride a border collie isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but for some fans, it’s the best show in town

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

It’s really a matter of probability: Assume the existence of a pool of a million monkeys, a million monkey owners, and a million sheepdogs; eventually, someone is going to come up with the idea to rig a saddle to the dog, put a monkey in it, and then send that monkey-dog charging toward a group of perturbed rams, who, should they make the mistake of not allowing themselves to be expeditiously herded, run the risk of getting a monkey-fist–sized clod of dirt thrown right in their dazed, ruminant eyes.

So, really, the monkey rodeo is one of life’s great inevitabilities. You might have seen it at some point: on ESPN, or at that minor league game your friend dragged you to, or on Facebook, where someone posts a link with the caption MONKEYS! RIDING! DOGS!!! Twelve months a year, Tim “Wild Thang” Lepard traverses the country with his troupe in tow, a one-man industry and a year-round parade of Wait. Really?

The question, then, is: How does any of this work? Specifically: How does a grown man get to spend 300 or more days a year crisscrossing the United States in a trailer full of primates and Pop-Tarts? How is it that while the rest of us worry about ergonomic keyboards and who stole whose lunch from the office refrigerator, Lepard is thinking about shoulder tassels and tail strength and which cowboy hat to wear? How does he still light up about the speed with which 4-year-old Little E — named for Elvis Presley, a beloved icon who also happened to spend a lot of time thinking about tassels — learned to stop unbuttoning the vest of his miniature cowboy outfit? How can “I love monkeys” actually be enough to launch a career?

Whatever the answers are, people in Wilmington, Delaware, stopped asking for them long ago. As fans lined up last week at Daniel S. Frawley Stadium, home to the Kansas City Royals’ advanced-A affiliate Wilmington Blue Rocks, all they were really interested in was making sure they got a cowboy hat, which the Blue Rocks were giving out to the first 1,000 crowd members in honor of Lepard’s visit.

A couple of nights before, Lepard rolled up to the park with a 46-foot trailer containing three white-headed capuchin monkeys, three border collies, three rams, a couple of sacks of monkey chow, a stack of $3,200 cages made of USDA-approved stainless steel, and Lepard’s wife, Rhonda. They were met by a handful of reasonably polite protesters from PETA, who would turn up again the next day during a game between the Blue Rocks and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, one in a giant gorilla suit, with signs bearing the words HIT ANIMAL ABUSE OUT OF THE PARK, before Team Ghost Riders, as Lepard calls his crew, took to the outfield.

The people of Wilmington were mostly unperturbed. A few of them even turned up to counter-protest — Let ’em ride, their signs read — including local artist Nick Blanco, who the week before published a letter to the editor in the Wilmington News Journal declaring that PETA’s complaints were “utterly invalid and exaggerated.”

Lepard and his monkeys have been coming to Blue Rocks games since 2006, and the good people of Wilmington wait for them all summer long. The Ghost Riders’ two-game run there marked the team’s highest attendance of the entire season: 7,132 and 6,932, respectively. On Saturday, the Blue Rocks took the field in custom jerseys bearing a picture of the Ghost Riders in action.

Back in 1987, when Lepard first orchestrated a monkey rodeo, he didn’t believe it could be a career, either. He was working in a furniture factory then, and had been doing normal rodeos, the people kind, for the better part of a decade, clinging to bulls and then to bucking horses from Texas to Wyoming. Rodeoing is not, as you might imagine, an activity for the faint of heart, or really for anyone with the misfortune of being born with a skeleton made of anything less than grade-four titanium. Riders count their years not just in buckles won and bulls conquered, but in concussions and fractures and stitches. Lepard was getting up there in a hurry — broken bone after broken bone, surgery after surgery — so one day, as he lay counting the flecks in the emergency-room ceiling tiles once again, he decided to make a change.

He was funny and he knew it, so the obvious choice was to be a rodeo clown, a job that entails running into the ring in bright costumes and face paint to entertain the audience and distract bulls after their riders have fallen off. A good clown knows his way around bulls — specifically, how to grab their eye and avoid getting skewered. A great clown can do that, and be memorable, too. And, well, see, Lepard liked monkeys. He’d always liked monkeys — as a child, he worshipped Curious George and wore monkey pajamas and carried a sock monkey around until all its stuffing fell out.

So he got a monkey, he says. When he smiles, Lepard reveals a row of very straight, very white teeth, like they’ve been knocked out and replaced with something stronger. But just having a monkey out there wasn’t going to be enough. “When I got into the clowning, I got me a monkey,” Lepard says with a thick Memphis drawl. “And I said, I’m gonna teach him how to ride a little horse.”

There was a problem: The monkeys had a tendency to scale the horses’ necks and start tugging on their ears. The horses didn’t like that at all. So Lepard went looking for dogs — dohhhgs — trying out old English sheepdogs before settling on border collies. He trains the monkeys with Pop-Tarts — they especially like strawberry and blueberry, frosted — and within a few days, they usually figure it out. Day 1, he puts clothes on them. Day 2, he puts them on the dogs with no clothes. Day 3, he puts them on the dogs in full gear and lets ’em rip. The rest is instinct. It’s the dogs who take time; with some, it’ll be six months before Lepard can train them to stop rolling over to try to detach the saddle like an oversize flea.

Monkey rodeos were never the long-term plan: When Lepard did his first monkey show, he told the guy running the rodeo that he didn’t have to be paid. The guy did pay him, however — and then booked him for two dozen more rodeos that year. Lepard would call in sick at work to do shows. Then, in 1993, he entered his act in the International Finals Rodeo and won, with the belt buckle to prove it. Suddenly, his phone started to ring: Could you bring the monkey rodeo to town?

Since then, he’s stayed mostly a rodeo guy. But his performance with the Blue Rocks kicked off a wave of minor league baseball gigs — these days, he does 30-something games a year. NASCAR has come calling, and he’s landed the odd gig with the NFL; Lepard credits an appearance during halftime of last year’s Monday Night Football matchup between the Bengals and Texans for keeping him busy the whole of this year. Last year, he slept in his own bed in Pontotoc, Mississippi, on the outskirts of Tupelo, just twice. This year, he’s up to four nights at home, but won’t be back again until November. He arrived in Wilmington fresh off a 32-hour drive from a rodeo in Montana, and set off at the end for the Alaska State Fair in Anchorage.

It helps to have some support. Lepard only rarely has to buy food for his animals. For the most part, it’s supplied by fans, who turn up at shows with bags of oranges, apples, bananas, and monkey chow, plus chew bones and liver treats for the dogs. One woman in Wilmington has a special sub made for him every time he comes to town, stashing it in the front office before he arrives. Another fan sews all the monkeys’ costumes, plus Lepard’s own cowboy gear.

The Blue Rocks crowd squirmed as Lepard’s first run got closer. He calls his animals the Ghost Riders, he says, because watching them is like looking at a ghost: You just can’t believe what you’re seeing. Finally, the rams burst onto the field, and a half-beat later, out came the dogs, capuchins and miniature cowboy hats bouncing along on top. The audience roared its approval.

A girl called out: “Monkeys? Monkeys? On dogs?!”