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Cowboy Monkey Rodeo coming to Frederick sparks concerns

Sunday - 6/17/2012, 2:00am  ET

Monkey rodeo a big event for minor league ball

WTOP's David Burd reports

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The Cowboy Monkey Rodeo will ride into Harry Grove Stadium on Friday amid protests and concerns about the act.

Animal rights groups claim the event, which involves monkeys riding dogs to herd cattle, is dangerous and demeaning to the primates.

"The monkeys are not designed to be in a traveling show. They're designed to be in the forest," said Kelly Myers, a Frederick resident who is planning a protest outside the stadium before the game.

But Frederick Keys General Manager Dave Ziedelis said he has checked carefully with other venues and believes the act is safe and tasteful.

"We always listen and respond to the community and do our due diligence," he said. "We obviously have not only spoken to the act but to other professional sports teams that have hosted them."

Tim Lepard, owner of the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo, says the event is safe and the animals are treated well.

"You know what, if you take care of your animals, you won't have no problems with them," Lepard said. "I treat all my animals how I want to be treated."

Documented troubles

Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said Lepard has a documented history of problems.

Reports obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture by The Frederick News-Post show that Lepard has been cited for having expired animal medications -- though not using them -- and not being present for inspections repeatedly in the last three years.

Lepard said that because he Is a traveling act and the inspections are random, he never knows when inspectors will show up.

"It's not like it's a willful act," said USDA spokesman Dave Sacks, though Lepard is supposed to provide accurate itineraries to the department.

Older USDA reports provided by the Humane Society of the United States show that Lepard was cited once for allowing the public too close to the animals in a narrow passageway in Mississippi and once for not covering the animal's food.

He has also had problems with mouse droppings and general cleanliness in his animal facilities from 2006 and 2007, according to inspection reports.

Lepard said he was aware of the problem but was scared to put down poison or traps because they might hurt his animals.

Sacks said these types of citations are considered indirect problems, which do not put the animals at immediate risk, but the rules are minimum care standards that must be met.

Leahy said they suggest a larger problem.

"His failure to comply with these minimal and simple standards shows his overall sloppiness," she said. "These are simple things that professionals in the field do."

Controversial act

The larger problem for many animal rights activists is the event itself.

Animal rights groups say that the event is demeaning to the highly intelligent animals, and the monkeys are at risk while riding the dogs, which can move as fast as 30 mph and change direction suddenly.

The act has never been cited by the USDA as dangerous to the animals, but Sacks said the USDA would cite an act only if "it's causing undo physical pain or stress to an animal."

The danger must be overt, he said.

"If we saw animals being injured, we would have something to say about that," he said.

But the most serious concern for many activists is that the monkeys are tied to the dogs and forced to participate in the act.

Lepard said that's absolutely false. He's heard the complaint so often that he makes a point to pick up a monkey off a dog every show so the public can see that they're not forced to ride.

He also heavily pads each dog and puts the more experienced monkeys with the faster dogs.

"I don't want the monkey to be afraid," he said. "I put myself in their place."

Lepard said the monkeys perform in exchange for Pop-Tarts.

"There's something about them Pop-Tarts that the monkeys always like," he said.

But Leahy doubts this is the whole story.

"I think the claims that the monkey does this for a Pop- Tart are absolutely ridiculous," she said. "To portray this as something amusing, fun and harmless is just wrong."