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Dreams come true for TV's 'Turtleman'

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Ernie Brown Jr. finds fame as Animal Planet's 'Turtleman'

By Stephen Lega

 

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Ernie Brown Jr. arrived at Cedarwood Restaurant, where the rest of his Turtle Team was waiting. He was carrying a brown envelope and had a smile on his face.

“We did it. We got it,” he said. “Got the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine.”

For Brown - who is better known as The Turtleman - making the “Rolling Stone” cover has been a dream ever since he first saw a copy of the magazine when he was 5 years old.

But alas, this was another mock-up created by a fan who wanted him to know that he deserves to be on the cover.

“They done got me again,” Brown said. “It ain’t so bad.”

He might not have made the cover just yet, but as his “secretary” Neal James pointed out, Brown has done everything he has set out to do.

The people who have known Brown throughout his life can bear witness to that.

James Coulter, Brown’s teacher when he was a student at Mackville Elementary School in Washington County, remembers Brown as a humble and polite student, but also as someone who knew what he wanted. Coulter said he asked the class one day what they wanted to do when they got older.

“He said, ‘I want to do something with animals, and I want to be on TV,’” Coulter said.

Lola Brown, Turtleman’s mother, has similar recollections.

“When he was smaller, he’d say I’m gonna catch some animals and take ‘em to the zoo, and I’m gonna get on TV with ‘em,” she said.

When Ernie was 12 years old, they tried to do just that. Lola said he caught a 50-pound turtle and they took it the Louisville Zoo.

“They said we can’t keep one that big. It would eat up all the other animals. And they wouldn’t take it,” Lola Brown said. “We took it on over to Green River and turned it loose.”

On track
Brown, 47, learned how to catch turtles from his Uncle Phillip and he caught his first turtle when he was 7 years old. It’s a talent he has mastered over the last 40 years, as evidenced by numerous Youtube videos, and now his television show on Animal Planet, “Call of the Wildman.”

But the road to celebrity hasn’t been an easy one for Brown.

For decades, he has been removing and relocating snapping turtles from ponds throughout central Kentucky, but that wasn’t always enough to pay bills or put food on the table. Brown has worked a variety of odd jobs, including farm and factory work, but he decided about seven years ago that he needed to be the Turtleman full-time.

That’s about the same time he connected with James, who wrote a theme song for Brown and became his contact for nuisance calls. Before they became television personalities, they would get three or four calls a week requesting Brown’s skills in removing problematic animals.

James pointed out that their compensation wasn’t always financial in those days.

“When me and him got together, we used to go and play for empty beer cans ‘cause we don’t drink. So, we would take the aluminum back with us,” he said.

They have also been paid with leftover barbecue and Brown once received dozens of eggs for his services.

A few years ago, Brown started speaking to schools and making appearances at local events like the Great Outhouse Blowout at Penn’s Store and the Heart of Kentucky Farm, Home and Garden Show. Eventually, he got the attention of Kentucky Afield, an outdoor show that airs on Kentucky Educational Television.

After that piece aired, it was posted on Youtube in February 2008 and it went viral. Anyone who has not seen the Kentucky Afield piece can find online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn8EQ0azXpQ.

Through his videos, the Turtleman gained a national following. One of his fans was NASCAR driver David Ragan, who shared the videos with other drivers. One of them, Carl Edwards, reached out to Brown and his Turtle Team.

Jake Ison, who could be considered the master builder for the Turtle Team, said Edwards was one of their first celebrity fans. He also took the initiative to contact them and went out of his way to help, according to Ison.

“I think all of us would unanimously agree that Carl Edwards saved the day,” James said. “Carl Edwards gave us an entertainment lawyer and an entertainment agent. He done lots and lots of things for us.”

“He believed in us,” Brown said.

“Still does,” James said.

Brown gained the attention of Sharp Entertainment, the company that produces “Man vs. Food,” “Biography” and “Property Wars” and that led to a deal with Animal Planet.

Dawn Sinsel, executive producer of “Call of the Wildman,” said she first learned about Brown by watching the Kentucky Afield video. She said she was amazed and fascinated by the way he was catching turtles and his personality. After sending out a crew to shoot a demo, Animal Planet was hooked, Sinsel said.

“We just fell in love with him,” she said. “We went straight to series with him.”

Sinsel said Brown is one of the most genuine people that she has ever met.

“He is what you see on camera,” Sinsel said.

Team effort
Everyone involved acknowledges that Brown is the star, but he is quick to point out that everyone has contributed to the show’s success.

“If I fail, I’ve got Neal backing me up,” Brown said. “If Neal and me fail, we got Jake backing me up. It might be his day. [Another week], it was Squirrel’s day.”

Squirrel is David Brady, who has been one of Brown’s friends since childhood.

Ison summarized the roles of the crew members.

“Neal’s the secretary, he’s the go-to guy. And Squirrel and I are the guys that back him up, you know, depending on the situation,” Ison said. “If Ernie needs something built or needs a strong back, there I am. Sometimes, he just needs an extra set of hands, and Squirrel’s there.”

But Brown says their help goes beyond helping him catch critters. They also make sure the show maintains its sense of humor.

