Tim Lepard is standing outside a converted horse trailer parked near the gates of a minor league baseball stadium, dressed in denim jeans, a white cowboy hat and a blue hockey jersey with “WILD THANG” emblazoned across the chest. It’s nearing dusk in Wilmington, Delaware. The 54-year-old’s forehead is creased, his face is pink and his fingers are noticeably scarred from run-ins from uncooperative monkeys past and present.
Lakeland, Lepard’s 10-year-old daughter, is hovering as usual. She isn’t quite sure about the lineup her dad is posting tonight. Putting Little E — a 2-year-old, white-throated capuchin monkey — on top of Jeb — a 14-month-old, black-and-white border collie with a miniature saddle on its back — might not be the best plan.
“Are you sure about this?” asks Lakeland, a fifth-grader who is far wiser than her age. Practically since she could walk she’s been her daddy’s able assistant and steady companion. Lepard has been married four times. It’s always been the monkeys and the dogs first. He shares custody of the Lakeland, whose careless ringlets of blond hair curtain one side of her face.
Lakeland points out the obvious: Jeb the dog is still frisky and green and puppy-like; running him with an equally young monkey seems to be asking for trouble. There’s no telling how Jeb will react when he’s let loose in front of the near-sellout crowd of 6,000 who have gathered here at the Daniel S. Frawley Stadium, home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks of the Carolina League.
Lepard smiles tolerantly. It can be easily argued that no human, living or dead, has ever been more serious about the monkey-riding-dog business than he. It’s been his passion for 38 years — since the first time he loaded a capuchin monkey named Charlie onto a border collie and let ’em rip. For more than three decades, his Cowboy Monkey Show, officially known as Team Ghost Riders, has barnstormed the country, entertaining fans in venues large and small. Once named the best act of the year by the International Professional Rodeo Association, Lepard knows that the audience expects the usual A-plus performance.
“I think Little E can do it tonight,” Lepard assures his daughter in his Mississippi drawl.
“If you think it’ll work….” Lakeland trails off, sounding less than convinced.
Six outs from now, Little E and Jeb will be making their appearance on the baseball field, joined by Sam on Ned and Megland on Tex. The monkey-dog teams will be chasing four sheep, which also travel with the show. The idea, played out night-after-night in venues like this one, is to give the collies something to chase, the monkeys something to ride and the crowd something to laugh at.
“I’ve got to get the monkeys dressed,” Lepard says, climbing inside the trailer, where the monkeys and dogs are waiting in their sterilized, all-metal, air-conditioned cages. The capuchins are roughly 2 feet tall and weigh about 9 pounds. You’ve seen them before in any old-time movie that features an organ grinder. Ross, one of the characters on the television show Friends, owned a capuchin named Marcel. The monkeys’ heads look like furry baseballs with prominent nostrils; their fingers are slender and black. Bobbing around on a much-larger dog, they take the hunched look of a jockey.
I ask Lepard if he would mind if I watched him dress his star players in their tiny, custom-made shirts, chaps and cowboy hats. The neon green tassels dangling down the monkeys’ shoulders make the outfits pop.
Lepard looks at me like I’m an idiot. He keeps walking.
“You don’t want to spook the monkeys while they’re getting dressed,” Lakeland explains with a twang, her eyes wide. “They’ll tear those outfits up.”
Over the past three decades, the Cowboy Monkey Show has performed at hundreds of venues across the country — from Kalispell, Montana, to Syracuse, New York; from Monday Night Football to minor league hockey games. Last year, the show was on the road a total of 360 days. Perhaps that’s another reason why Lepard’s currently on Wife Number Four.
Lepard says he was called to this strange occupation. “When I was little, I carried a little stuffed sock monkey around with me everywhere,” he says. “The Curious George books were big with me. When I got older, I begged my parents — I begged — to have a monkey for a pet.”
When he was 16, and living in Memphis, he got his first capuchin. Lepard’s parents had just divorced; he named the monkey Charlie, after his dad. Charlie came from South America and he wasn’t very friendly. He clawed Lepard’s fingers and bit his hand. It took awhile before it let Lepard come close enough to pick him up. “He was mean,” Lepard says. “We didn’t know anything about monkeys. We didn’t know you couldn’t just reach out and grab him up. I thought he was supposed to love me right off the bat.”
