The Monkey Races at the Fair are Bananas

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Tonight in Lebanon, Tennessee, a transformation is underway. A sweet, pungent scent is wafting through the air–a smell instantly recognizable as a mix of cotton candy and manure. The sound of fiddles disappears behind the booming pulse of dated hip hop and the echoes of terrified screams from the midway. As summer comes to a sweltering end, Middle Tennessee prepares for one last thrill ride.

Yes, the Wilson County Fair has made it back to town.

As a child, I always assumed that the Wilson County Fair was the Tennessee State Fair–an easy mistake to make, as this festival easily eclipses any competition. The exhibits seem endless; the shows mystifying. As an adult, you take pride in buying local, from your neighbors. Our community is large, and the deep pool of creativity and talent to this day exceeds my comprehension.

My favorite part, however, has always been the animals. I love being able to pet the emus. I practically sprint to the poultry tent so that I can gawk at the chickens with fanciful hair. One of my fondest memories as a child recalls a local farmer teaching me to milk a cow.

Until last year, I would boast to newcomers to the area that they had to see the Banana Derby. What an absurd local treat; some guy has trained his pet monkeys to ride dogs around a makeshift track! How bizarre!

I will not be making that claim this year.

I had a very unpleasant experience with the ringmaster of the Banana Derby last year that has since led me down a rabbit hole uncovering more and more unsavory details about the man and his practice. My experience is anecdotal, and although it still disgusts me on a personal level, I will refrain from telling it here so that I can focus instead on empirical evidence.

Cowboy Monkey Rodeos are Inhumane

Cowboy Monkey Rodeos are widely regarded as an inhumane practice. The Humane Society lists Cowboy Rodeos–such as the Banana Derby–as “abusive to animals” and has provided a fact sheet with reasons why.

According to a petition with over 5,000 signatures, several animal welfare organizations have asked for cancellation of the Banana Derby, including presidents of Lincoln Park Zoo and Chicago Zoological Society; Rob Carmichael, curator of Lake Forest’s Wildlife Discovery Center, and the Humane Society of the U.S.

The monkeys are adorned in outlandish costumes that distract the viewers from seeing that they actually velcro the monkeys’ legs to the backs and/or saddles of the dogs that they ride on. Their necks are then chained to the back of the dogs collar, putting them at heightened risk for injury. It is not uncommon for the dogs to slam into the sides of the metal fencing to the racetrack, which can badly damage or break the monkeys’ fragile legs. If the dog were to roll, the monkey would be along for the ride. I am not an expert in primates, so the best option that I have is to trust the nearly unanimous opinion of primate experts that this is both a dangerous and traumatizing act.

Last year, the Wilson County Fair came under fire and was forced to let a vendor go after a video went viral showing what some considered to be abuse to the animal.

It seems as though there’s an even more sinister problem hiding in plain sight, disguised in part by gaudy costumes.

This is a Widely Known Controversy

Other states, such as New York and most notably Lake County in Illinois,  are attempting to ban the Banana Derby, and as awareness has grown, so has the movement. There is a wealth of information from animal experts as to why this is traumatic for the monkeys. 

In a letter to organizers of Suffolk County’s Brookhaven Fair,  the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), a consortium of groups that care for retired monkeys, asked that the Banana Derby -– a traveling show -– be canceled. The letter argues “the entire lifetime of a primate is negatively affected when they are exploited for entertainment.”

“Many people don’t know the natural behaviors of monkeys and they may think the monkey is having fun,” said Erika Fleury, NAPSA program director. “But when people really learn how harmful this is to monkeys, it’s very distressing.”

“Every primate expert says this is cruel and abusive,” said Joyce Friedman, HSUS wildlife protection campaign specialist. “This is not the environment for a wild animal.”

Animal advocates cite risk of physical injury to the monkeys from an accidental collision or neck injuries from repeated, sudden acceleration by the dogs. Mental trauma is also a concern.

“That could include depression, self-harm, self-mutilation, inability to socialize with others, extreme aggression, apathy,” said Fleury. “They’re capuchin monkeys and they’re used because they are very intelligent, inquisitive beings. They’re fascinating, they’re adorable. But they suffer in captivity.”