“If I failed to do the show, and make it not funny, I got one of these guys to back up the show,” Brown said. “It might be Squirrel. It might be Jake. It might be Neal.”

As far as the entertainment side, they’ve been doing all right. According to Animal Planet, “Call of the Wildman” is one of their five highest-rated shows.

Their celebrity status has created some changes for the Turtleman and his team.  

Anywhere he goes, Brown said someone wants to visit with him, take a picture or get an autograph. In fact, on the day Brown and his crew were interviewed for this story, a family from Louisville showed up at his house hoping to meet him and get a picture, which they did.

The rest of the Turtle Team said they have had similar experiences.

“You don’t have no enemies anywhere,” Ison said.

“That’s the truth,” Brady added. “I get swarmed all the time.”

James said that the added attention has been positive.

“People love what we’re doing. They’re proud of us,” James said. “They understand that we’re not trying to put a black eye on Kentucky, that we’re showing Kentucky in a bit of a different lifestyle in the backwoods. And we’re backwoods by choice. We could do other things, but we’re backwoods by choice. We feel it’s a good thing.”

James said he now gets about 1,500 calls each week from people who want the Turtleman to help, only a few of which are legitimate animal nuisance calls.

“Everybody’s under the impression that they are going to invent a story to bring the Turtleman to their house,” James said. “Don’t try it cause it will not work.”

Brown said Animal Planet has a crew of people who investigate the calls before deciding which ones will be considered for the show. For calls that are actual nuisances that don’t make the show, James said they contact other animal nuisance professionals to help.

There are other drawbacks to celebrity, however. Every member of the Turtle Team said he has had to change his phone number at least once in the past year. On the same day he got a new cell phone, Brady said a few fans had already called him on his new number.

Nevertheless, Brown enjoys the attention.

“I get to see a lot of happy people in the whole wide world everywhere I go,” Brown said. “Nothing like the fans backin’ me up. Makin’ people happy is what I do, and I hope to keep on doing it.”

Inspiration
Before Brown got his own television show, the Turtleman said he admired “The Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin for his “warriorship” and his way with animals.

“He showed people how to handle an animal, and showed what they do. Me, I’m doing the same thing,” Brown said.

Brown also said he had been in contact with Irwin’s representatives weeks before Irwin died in a stingray accident. Brown said he would still like to meet Irwin’s wife and daughter some day.

He insists he is not trying to take away from anybody’s name.

“I just want people to respect me like they respected him,” Brown said.

Fame for good
As the Turtleman has become more widely known, he has been invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno twice. James said it was only when they flew to California the first time that Brown began to understand how far they could reach.

“He looked out and he saw all those houses, and I said, ‘Each one of those lights, Ernie, represents not one person, but probably a family. And all those people are going to have a chance to see you,’” James said. “At that point, he got some idea of the conception of how big the world was.”

Since then, he has made appearances on CNN and NBC. He and his Turtle Team have also attracted huge crowds at the Carl Casper Auto Show in Louisville and Van Lear Days in Floyd County.

At those events, they met fans who had traveled from as far away as China and Germany, and one fan stood in line for 11 hours just to get their autographs.

James said one man suffered a heat stroke while waiting in line to meet them.

“He wasn’t worried about being disabled. He was worried about getting his autograph,” James said. “Now that is insane.”

But the Turtle Team has also used their newfound celebrity for good.

James and Brown both visited West Liberty in the aftermath of the tornado in March of this year.

“It didn’t leave a twig in that town,” Brown said.

James visited the town first and he helped raise $300,000 for tornado victims. Brown arrived as James was headed to Henryville, Ind., another area that had been ravaged by a tornado.

In spite of the destruction, Brown said the town went all out to greet him when he arrived. Military, police and emergency vehicles escorted him into town. He got a tour of where the survivors were staying.

Brown said he and his girlfriend had traveled down with books to pass out to the community.

“They was so glad to see me, they was giving me presents,” Brown said.

On a more personal level, the Turtle Team spoke about meeting children who have experienced tragedies or illness. They have visited cancer victims and helped a young girl get an $18,000 breathing machine after hers was destroyed in a fire and her family’s insurance company would not replace it.

They also spoke about visiting a little girl at Kosair Children’s Hospital after they finished their appearance at the Carl Casper Auto Show. They had been told the girl wasn’t likely to survive.

“They told us all, ‘Y’all want masks?’” James said. “I said ‘I ain’t going in there and scaring that girl.’”

Brown had plans of his own.

“I said, ‘Get the banjo ready, Neal. We dancin’ tonight here with Jesus,’” he said.

That girl was still alive the last they knew.

What’s next?
On Labor Day, Animal Planet aired a “Call of the Wildman” marathon leading up to the season finale, which included two episodes.

As the current season drew to a close, many fans were asking if there will be another season.

When they were interviewed, Brown and his team were all optimistic that something could be worked out.

Animal Planet officials also spoke favorably about renewing the show for another season.

Sinsel said they would like to send the Turtle Team on the road in addition to their adventures in Kentucky.

As of press time, Animal Planet officials indicated that they hoped to make an announcement about another season soon.

In the meantime, Brown hasn’t given up on his childhood dream.

“I want to meet that ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine guy,” the Turtleman said. “That’s my target.”