In time, however, a bond formed between Lepard and Charlie. And in an even odder twist, the family dog came to comprise the third side of an affectionate, interspecies triangle. “Those two just hit it off,” Lepard remembers. “I would make popcorn and Charlie would take it to the dog and feed him. Next thing you know, he’s lying by the dog, grooming him, picking crumbs out of his hair. Over time they just got to be buds.”
The whole monkey-on-a-dog thing actually began with a Shetland pony. One day Lepard got the idea of putting Charlie on the back of one of the ponies his family kept–a miniature jockey on a miniature horse. “Charlie wouldn’t ride on the horse’s back. He’d crawl up the neck and hang between his ears,” Lepard says. “The horse didn’t like that at all. He just kept shaking his head, trying to get Charlie off.”
Next, Lepard put Charlie on an English sheepdog, but the dog was too big for Charlie to comfortably ride. Sometime around 1977, a friend suggested Lepard try a border collie. The breed was strong and energetic enough to keep a monkey on its back, but it was small enough for Charlie to hang on.
When Lepard put Charlie on a collie’s back for the first time, Charlie grabbed its fur like reins. The collie didn’t like it one bit. “He turned his head around and growled at Charlie,” Lepard says. “I was terrified the dog would attack him.” Instead, it was Charlie who attacked the dog.
“I learned you can’t just put them together. You gotta make a proper introduction first.”
Lepard hasn’t spent his entire life training monkeys to ride dogs, it just seems that way. He spent four years as a rodeo bull rider and enjoyed modest success, until multiple injuries ended his career in 1981. After that, he became a rodeo clown. A tough but gratifying position, Lepard got to entertain and do important work keeping riders safe from bulls and bronks. More injuries followed.
When his body told him it was time to call it quits, he cast around for a new way to make a living. At first, the monkey/dog thing was just an odd hobby; eventually, however, he got the idea to make it into an act. By the early 1990s, he’d created a mini-stable of capuchins, all of them trained to ride border collies. “I was told I’d never make it,” Lepard says. “I was told, You can’t do it.”
By early 2000, with bookings across the country, he had proven everyone wrong. Reinvesting in the business, he bought a new, top-of-the-line trailer in which to haul his performers. There was even a built-in generator to provide power, air conditioning and heat. Nothing was too good for his monkeys, dogs and sheep–a menagerie that numbered nearly a dozen animal souls.
One night after a show, Lepard was hauling the trailer to the next town. Along the way, he ran over some debris. He heard a loud thunk, but things seemed okay; he continued along. At the next stop for gas, he noticed the manifold inside the trailer was broken, the muffler had busted out — parts of the exhaust system that vented the trailer’s generator.
All of the animals, including his beloved Charlie, were dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning.
After the accident, Lepard returned to Mississippi a broken man.
Things only got worse.
Wife Number Three left.
Then, later that summer, Lepard was at home when the sky suddenly went dark, the wind started to howl. Within seconds, a tornado was upon him.
“It blew me into the yard,” Lepard recalls. “I lost more animals. I lost my house. I lost everything but the barbeque grill. I felt like God was trying to tell me something, and it wasn’t good.”
Lepard found a place to live in town and went into a funk. Friends began to worry. It was as if the Lord was testing him, he said. He had lost his reason to go on.
A few months later, though, in November 2000, the International Professional Rodeo Association called. Lepard’s Cowboy Monkey Rodeo Show had been named the circuit’s best act of the year. The award was a gold belt buckle. It was to be presented at a show in January. Lepard was invited to come to the awards ceremony and pick up his belt in person.
And they wanted him to put on his monkey show.
“I told ’em, ‘I’ve lost everything. I’m done,’” he remembers.
“The guy says, ‘Well, your name is already engraved on the buckle — it’s already been special made, what do we do with it?’ I said, ‘You can throw it away.’ Then I told him the whole story about the trailer and the generator. After I got done, the man told me I couldn’t give up. He told me, ‘Don’t quit!’”
