"Cowboy monkeys" are a rodeo staple; Whiplash, a white-headed capuchin, is perhaps the most famous. Whiplash's act finds him dressed in a tiny cowboy outfit and strapped to the back of a border collie so he cannot get off the dog. The collie [, which] is then let out into an arena with sheep to do what border collies do, which is herd the sheep. This is legal according to the USDA, which regulates circus acts under the Animal Welfare Act. Lisa Wathne, captive wildlife specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, told the Miami New Times that "The regulations for the AWA are extremely weak and very, very poorly enforced."
And still the USDA has repeatedly cited Tommy Lucia, Whiplash's owner, for violations. Lucia was cited in 2012 for exhibiting without a license, and, according to the HSUS, for a "failure to provide a program of veterinary care and environment enrichment plan to promote the psychological well-being of primates."
That's not limited to Whiplash; Tim Lepard, owner of the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo, another company that exhibits cowboy monkeys, has been repeatedly cited for violations as well, ranging from possession of expired medication to unclean facilities to failing to be present for inspections.
Cowboy monkeys, say animal rights activists, aren't just undignified: the act is actively cruel. Capuchins, highly intelligent monkeys, aren't "trained" to ride, but are merely strapped to the back of a dog. That dog sprints in unpredictable directions, stopping, starting, dashing to the side. Whiplash's name is unfortunately apt: riding a dog can, say activists, result in damage to the monkey's spine. "The high accelerations coupled with abrupt turns and stops [...] may result in head, neck, or back injuries," said Margaret Whittaker, who consults with zoos and sanctuaries, to the HSUS.
The psychologically jarring effect of being strapped to a large animal while racing around a brightly lit stadium while tens of thousands of people cheer has not been studied. And since the USDA will only ban the practice with evidence of "overt danger," psychological harm would not qualify, USDA spokesman Dave Sacks told the Fredericks News Post. Which means the practice, barbaric and comically cruel, is also, remarkably, quite legal.