A Monkey Among Men

In the rough-and-tumble world of rodeo, Whiplash is the undisputed chimp.

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World's Toughest Rodeo Gund Arena, 1 Gateway Plaza 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 21, and 2 p.m. Sunday, February 22. $18 to $24; call 216-241-2121
Call the kids. There's a dog-ridin' monkey at the rodeo!
Call the kids. There's a dog-ridin' monkey at the rodeo!
When Tommy Lucia pulls his 40-foot mobile home into the McDonald's parking lot, it's not the size of the vehicle that catches customers off guard; it's the seven-pound primate going ape shit in the window.

That's Whiplash, the 17-year-old "Cowboy Monkey" who's become a featured attraction of the World's Toughest Rodeo, which rolls into Gund Arena for a two-day stint this weekend. He's known for his antics riding atop a Border collie, but he's legendary for his Big Mac attacks. "When we stop at McDonald's, I never give him those greasy French fries, but we give him a bit of hamburger," says Lucia, perhaps the world's only professional cowboy/monkey trainer. "He looks for us to stop at spots, especially for doughnuts."

Such is life on the road for the fiftysomething Lucia, who's been training horses, dogs, and monkeys for rodeos, circuses, and fairs for 28 years. For the last 12 of them, Whiplash's exploits have been named "Act of the Year" by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association.

Not that Lucia was wild at first about taking on little Whiplash. It was a Florida widow who pawned off the li'l bugger some 15 years ago. "I said, I do not trust them. They still got the wild in them," he recalls in quintessential cowboy-speak, his words more fit for an ornery steer. "But [Whiplash] just came along, and he was so good. You have to know they trust you, know they like you and will do things for you. Otherwise, you're on a river heading north."

The dog-and-monkey act, designed as comic relief for a nerve-racking sport, has become a must-see attraction on the rodeo circuit and elsewhere: The day Whiplash was featured on the Today show and Good Morning America, his website -- whiplashrides.com -- logged 825,000 hits.

Of course, the rodeo offers more than monkey action: There's three-time bareback-riding champion Tim Wilkinson, the guy who scored a series all-time high of 93 out of 100 points at Gund Arena in 2002. He's joined by bull-riding champ Fred Boettcher, who will defend his title despite suffering a torn biceps tendon riding a one-ton bull a few months back. ("Is it smart doing this?" he asks rhetorically. "We'll find out.") Even Lucia's 18-year-old son, Anthony, is part of the act as a rope-trick specialist. Dad's more than happy to let the spotlight shine down on Junior and the monkey.

"After the show, we stand in a line and sign autographs for the fans, who go crazy -- just plumb nuts -- when they see us," Lucia says. "Sometimes, I excuse myself and say I have to go to the bathroom, but I don't come back. I'd rather go shake hands with the janitor."

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