MARGATE, Fla. —These jockeys weigh only 6 pounds and they’re not riding horses — they’re riding dogs.
Capuchin monkeys Gilligan and Burt and their race dog partners Luna and Ace are the stars of the Banana Derby. The attraction, appearing for the first time at the Broward County Fair in Margate, has sparked an outcry from animal activists who want the show stopped.
Fans say the show is great comedy, but animal activists are not amused. They say the act is cruel and dangerous for both the dogs and monkeys.
Owner Phil Hendricks — a former attorney who left the field in 1998 to join the circus — dismisses those claims.
“They said the monkeys are trained to hit and bite the dogs,” he told a South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter. “Total ridiculous nonsense. It’s a loud vocal minority. One person sees the show and says it’s cute and another person sees the show and says it’s barbaric. They believe you shouldn’t eat meat or even own a pet. A lot of them have good hearts, but they’re misled.”
Ready to ride
The monkey jockeys and their canine partners are performing two shows on weekdays and three on weekends through Dec. 5 at the fairgrounds at 1000 N. State Road 7. They are also set to perform on Thanksgiving Day.
“Both the monkeys and the dogs are unwilling participants,” said James Wildman, a spokesman for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. “It’s seen as comical, but there’s nothing comical or funny about it. There’s videos and photos of the monkeys biting and hitting the dogs. And you can see the dogs grimacing in pain.”
The derby dust-up started before the fair opened on Nov. 18.
The night before, Fort Lauderdale activist Ana Campos and primate expert Deborah “Missy” Williams urged Margate commissioners to stop the show.
When their appeal failed, other animal groups joined the crusade, including PETA and the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.
“It’s a sideshow circus act,” Campos said. “The monkeys are so quick the human eye can’t see the monkey hit and bite the dog. I had to freeze the video to see it. I saw the monkey bite him twice. The dog winces in pain and looks up over his shoulder and takes off running. It’s sick.”
Now animal activists are planning at least three protests, including two this weekend.
On Monday night, Hendricks opened the show with music blaring as a crowd gathered around the makeshift racetrack.
“The derby combines two of America’s favorite animals, the monkey and the dog,” he said before urging the crowd to “make some noise” to encourage the animals.
The two dogs trotted out carrying their jockeys, all dolled up in vibrant costumes. The children screamed and clapped with excitement as the dogs raced around the track.
Coconut Creek mom Rosetta Hassel laughed along with her son and his friends as Ace somehow ended up running the wrong way on the makeshift racetrack.
“It was cute,” she said. “I took video to show my daughter. The dogs seemed happy as could be. I don’t know about the monkeys.”
Williams, a biologist and founder of the nonprofit Dania Beach Vervet Project, does know about the monkeys, and she says there’s no way Gilligan and Burt are happy about riding on dogs racing around a track.
“The dogs can reach high speeds,” she said. “If I took a wild monkey and put them on the back of a dog, that would not go over well. You’d never see a wild monkey come down out of a tree and hop on the back of a dog.”
Known as the “organ grinder” monkey, capuchins are found in tropical forests from Nicaragua to Paraguay.
Wildlife experts advise against keeping them as pets or service animals, but people do both. Clever and easily taught, capuchins have been trained to help the disabled with chores ranging from turning on lights to opening water bottles and picking up dropped items.
Happy smile or fear grin?
Primates are intelligent creatures with a complex set of emotions, Williams said.
“You’ll see their emotions on their face,” she said. “What you might think is a happy smile could actually be a fear grin. The fairs are noisy. ... With all the jarring and the jolting, it’s like being on a rollercoaster. They can get hurt.”
Margate Commissioner Tommy Ruzzano doesn’t buy it.
“I went out there on opening night to go see it for myself and I didn’t see any abuse,” he said.
Hendricks, who went by Philip Dolci during his lawyering days, says the monkeys are not tethered to the dogs even though animal activists questioned whether that’s how he is able to keep them from falling off or running away.
Back next year?
In the past, Hendricks has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for keeping the animals in cages that were too small and not telling them where the monkeys were kept.
When a Sun Sentinel reporter asked to see the animals after a recent show, he declined the request.
Hendricks says he’d like to come back to the Broward fair next year.
“I’ve been from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to Arizona, North Dakota, New York and everywhere in between,” he said. “We travel 5,000 miles a summer.”
He says his father-in-law gave him the monkeys after having their teeth removed — another fact that sent the animal activists into a frenzy.
Hendricks says he’s gotten used to it.
“It happens whenever you go to the liberal areas,” he said. “In Alachua County, the college kids made a 24-hour stink.”