August 25, 1986 12:00 PM

The crowd watching the Lazy C Rodeo in Wheaton, Ill. was respectful but palpably unenthused until the announcement was made: “Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Poncho and Cisco, the world’s smallest cowboys.” Whereupon two six-pound capuchin monkeys dressed in Western shirts, chaps and cowboy hats stormed out riding a pair of border collies and proceeded to herd six sheep around the ring. When the five-minute act was over, the crowd was on its feet.

It was a moment of triumph for Cisco, 21, Poncho, 12, and their trainer-owners, Randy Steffen and his wife, Merrily, both 37. But after doing as many as 40 rodeos a year for the last decade, the simians and humans know that the life of a capuchin cowboy has its ups and downs. This spring, for example, they almost cracked an important TV market when they taped The Bozo Show at Chicago’s WGN. During the taping, however, the sheep panicked, tripped a cameraman and ran into the audience; the chaotic segment has never aired.

Then there’s the competition. Randy, who admittedly filched the idea from a rodeo he’d seen in Texas, says there are now at least three other monkey cowboy acts on the national circuit. What sets Poncho and Cisco apart, says Merrily, “is that they do something they’d do if they really were cowboys, and that’s herd sheep.”

To keep their edge, and to keep earning $200 per show, the monkeys rehearse on a 5½-acre farm in Richmond, Ill., where the Steffens raise a variety of animals. Highly intelligent, Poncho and Cisco learn quickly and have yet to soil their chaps. In return, they’re bunked in the warm basement, bedded under blankets when on the road and fed a healthy diet of fruit, sardines and Kibbles dry dog food. “I guard my monkeys like I do my son,” says Merrily, referring to Wade, 7.

Lest anyone charge that the monkeys are being exploited, Randy demurs. “You go to a zoo and see monkeys in cages, and they’re bored all day long,” he points out. “Not my monkeys. My monkeys go for rides and get to see the country.”

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