Of all the backwoods characters populating the reality TV landscape, Ernie Brown Jr. — aka Turtleman — is one of the most entertaining. The subject of “Call of the Wildman,” which has its second season premiere June 2 on Animal Planet, is an animal wrangler who removes critters from places they don’t belong — with his bare hands. In the premiere, he coaxes a wayward "guard llama" named Mama back to an alpaca farm and extricates venomous snakes from a community swimming pool, aided by his buddy Neal James. In this interview with MNN, he explains his rise to fame and why he loves turtles even though they bite him.
MNN: How and why did you get into this line of work?
Turtleman: I started catching turtles when I was 7. My dad and uncle taught me and I’ve been doing it ever since. Word spread around Kentucky and people started coming out to see me in action. I grew up (and still live) in the woods, so I’ve always been around animals. I understand them and they understand me and know that I’m not here to hurt them. Animals have always been a part of my life and I love rescuing them from harm.
How did the show come about? How did you come to the attention of Animal Planet?
Animal Planet saw my viral Internet video and had to meet me. It took them a while to even find me since I live in the woods! We filmed a test video and Animal Planet loved it.
Why don't you use any equipment or tools?
I don’t like to use traps because they do more harm than good, and I definitely don’t want to hurt the animal. I don’t believe in that. It might be more work, but by using my hands, I’m able to make sure I’m not harming the critter.
When did you get the nickname Turtleman? Are turtles your favorite animals?
I’ve been jumping into ponds and catching turtles since I was a little kid. People have always called me Turtleman and I love it! I got my start with turtles so I have to say they are my favorite because there are so many different species and they can live for hundreds of years. I catch an average of 300 turtles a year and have caught over 12,000 turtles to date.
Have you always been this fearless? Are you scared of anything?
I guess I stopped getting scared somewhere along the line! I’m not a fan of skunks ... yuck! I’ve had to rescue a few of them on my show, and I always seem to end up taking tomato baths to wash off the smell!
Neal James (left) and his buddy Ernie Brown Jr., aka Turtleman. (Photo: David Yellen/Animal Planet)
This season your removal assignments include coyotes, llamas, venomous snakes, pigeons, skunks, raccoons, bulls and of course turtles. Which were the most challenging? The most fun for you?
Skunks are definitely the most challenging because I’m trying not to get sprayed. I love catching turtles and have the most fun doing that. I’ve been bit by turtles 34 times and don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. This season, I go to Texas and Mexico and meet animals I’ve never seen before. It’s pretty crazy and there’s a lot of live action involved!
Have you ever turned down a job because it was too dangerous?
I’m the Turtleman! Never!
You return the critters to the wild. Why is conservation important to you?
I live in a small cabin in the middle of the woods without running water. I even have an outhouse! I grew up living off the land and depended on nature and animals to survive. I’ve always appreciated conservation and mean no harm to any animal. I want future generations to be able to appreciate them as much as I do.
Your show is highly rated, and TV is loaded right now with shows about Southern backwoods people. Why do you think they're so popular?
I think people like “Call of the Wildman” because I’m the real deal. Nothing is fake on my show. I’m also doing things and showing off critters that most people have never seen before. I think people in New York and Los Angeles and around the world are interested to see what kind of varmints live in my neck of the woods.
Do you plan to capitalize on that popularity in any way such as a book, or movie deal?
Between filming the show and meeting my fans, I'm pretty busy all year round. I do have my own clothing line coming up and my home town has a Turtleman Museum and Turtleman T-shirts for sale. Check it out at http://www.visitlebanonky.com.