By Jeff Pfeiffer
If you missed the sneak preview of Animal Planet’s new series Call of the Wildman this past Sunday (I’m still disappointed it didn’t keep its original title, Turtleman of Wild Kentucky, but, hey, what do I know about the TV titling biz?), don’t worry. The series officially premieres in just a few days, this Sunday, Nov. 6, at 10pm ET/PT. And it’s a lot of fun, from what I can tell from the first episode. What sets it apart from similar shows in the “hillbillies-going-into-swamps-to-catch-dangerous-varmints” genre is the likability and personality of its main character.
Now, let’s clear up a few things. While the show is titled Call of the Wildman, the character in question is actually nicknamed “Turtleman,” and his real name is Ernie Brown Jr. He is a resident of backwoods central Kentucky who has become a local legend in the past 15 years as an animal rescuer, the guy people call when they have problem animals they can’t get rid off. As you can probably tell from his nickname, he is most noted for catching turtles, which he has been doing for the past four decades, since the age of 7. And not just your average, cute little turtles — we’re talking huge, 50-plus-pound snapping turtles with a bite force stronger than that of a great white shark. How do he and his trusty dog Lolly catch these critters? The old-fashioned way — by hand and other natural methods. (In the premiere episode, even when he finds that he has a mouse problem in his wilderness home that features no running water and an outhouse, he forgoes a traditional mousetrap and instead sets a snake loose in the home to gobble up the rodent. And it apparently works.)
Turtleman’s exploits began to become renowned outside of his home state when some YouTube videos of him in action went viral, receiving more than 3 million views since 2008. And now, with this series, his legend is ready to spread across the country. Animal Planet might have their next cult hero on their hands akin to “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin. While it might be hard to carry a series just watching Turtleman jump into ponds every week (the first episode is particularly nasty, as he finds himself literally up shit creek, diving into a pool of fermented cow manure in search of a monster turtle that has been nipping at cows that go in that water to drink), Ernie Brown’s apparent sincere desire to entertain people and help animals stands out in the show. Plus, he’s a humorous, down-home kind of guy. After plucking the offending turtle from the depths of that filthy “cow pie” pond, he promptly plants a smooch on its mouth, then quips: “This is why the Turtleman doesn’t have a girlfriend right now.”
This passion and humor came across in a recent phone interview I had with Ernie. It was a little difficult at times keeping up with the excitedly quick speech (it didn’t take much to get Turtleman out of his shell) and thick Kentucky accent, but what came through was an honest, devout, proud, modest man (I could almost sense him blushing over the phone as he discretely tried to relate a story about a snapping turtle biting him in the crotch) who, regardless of whether this series becomes a hit or not, will likely be back jumping into the filthiest of swamps and ponds and catching the critters no one else can. We chatted about what sorts of creatures he confronts in the first season, about his unique war cry and “Live Action!” catchphrase that you’ll hear in the series, and more.
Why did the name of this series change from “Turtleman of Wild Kentucky” to “Call of the Wildman”? Your nickname is still “Turtleman,” correct?
Ernie Brown Jr. (A.K.A. Turtleman): To let everyone know that I can travel all over the United States instead of just one state. I catch anything! … I told everybody one year I was going to cheer up Kentucky, and I did that for three years. And this year I said I’m going bigger than that, and I told them we’re going to cheer up the United States, and that’s what I’m doing.
How did you start catching turtles?
Turtleman: I was looking for a talent anyway since I was 5 years old. I started tracking down and trying to find my talent. We ran out of food one day, and my uncle came over and took me and my dad to these old farm ponds, and he goes, “I’ll show you how to get some meat on the table.” So he went out in that pond and turtles started bubbling up. I was amazed, and I said, “Daddy, let me try.” … My uncle showed me the bubbling technique. [watching for the bubbles turtles make when underwater]
What are the most serious injuries you’ve sustained capturing turtles or other animals?
Turtleman: I’ve been bit by turtles 33 times now, and every one of them hurt like heck. One of the snapping turtles bit me on the thumb; it gave me seven stitches. And one of the snapping turtles bit me on the pulse, where your wrist is, which I had to get cauterized and I couldn’t work for like seven months. I almost bled to death. They have a vicious bite. They don’t fool with you when they bite. The closest I’ve ever been bitten — I might not be able to say this in front of public ears [laughs embarrassedly] — but, I had about 15 people there, a whole bunch of us, and we done caught like 16 turtles. And one turtle bit me in the place down yonder. And I said, “Ohhhh noooo!” and tried to get it off me, and rolled on the bank with it and finally slung it off me, and my pants were crotched out, and everybody on the bank just bust out laughing. I think I got bit in the butt twice. I was sitting in the mud catching this turtle, and I said, “This is a baby turtle, where did the big one go?” And I sat down in that mud, and that thing latched on to me and I thought I was Jesus for three seconds walking on water!
In the premiere episode we see you going after turtles and a raccoon. What other creatures do you confront in the first season?
Turtleman: Rattlesnakes. Other kind of snakes that I think might be poisonous but wasn’t, thank goodness. Armadillo, a 200-pound alligator snapping turtle.
You have a pretty unique “war cry” when you go on the hunt for critters. How did that come about?
Turtleman: [As a kid] I used to dress up like Davy Crockett, and we used to play Cowboys and Indians. I’d be the Indian; it’s in my heritage; I’ve got a quarter Shawnee, and a quarter Cherokee. And I’ve got a quarter Confederate, a quarter Union/Yankee. I’m for all people, everybody, no matter what color, what race. Don’t matter.
You also have a catchphrase that you use when you are on the job — “Live Action!” Where does that stem from?
Turtleman: “Live Action” means there’s no faking. People have been calling me fake, and there ain’t no fake. Go ahead and try it! We’re doing it live action. We’re there, doing our thing. I’m catching animals, that’s the way it is.
What would you hope people take away from this series, and from what you do in general?
Turtleman: I love making people happy and letting them have some fun with it and making them feel spiritually attached. Make them feel like they don’t need drugs or alcohol or whatever bad habit they got. When they are in my presence, they feel like their soul is lifted. When I make a person laugh, I’ve done my job. You can always get high on life. Just go out there and be yourself. To conquer fear is the most awesome thing in the world, and that’s what I live by, that’s why people love me, because they know I’ll never change. And I tell everybody, just because you’re rich it don’t mean nothing. And I’m not rich, I don’t wanna be, and I’m not gonna be now. I’ve got a little bit of money; they’re paying me a little bit. But fame and fortune I ignore — action and turtle ponds are my only reward. That’s what I go by.
Photo credits: Jonathan Hanson/Animal Planet