The untold truth of Turtleman

Call of the Wildman was an Animal Planet show that could best be described as a mashup between The Crocodile Hunter and Billy the Exterminator. Named after Ernie "The Turtleman" Brown, Jr.'s signature yelp, Call of the Wildman ran for four seasons before mysteriously disappearing from the airwaves.

The show followed a mostly toothless, bowie knife-toting Turtleman around his home state of Kentucky as he responded to calls from people needing help with removing "unwanted and potentially deadly pests," according to the show's official website. His unique style of catching dangerous prey, usually with his bare hands, quickly grew a rabid fanbase, but the show abruptly stopped after its fourth season. So what happened to the favorite son of the Bluegrass State? This is the untold truth of the Turtleman.

An investigation effectively canceled the show

After a seven-month investigation into Call of the Wildman, Mother Jones revealed not only the shady staging of the "rescues" on the show, but also some serious allegations of abuse and neglect of some of the animals featured. They described the production as "a culture that tolerated legally and ethically dubious activities."

Citing multiple examples of alleged animal mismanagement, Mother Jones suggests the production team was complicit in illegally drugging animals "in violation of federal rules," as well as failing to properly document "wildlife activities" for Kentucky officials. One such incident was the sedation of a zebra that Turtleman "caught" which show producers admitted they procured from a local drive-thru animal safari. There was also the episode in which Turtleman cleared bats from a beauty shop that resulted in the death of one bat, and possibly violated local laws that prevent "bringing a bat to a new location for entertainment purposes alone," which show producers admitted they did to stage the scene.

Then there was the supposed rescue of three baby raccoons, which Turtleman stumbled upon after capturing the "mother" in a Kentucky family's laundry room. Turns out the momma raccoon was a male, and the babies had been trapped days earlier in preparation for the episode, according to raccoon expert Karen Bailey, who runs the Kentucky Wildlife Center. After Turtleman "rescued" the raccoon cubs, Bailey was only able to save two of them at her center after show producers brought them to her in what she described as an "emaciated" and "almost dead" state. "I have no beef against (Ernie Brown) personally. I think this is a bad TV show, a badly scripted reality show. Animal Planet should know better," Bailey told LexGo. And her words must have resonated with viewers, because after the initial Mother Jones exposé, which was published between seasons three and four, Call of the Wildman saw a 43% drop in ratings. Although there was never an official cancellation announcement from Animal Planet, the Turtleman never returned after that dismal fourth season.

His catchphrase is 'Live action!' but a lot of what he does is staged

In an interview with Channel Guide Magazine, Turtleman insisted he's the real deal. "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," he said. But the production company who brought the Turtleman into America's living rooms, according to Mother Jones, produces "guided reality" shows in which they find bold personalities, and then "heavily produce their stories." So, while The Turtleman may be endearingly genuine, his TV show was decidedly not.

Animal Planet is actually remarkably open about this fact, as proven in statements made by Patricia Kollappallil, senior vice president of communications, who addressed an episode in which "a poisonous non-native snake was released into a city swimming pool without proper authorization," according to LexGo. "We're clear we do dramatizations, so for us that wasn't news or controversial. Sharp did bring in snakes. … There are times for a story line we need a particular animal, and we'll work with a licenser to find the particular animal," Kollappallil said.

Mother Jones also claims that "Sharp producers even go so far as to make fake animal droppings using Nutella, Snickers bars, and rice," as well as spoke with show producers who under the protection of anonymity said, "It was part of my job to call around people to trap animals at the direction of Sharp … It's 100 percent fake." One thing that was definitely real, however, was that for a time, Ernie "Turtleman" Brown Jr. was a licensed Nuisance Wildlife Control Officer (NWCO) in the state of Kentucky. The past tense being the important emphasis there.

Turtleman lost his NWCO license in Kentucky

In 2013, the year before the show stopped shooting new episodes, Turtleman was hit with a violation of his NWCO license after an episode in which he wrangled a deer out of a store in exchange for "an authentic suit of armor." Unfortunately for the so-called wild man, deer did not fall under his jurisdiction as a nuisance officer. So the state of Kentucky issued him a friendly reminder that if he was ever shown to "take, pursue, or attempt to take or pursue, or otherwise molest an elk, deer, wild turkey, or bear in a manner contrary to the Department's regulations," he could lose his license for three years and/or receive a criminal citation.

After the deer incident and the damning Mother Jones investigation which also uncovered inconsistencies in Turtleman's NWCO paperwork, several agencies, including the USDA, The Humane Society of the United States, and PETA either launched investigations or outright called for the cancellation of the show. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife also confirmed to Mother Jones that Turtleman was no longer licensed in the state as a nuisance officer. The official spokesperson for the department stopped short of saying specifically why that action was taken, although he did say of the show, "They shouldn't be doing anything in Kentucky." At this point, the previously cooperative Sharp Entertainment and Animal Planet circled the wagons and refused to comment to Mother Jones about the USDA investigation. Though it was never clearly spelled out that Turtleman became too much of a liability, the abrupt end of the show that same year pretty much speaks for itself.

He's still making public appearances

It's been years since the Turtleman shot new episodes of his show, but he's still a beloved figure nationwide. He currently engages with fans by showing up at events like the Big East Camping and Outdoor Sports Show in upstate New York, where fans could pay $15 for a VIP meet-and-greet with the toothless critter catcher, according to The Oneida Daily Dispatch. "I'm just trying to cheer up the world," the Turtleman reportedly told them of his current endeavors.

