TAKING THE MINORS BY STORM

 

By Josh Leventhal

Joe Valenti was searching YouTube while brainstorming promotions for the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Carolina) after the 2008 season when he stumbled upon Tim Lepard and his cowboy monkey rodeo act.

Minor league baseball may never be the same.
Cowboy Monkey 1
The minors’ hottest new promotion features monkeys dressed as cowboys, riding dogs, chasing sheep
The act billed as “Tim ‘Wild Thang’ Lepard and Team Ghostriders” has become one of minor league baseball’s best-sellers, with fans filling ballparks to watch Lepard’s cowboy-clad capuchin ring-tailed monkeys riding on the backs of border collies, chasing after big-horned sheep.

For a sport that embraces the offbeat like no other, the cowboy monkey rodeo—which now dots three-dozen teams’ promotional schedules—seems like a natural fit.

“What I tell people is that if you can watch the cowboy monkey rodeo and not smile, you have no soul,” said Harrisburg Senators (Eastern) general manager Randy Whitaker, whose team has booked Lepard each of the past four seasons.

Lepard was already big on the rodeo circuit when Valenti, now the head of Blue Rocks marketing but then a lowly assistant, found him.

He passed on the video to then-marketing director Mark VanderHaar, who tracked down Lepard and persuaded the reluctant cowboy to try out his act in Delaware the following summer. But first VanderHaar needed to convince his boss that Lepard and his monkeys were ready for prime time.

“I actually lied to our GM, Chris Kemple, and said ‘Oh sure, he’s done a ton of games. It’ll be great,’ ” said VanderHaar, who is now an executive at a Wilmington radio station.

Valenti and VanderHaar’s instincts proved true. Lepard was a hit in his baseball debut on July 31, 2009. And he continues to be one for fans at ballparks across the country.

His show typically features four monkeys—dressed head to tail in cowboy garb—who ride miniature saddles on the backs of four border collies, darting between players in a few between-inning appearances during the game before rounding up a half-dozen sheep set loose in the outfield and guiding them into a makeshift pen during a roughly 20-minute postgame performance.

“It was probably the most unusual thing that I had ever seen,” Kemple said of the debut performance. “How I sort of convinced myself that it was such a great act was because I couldn’t describe it accurately. I would tell people, ‘You’ve got to see it to really understand what I’m talking about . . . ’ It’s entertaining and funny and cute and charming with the animals. And the bottom line is that it sold out.”

Lepard, 52, is a soft-spoken but hard-nosed veteran of the rodeo circuit—he broke in as a bull rider in 1977—who talks often of his lifelong adoration for monkeys. Growing up in Memphis, he pestered his father for years to buy him one and finally got his wish as a 12-year-old, when he received a monkey companion during his parents’ divorce.

“When I was growing up, I had a love for animals and always loved monkeys,” he said. “But I never expected it to be anything like this. This isn’t just a way of life; this is my life.”

Lepard says he trains his monkeys with an abundance of love—and Pop-Tarts. The inspiration for his act came nearly 30 years ago, when his pet monkey hopped on the back of his dog and went tearing around the house. He would give a treat to the monkey every time it tried to get down.

“He was just content to sit up there and eat a Pop-Tart,” Lepard said. “It was all done with care and love.”

Little did he know where it would lead. Lepard has begun filming a reality show for the A&E network, while selling out ballparks around the minors.

He has 36 minor league teams on his schedule this year, along with two NBA and NFL teams and a NASCAR race. He is even considering an NHL team’s offer. “They said they’ll roll out artificial turf on the ice and we’ll do it on the ice,” he said.



While most minor league promotions aim to enhance a fan’s experience at a game, the cowboy monkey rodeo is an attraction unto itself. His stop at Wilmington in 2011 attracted 7,514 fans—the second-largest crowd in Frawley Stadium history, trailing only the ballpark’s grand opening in 1993.

The rodeo also accounts for two of the largest crowds in Harrisburg’s history.

“It is just a hilarious spectacle and that is what people are here for,” Whitaker said. “They are looking for the experience, and this is the epitome of an experience-adder . . . It’s one of those things where the adults bring the kids and end up having more fun than the kids do.”
Photo by David Schofield
Photo by David Schofield
Not Without Criticism

Minor league teams that host the cowboy monkey rodeo often draw the ire of local animal rights groups. The Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals believe the working conditions put the monkeys at physical and mental risk, and that the monkeys themselves could be a threat to spectators.

The Lexington Legends (South Atlantic) canceled Lepard’s performance last year when they discovered he did not have the necessary permits to bring monkeys into Kentucky and said they would likely not invite him back.

“We got caught up a little bit by the fact that they came so highly recommended that we didn’t do our homework,” Legends director of marketing Seth Poteat told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “We’ll be more conscious and do our homework going forward.”

Lepard points out that he is regularly inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture and that his animals must pass veterinary examinations in order to perform. The monkeys are not forced to perform, he says, and are never strapped into a saddle on the dogs.

“You can’t make these monkeys do anything they don’t want to. And that is why I am so successful, because I treat them right.” Lepard said. “These monkeys I care so much about. They have grown to be my family.”

Team officials who have gotten to know Lepard say that is not an exaggeration. “That is genuine,” Valenti said. “I’ve seen the way he treats them, the way he has them in his trailer and in their quarters. He really looks after them and looks at them as family.”


Lepard has managed to combine two loves of his life—monkeys and rodeo—into a singular act while traveling the country in a 46-foot, specially designed truck that he shares with four monkeys, up to 10 border collies and five big-horned sheep.
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His life as a cowboy monkey rodeo leader was not by design.

Lepard’s bull riding career lasted just four years and came to an end in 1981, when he shattered his collarbone in a one-sided collision with a bull. He returned to the ring, but this time as a rodeo clown.

All the while, Lepard kept a pet monkey and dog, and he said the animals became buddies—the monkey liked to groom the dog, which enjoyed the extra attention. In 1986, while performing at a rodeo in Hammond, La., Lepard brought his dog into the ring and his monkey jumped on board for the ride.

“They all went crazy cheering,” Lepard said, and he recalls the rodeo director telling him, “If you get a faster dog you’ll be a rock star.”

Lepard invested $1,500 in a border collie, and his act was born.
Photo by David Schofield
Photo by David Schofield

Following Dreams

Before making his debut, though, he wanted to get the details right. He hand-crafted miniature saddles by cutting off the backs to make room for a monkey’s tail, which he says they wrap underneath the dog’s belly for balance. And like any cowboy, the monkeys needed chaps to protect their legs, so Lepard made those as well.


“I made it like he was a human being,” he said. “I don’t just put a monkey out there without chaps or clothes or saddles. If a monkey is riding on a dog, his legs are going to wear out going up and down in the saddle.”


Lepard concludes each of his performances by taking the microphone and offering a few words of wisdom. He believes his life can be used as a model for what happens when you pursue your passion.


“I speak from my heart. I wear my heart on my shoulders,” he said. “This is a dream of mine, just to own a monkey, and I’ve followed my dreams.”

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