The smell of popcorn and hot dogs hangs in the air as a crowd gathers within the crowd between third base and the left-field corner of Frawley Stadium. Kids lean over the bleachers and point as bemused parents try to contain them. The chatter increases until, suddenly, it is happening—a pair of dog-riding, hat-wearing Capuchin monkeys bursts onto the field, chasing sheep toward the infield.
Is there anything else like it?
At several home games every year the Wilmington Blue Rocks host Cowboy Monkey Rodeo between innings, a spectacle that consistently draws the largest crowds of each season. Faces of uninitiated watchers morph from wide-eyed disbelief to full-body laughter as the monkeys circle the sheep, then guide them back into order like thoroughly seasoned human cowpokes.
After a few minutes of riding and wrangling, the animals move off the field, and as they do, a monkey jumps onto a man who stands along the baseline and hugs him like a loving son.
That man is Tim “Wild Thang” Lepard, creator of Cowboy Monkey Rodeo. Lepard, 55, has won fame across the country thanks to the Blue Rocks—and a bit of infamy, thanks to his show.
Once a small part of Lepard’s work in real rodeo, the cowboy monkeys have performed over the past nine years at minor league ballparks such as Frawley, during NFL, NBA and college football games, and before more than 110,000 NASCAR fans at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“It was Joe Valenti and Mark VanderHaar of the Blue Rocks,” Lepard says. “They handed me a microphone and said, ‘I know you’ve never done a baseball game, but go out there and act like you have.'” WindowSo Lepard, a 39-year veteran of the rodeo, took his monkeys to the next level.
Valenti, a past director of marketing for the Blue Rocks, had been watching YouTube videos of Lepard and his Team Ghost Riders (because you can’t believe what you’re seeing) when he saw an opportunity. “I showed them to then-marketing director Mark VanderHaar and explained how I thought it would be a great addition to our between-inning entertainment,” Valenti says. “I thought it was really interesting and fun when I saw it online, but seeing it up close takes it to another level. Seeing the show in person is truly surreal.”
Lepard, born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, got into rodeo when a hearing problem prevented him from joining the military. His father opposed it, saying he couldn’t support a decision that might kill his son. Indeed, Lepard’s first few bull rides were less than perfect, but he went on to win 13 gold buckles before a career full of broken bones forced him to make a change.
So Lepard became a rodeo clown. He was soon dubbed Wild Thang for the many attacks he endured. Then a world champion bull rider gave him what would become life-changing advice: “Jumping in with these bulls, you ain’t gonna last long. You better get you an act, and it had better be funny.”
Lepard had always been entertained by toy monkeys, so he bought a pair of real monkeys that he hoped he could train into his act. He tried to teach them to ride horses, but the big animals easily shook them off. “Man, I’ve got a mess,” Lepard thought—until he realized the monkeys liked to ride the family dog, Daisy. “It was a cool relationship, because she was not high-strung.” The act was born.
Since perfecting the show, Cowboy Monkey Rodeo has introduced Lepard to people across the country. “When you see an 80- or 70-year-old gentleman get up laughing, with tears rolling down his cheek—when they tell me they appreciate what I am doing out there and to keep doing it—that means more to me than anything,” Lepard says. “I have experienced a lifetime, more than anyone could ever imagine, but when things like that happen, it’s tough to beat. I think people recognize that I am following my dreams.”
In his time with the animals, Lepard has been a keen observer of their behavior. One monkey, Little E, liked to give high-fives, so Lepard built it into the show. “What happened was at the games, I would give kids high-fives, and he noticed this and jumped from the ground up to give me one.”
The monkeys often surprise Lepard and his wife, Rhonda, with their appetites and food preferences. “They love cherries, cauliflower, all kinds of fruits and vegetables. When NFL films came to us they said, ‘We hear they like Pop Tarts.’ They asked us to put the monkeys in a shopping cart and move down the aisle with them. The monkeys put 12 boxes into the cart. That’s how much they love Pop Tarts.”
Valenti not only helped introduce Cowboy Monkey Rodeo to the masses, he ended up adopting one of the act’s border collies when it was retired.
“Tim likes to retire the dogs when they reach five so they can live a dog’s life,” Valenti says. “I mentioned to him that my wife and I would be interested in adopting one. Then, without further discussion, he presented Shot to me on the field after a game, in front of the crowd. Shot has been living with my family for almost two years now. He is the perfect dog for our family and is amazing with my 2-year-old daughter. He is enjoying a happy retirement.”
The cowboy Monkey rodeo performs for blue rocks fans every year//Photos by Joe del Tufo
Love for Cowboy Monkey Rodeo is not universal, and there has been controversy around the treatment of the animals. PETA, which claims it receives complaints after every rodeo, has been most outspoken.
“These and similar events are extremely stressful and dangerous for all animals involved,” the animal welfare organization has reported. “Monkeys used for rodeos are vulnerable to neck injuries, such as whiplash, which can easily occur when they’re subjected to repetitive high-speed accelerations on the backs of dogs, who run at speeds of up to 30 mph. The dogs may also inadvertently run the monkeys into hard objects, such as walls, fences and poles… There are a million and one ways to promote sports teams that don’t involve cruelty to animals.”
Delaware Office of Animal Welfare officers attended a game last year to observe. It reported that “the operator is very organized, with documentation, and the conditions of the animals well exceeded Delaware requirements.” Yet PETA notes that Major League Baseball does not condone monkey rodeos, and the organization is confident they will soon become a thing of the past.
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“Ninety percent of the people who make comments like these people have never seen the show live,” Lepard says. “They say things like I pull their teeth with wire pliers and chain the monkeys down, that I am cruel to them. Any monkey in the wild has a lifetime of 10 years or so, as they are hunted by lions, cougars, snakes. When I have a monkey that’s been riding with me for 28 years and people say I am cruel to him, I just don’t think they really understand. Some people will protest anything that has something to do with an animal without actually understanding. These folks have not seen me with the animals. I am their guardian, I am their everything. I don’t let these comments take away happiness from me. And the places that we play understand and stand up for us. In Wilmington the owner came down and said, ‘I don’t care what anybody says. We are behind you 100 percent.’ And we’ve been there nine years now.”
As the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo exits the field and the Blue Rocks’ players trot back on, you see the look on Lepard’s face mirrors that of the kids. It is a mix of wonder and presence, a purity of purpose.
“As long as I feel good inside my heart knowing that God is happy with me, I am going to keep doing this,” he says.
The Cowboy Monkey Rodeo is slated to perform at Frawley Stadium for the 2019 season on May 24 and Aug. 30.