Shep Shepard is holding up a pair of battered hands, the fingers of which point in several different directions. Both index fingers are bent at right angles and half of one of the thumbs is missing, having been bitten off by Johnny the chimp several years ago. “I can’t even give directions,” he jokes, “none of my fingers point the same way.”
Shep, now retired and making his home in Hendersonville, worked for many years as a rodeo clown/bullfighter, a profession that invites a certain amount of occupational damage.
He got his start in the sport about 50 years ago, “hauling” with a father-in-law who competed as a steer wrestler (known in those days as a “bull dogger”). “I started rodeoing in ’57,” he remembers, “riding bareback horses. I got bucked off damn near everything I got on. The following year, I started riding bulls; made a little bit of money on that.”
Then one day at a small town rodeo in Missouri, a clown by the name of Monk Russell lost a fight with a particularly rank bull and ended up unable to perform, thanks to several injuries that included a broken leg. The 18-year-old Shep jumped at the opportunity to replace the injured Russell. “I kind of had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to try that anyway,” he says. “I always admired those bullfighters.”
“The stock contractor asked me if I had baggies (the comic loose-fitting pants worn by bullfighters). I told him I didn’t have nothing, except the willingness to do it.”
Shep hit a local store for some makeup and borrowed a pair of cleats (spiked running shoes) to go with the baggies the contractor found for him.
It would be logical to assume that his impending introduction to bullfighting would have made him somewhat nervous…and it did. “I was standing there in the grand entry trying to remember all the clown jokes I’d heard. I was way more afraid I’d lay an egg than I was of the bulls.”
The grease paint helped with the nervousness, he explains. “I hid behind my makeup. It always made me nervous to get up in front of a crowd of people. Getting interviewed on TV or radio didn’t bother me at all. I guess because it seemed like it was one-on-one.”
Each clown develops his own style of makeup, he says, with about the only similarity being that none of them apply it around the eyes. Getting sweat-diluted grease paint in your eyes can affect your vision, he says, “and being able to see is pretty basic to the job.”
Traveling for weeks at a time is also basic to Shep’s old profession. He often traveled with his second wife, Sandy, who worked as a trick rider, and one or two of his three children. “I had two boys and a girl,” he says. “I could take any two and be gone for three to four days and get along beautifully. Take all three of them and it was World War III from the time you backed out of the driveway until the time you got home.”
Shep traveled with other members of what could be considered an extended “family.” At various times, his companions included mountain lions (one of which rode in the front of his truck with him), bears, monkeys, African lions, assorted trained mules and ponies, a giant steer (over 3,000 pounds), a large and often disagreeable llama and a chimp named Johnny. Most of the exotic animals were part of a kind of sideshow Shep brought to the rodeos as a “contact” act, mostly just for viewing by the public. However, Johnny the chimp eventually became much more of a family member. Shep’s son Scott remembers Johnny sitting at the dinner table with the family and eating with a spoon and fork (“Never give a chimp a knife,” Shep warns). “He was like my best friend growing up,” Scott says.
Johnny was an expert mimic, Shep remembers. Whenever Shep got out of his truck, he had to remember to remove the ignition key or Johnny would slide under the wheel and start the truck. He took the chimp to a bar with him one evening before a performance, and the loquacious primate made friends with one of the locals, sharing beer, cigarettes, and potato chips with the guy until the wee hours of the morning.
The next morning as Shep and Johnny were riding in the parade on the Girl Scout float, the fellow from the night before recognized Johnny and stumbled up to the float offering his “buddy” a full can of beer. The chimp saw the waving hand and the staggering man as some kind of attack. In the ensuing battle, Shep was able to get the chimp under control, but not before his enraged pet mistakenly bit an inch or so off his thumb. “I wrapped it in a bandana and we keep throwing bubblegum to the spectators,” Shep says, “but it was the longest damned parade I was ever in.”
As one might imagine, a lifestyle involving drinking with chimps, dodging angry and incredibly agile bulls, and weeks on the road can be hard on marriages, which may be why Shep’s three marriages failed. His wife Sandy, the mother of his children, wanted him to stop about ten years before he was ready, he says. “Hell, I wasn’t ready to quit. I was still in demand. I still felt good,. I was still able to do the job, or I wouldn’t have been in demand. They [rodeo contestants and promoters] don’t want no first-timers in there.”
There is, after all, a pretty short on-the-job learning curve for beginning bullfighters. Make a mistake and a contestant may get mangled. Or you might get a horn stuck through you. “When they charge you,” Shep points out, “you learn pretty damned quick that you don’t stand still. I have a little height advantage. Most of your real good bullfighters are little guys, for their speed and quickness. I was always pretty agile for my size. With a tall guy, the bull will hit you in the ass and pitch you away from him…rather than a small guy getting knocked down and then trampled. You don’t wait for the bull to throw you out of the way.”
Among the bulls he remembers fondly are Green Onions, Wide Track, and Red Man…all of them “bad motor scooters,” according to the man who spent most of his professional life keeping just a few inches away from their horns and hooves.
Now that he’s retired from the ring (years of smoking “took my wind,” he says), he relies on other pastimes to keep him interested, tame hobbies like skydiving and bungee jumping. But what he’d really like to try is wing walking, a feat that involves standing anchored to the top of a small airplane as it soars through the sky. “If I got the chance to do that, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I guarantee you I would.”
“I’ve been told I’m an adrenaline junky,” he says. “Maybe I am.”