When it’s showtime, Whiplash the cowboy monkey dons his trademark shirt, red as a Texas sunset, straps on a black hat custom-fitted to his peach-sized head and saddles up Boogie – the trusty border collie who carries him to simian glory.
He rides a black and white streak across an arena, leaning low to scoop up handfuls of dirt and toss them at the herds of wayward sheep – so terrified by Whiplash and his wild-west screeches that they scamper into the pen for safety.
And when day is done and order is restored to the barnyard kingdom, Whiplash gives an unpretentious handshake and accepts a Girl Scout cookie. A Samoa. His favorite.
“The hardest thing to teach him was to keep the hat on,” said Kenny Petet, his longtime trainer from Texas, who added, “I have a degree in business bank management. I didn’t want a real job. All that college gone to waste.”
Whiplash, 22, and Petet, 50, have soared to international fame on the rodeo and horse show circuit, enough to perform before 17,000 fans in Las Vegas. Not long ago, country star Jason Aldean had his agent arrange for a private audience with the white-faced capuchin.
“Terry Bradshaw is a huge Whiplash fan,” Petet explained. “The other day, I got a call from a sheikh in Dubai. They offered $50,000 for us to go to over there. It was for his kid’s 9th birthday.”
In the course of this job, a reporter like me gets to meet senators, governors and even the occasional movie star. Don’t get jealous, but I once shook the hand of Jim Belushi, star of “K-9.” I’ve even sat face-to-face with the only original member of The Fifth Dimension. You know: “Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon ...”
But none of those cherished memories even merit mentioning now that I’ve sat opposite Whiplash, who made a swing through Raleigh last weekend as the sideshow attraction at the N.C. State Championship Charity Horse Show – a first in the history of this stellar event.
At the Hunt Horse Complex Friday, I got a golf-cart ride to see Whiplash in his private trailer, which also houses six sheep and a pair of border collies, Boogie and Sleep. When it’s time to perform, Petet drives to the arena on a four-wheeler, towing Whiplash in a cart decorated with a black Stetson.
Petet met me at the trailer door and gave me a brief history, explaining that he bought Whiplash from a breeder at age 2, a transaction which is no longer permissible by federal regulations.
“There have been monkeys on dogs since the ’30s,” he said. “Whiplash is going to be the last of a dying breed.”
At home in Stephenville, not far from Fort Worth, where I once worked, Whiplash has the run of what Petet described as a large house. So I asked if I could visit him in his traveling digs.
“Hang on,” Petet told me. “He’s watching TV.”
I grabbed my camera, but Petet instructed me to leave it outside. Whiplash can only be photographed in his cowboy suit, which he does not wear during his hours pre-show relaxation.
“You’re one of the few people to see him naked,” Petet said.
Petet moved the 7-pound rodeo star from the couch to the cage where he sleeps, and I watched him peel the skins of his lunchtime grapes. He gave me a few polite screeches, but I could tell Whiplash considered me another intrusive groupie. No rest for the famous, even when they stand only knee-high.
“He’s not a fan of men,” Petet said. “Loves girls. Big fan of women. Just like a real cowboy.”
That night, I watched the cowboy monkey lose that shyness and gallop into the arena like a sheriff bent on frontier justice. The sheep never stood a chance. And for that moment, the audience forgot about the horse show and all its equine excellence.
They just crowded around the tiny star, snapping pictures, asking questions, wishing he could sign an autograph. And in all that commotion, Whiplash looked up at his lifelong friend, his road buddy and cookie provider, and offered his little hand.