With the help of the Rodeo Association, news of Lepard’s plight spread, and well-wishers began writing notes and offering help. The woman who’d made Lepard’s monkey costumes collected phone numbers from people across the United States who raised capuchins. (The Department of Agriculture put tight restrictions on the domestic monkey trade in the 1990s, which made it harder than ever to procure the primates.) If Lepard worked at it, the woman assured him, he could find the monkeys he needed. He could put together a new monkey rodeo in time to collect his prize.
“I told everyone I wouldn’t make it,” Lepard says. “There was no way I’d be ready.”
But then he got to thinking: If all these people believed in him, why couldn’t he believe in himself? “I remember sitting in my truck and saying, ‘Well, all I can do is start driving.’”
And that’s what he did — through the South to the Midwest and back, searching for just the right monkeys to feature in his show. “I’d take a look at a monkey here and there,” Lepard says. It was an arduous process, but within a month, he found three capuchins and three border collies he liked. By Christmas, he was working the dogs day and night, using a flashlight when the sun went down.
When officials in Lee County, Mississippi, learned about Lepard’s comeback, they offered him an indoor arena in which to practice — they even heated it and turned on the lights at night. Once Lepard got the monkeys on the dogs, the rest was easy. “The monkeys automatically grab and hang on,” he says. “It’s instinct.”
He worked at the arena every night for three weeks. He says the performance at the award ceremony was one of his best ever.
Now, in Wilmington, Delaware, the lights have come on in the stadium. The air carries the scent of hot dogs and briny ocean. The Blue Rocks dispatch the Potomac Nationals 5–1. After the final out is recorded, as the Blue Rocks players are shaking hands and walking toward their dugout, an outfield gate pops open.
Lakeland and several Blue Rocks employees drive a trailer out to deep center field and herd the sheep into a small pen.
In left field, Lepard appears with his dogs and their monkey riders. As planned, Little E is riding Jeb, the young monkey on the rookie dog. Sam is on Ned. Megland is on Tex. Iggy Pop’s “Real Wild Child” starts up, booming over the public address system; the gate to the pen flies open and the sheep start running. The crowd jumps to its feet and lets out a roar.
The border collies hustle after the bolting sheep, following their instincts and training, hauling ass this way and that across the green outfield, their monkey riders in their cute cowboy suits hanging on for dear life.
Suddenly Jeb brakes hard and turns, then rolls onto his back.
Little E is smashed into the grass. A gasp rises from the crowd.
Lepard takes off running toward the pair, but before he can arrive, Jeb collects himself and takes off again, Little E hanging on, his little cowboy hat still in place. In due time, the sheep are herded to a place behind home plate and the show is done. Lepard takes his monkey-dog crew for a victory lap, smiling triumphantly and waving to the cheering crowd.
Afterward, Lepard treats the capuchins to some Pop Tarts. Fireworks explode over the now-darkened stadium; the crowd stays around to watch.
It hasn’t been an easy road, Lepard says, but from where he sits in this parking lot, everything seems pretty perfect. He has his trailer. He has his monkeys and dogs and sheep. He has a purpose. And he has his daughter helping run the show whenever she’s on break from school. They grow closer by the day, the one female in his life he’s determined to keep by his side.
If you catch the Cowboy Monkey Show some day, you might see only silliness — monkeys riding dogs. But Lepard sees something much different, something deeper. The dogs and the monkeys have a symbiotic relationship. There are no egos, no judgements. It’s just one creature relying on another to get things done. Lepard wonders why humans can’t all be like that.
“People don’t understand what we do,” Lakeland says.
Lepard nods and issues a proud smile. Then he stands and makes preparations to leave. It’s almost 10 o’clock. Their next stop is in North Dakota, a 24-hour drive. The monkey show must go on.
Robert Sanchez is the senior staff writer for 5280 magazine, in Denver, and he contributes features to ESPN The Magazine. Sanchez’s work has been anthologized in several books, including Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists and the Best American Sports Writing series.