Dolci is no stranger to the controversy. In 2015, officials in Lake County, Illinois, tried to ban the Banana Derby from a county fair. While the move failed, it was a harbinger of changing attitudes about using exotic animals as entertainment.

Monkeying Around With His Identity

In researching this article, my first instinct was to find the person responsible. When I looked up ownership of the Banana Derby, it was seemingly registered to the star of the show, Gilligan T. Monkey. Gilligan also runs his own social media, rife with political rants and amateur puppet shows.

Personally, I don’t think that this is weird at all. I think that it’s about time that primates became more engaged in our political arena, especially in social media channels whose target market is children.

I am hoping that Gilligan also wrote the site description, because his English skills are on par for that of a primate. Either way, “Little mokeys riding on doggs” cracks me right up.

Look at him there, hogging all those 7 teeth to himself.

In many of the news articles, I found that the trainer was listed as a man named Philip Dolci. Dolci, a former DuPage County assistant state’s attorney, left the life of law to pursue a dog and monkey training act in the circus back in the 90’s. He has participated in a number of circuses since then; including the Hendrick’s Brother’s Circus.

It was very difficult to find any record of Phil Dolci being cited for any misconduct with animals, until I discovered that he also maintains the alias of Philip Hendricks. Philip Hendricks has a much more colorful past.

The exhibitor who subjects animals to such gratuitous cruelty, Philip Hendricks (aka “Philip Dolci”), has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for failing to provide dogs and primates with adequate space, repeatedly failing to provide primates with environmental enrichment and failing to provide animals with clean, wholesome food.

Hendricks has repeatedly given erroneous, conflicting and confusing information to USDA inspectors so that they have been unable to locate the monkeys to assess their condition.

In 2007, an inspector reported that Dolci “provided us with erroneous, conflicting and confusing information such that we were not able to locate the monkeys,” according to the report obtained by the Humane Society.

When questioned about these allegations from the Channel 4 I-Team, Dolci was quite eloquent in his response:

In watching this, I am not fully convinced that this is not Jimmy Wichard from King of the Hill.

In addition, there is a YouTube account that unofficially documents most of the life on the road of the Banana Derby, that documents examples of a careless regard for more than just primates.

In a video titled, “Handling Carny Help” from September 27, 2016, it is alluded to that Phil Jr. gave a fellow carnival worker a black eye.

Off Camera: “How’d you get the black eye?”

Carnival Worker: “Phil Jr.”
Off Camera: “How’d that happen?”

Carnival Worker: “He said my [cart] was short, and it wasn’t”

Off Camera: “Never short the ____, right?”

Is it possible that this is Dolci, mocking someone after the hit?

In fairness, who hasn’t wanted to hit a carny at one point or another? But be a man like the rest of us and dunk him in the booth with a softball.

Dolci / Hendricks is listed in a petition by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Born Free USA (BFUSA), The Fund for Animals (“The Fund”), Big Cat Rescue (BCR), and the Detroit Zoological Society (collectively “Petitioners”) titled, “Petition for Rulemaking to Prohibit Public Contact with Big Cats, Bears, and Nonhuman Primates”. The petition references the Banana Derby, and Dolci himself among the verbiage, “At least 70 licensed facilities across the U.S. are engaged in the unsafe and alarming business of allowing members of the public, including small children, to interact and pose with dangerous wild animals”

Do Carnival workers count as nonhuman primates? Maybe there should be some inclusiveness here.

In 2005, Dolci / Hendricks temporarily lost a monkey in Springdale Ohio. A capuchin monkey belonging to trainer Phil Dolci (a.k.a. Hendricks) with the Hendricks Bros. Circus was frightened by a train whistle and fled into a nearby wooded area. He was found the next day, damp and hungry, huddled in the roof area of a picnic pavilion at a park. This incident has landed him on the Humane Society’s list of dangerous primate escapes and attacks.

Overall, the stark reality is that this is not, as I once believed, a local eccentric who brings his pets out for a show once a year. The Banana Derby boasts that they are on the road 46/52 weeks a year. Patronizing these shows is not giving back to our local community, it is bankrolling a cited animal abuser.

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