According to his Facebook page, the Turtleman made his first visit to Hillbilly Days in Pikeville, Kentucky where he shot a video showing himself learning how to make lemonade with one of the vendors. It's not exactly the "live action" of him catching a beaver that's chewing away the supports of a collapsing mine, but he does do his signature yell while he's mixing the drink, so the flare is still there.

He was also on hand at the Harrison County Recreation Complex in Clarksburg, West Virginia where fans lined up by the hundreds to meet the wildman. "He's real. He's the same thing off camera as he is on camera, and it's exciting. I don't care about celebrities, but this dude I care about," one eager fan told The Exponent Telegram while waiting to meet him. Maybe there's still a path back to TV stardom for the Turtleman—you know, just in case the lemonade stand doesn't work out.

He started catching turtles for food when he was seven years old

While the Call of the Wildman may have been largely fabricated, the man who dives face first into nasty backwoods Kentucky ponds in search of turtles is 100% real. In fact, Earl Brown Jr.'s hardscrabble lifestyle is all he's ever known. In an interview with Channel Guide Magazine, Brown talked about the origins of his nickname. "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,'" he said.

With his claim that he's now been catching turtles this way for "nearly 40 years," that would put his date of birth somewhere around 1970, which is not exactly a historical time period associated with people scavenging for food in this way. But it does explain a claim Brown casually tosses out in another interview with Syracuse.com. "People think I have a million dollars. I got the famous part, but I haven't got the rich part figured out yet. I'm the poorest famous guy around. I only made $50,000 last year, and that's before taxes. If you could tell my fans to send my stamped, self-addressed envelopes I'd appreciate it. I try to answer each and every one." If that's true, it's both infuriating and depressing at the same time, considering his shot at fame also essentially torpedoed the way he made a living for years before the show.

He lost his teeth in some nasty accidents

Aside from his giant knife, raccoon-tail cap, and wildman yelp, the Turtleman is also known for his dental deficiencies. Most people start correcting their oral hygiene the second they make any TV money, but not Turtleman. And sure, the natural inclination here is to think "His family was diving into ponds for dinner, there's no way they ever went to the dentist," but it seems nature didn't even have a chance to rot out those chompers, because a series of gruesome accidents did it first.

Speaking with Syracuse.com, Turtleman laid out the history of pain that left him with just seven remaining teeth in his head. "Actually, there were three separate incidents. The first one, a guy swung a chainsaw around and hit me in the face while we clearing some brush. That took 189 stitches to sew me back up. I lost a few teeth there," he recalled. Okay, yep. That's awful. Wait, there's more? "After that, I was driving down the road, swerved to avoid hitting a tractor that pulled out, along with an oncoming car. I tried to gas it like the Dukes of Hazzard to get over a ditch and into a cornfield. I didn't make it over the ditch." The third time a piece of scrap metal got blown into his jaw by the wind while he was roofing, because on top of being a crazy person who grabs wild animals with his bare hands, this guy is also apparently a walking installment of the Final Destination movie franchise.

He almost died from a turtle bite

Since this man's life has been marked with a unique and terrifying inclination towards mortal danger, it should be no surprise that a turtle almost killed him once. He actually told Channel Guide Magazine that he's been bitten 33 times by the deceivingly docile-seeming creatures, "and every one of them hurt like heck." Of the nearly lethal bite, he said, "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."

He kept the bite stories rolling with another example of when a snapper got him 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." Ha! Isn't almost dying from turtle bites hilarious, y'all?!

He helped organize a water-collection drive for victims of the Elk River chemical spill

Controversies and goofy stories aside, the Turtleman seems to have a genuine and admirable interest in helping people. He's constantly plugging charitable causes on his Facebook page, and he even once partnered with the Wirt County Office of Emergency Services in West Virginia to hold a donation drive on behalf of the residents whose water was contaminated by chemicals leaked into the nearby Elk River. By the end of the drive, volunteers "had filled three 5-ton National Guard trucks with donations," which included "bottled water, paper products and utensils, baby wipes and other needed items for folks who've been days without usable water," according to The Herald Dispatch.

Of his decision to lend his celebrity to the cause, Turtleman told the paper, "Since I have been a little kid we never had running water and that is still the way it is today, so I know what it is like now to have no water to drink. I collect rainwater for washing but for drinking water, I have to go over to my mom's. When I seen these people in trouble and in need, I knew I had to help. I know what it's like." Okay seriously, who is this guy's agent? Because they need to be run out of the entertainment industry indefinitely.

His house sounds like a nightmare version of Dr. Dolittle

Surprisingly, the Turtleman doesn't keep many pets. In fact, the only domesticated animal he keeps around is his dog, Lolly, who was featured prominently on the show. But in an interview with Hollywood Soapbox, he explained there's still a good amount of wildlife in and around his house, including two cats that run mice control as well as a snake named Sir Lancelot that "just comes and goes as it pleases," but also takes care of any mice on the inside. Sounds like he's got a significant vermin issue as well as what appears to be a wild snake who has a back door key. Oh, and we almost forgot about the turtle, because of course there's one of those.

"Then I got a pet snapping turtle that'll still bite you. It ain't a pet. It got ran over when it was real little. It's going on five years old now. I Super-Glued it back together. He healed back and his name is Chester—a snapping turtle, Super-Glued together. Only turtle I know in the United States who's Super-Glued together and lived through it. That's a live action true story," he boasted. So just to recap, that's a house full of mice that two feral cats can't keep up with, a snake who crashes on the couch when he feels like it, and a Frankenturtle with an attitude. Cozy.

He's recording an album

Along with country artist Steve Oliver, Turtleman is in the process of putting together a series of albums that will tell the story of his life. He recently announced the first single, "Turtleman Strong," which he's already turned into a music video. This is an ambitious undertaking for the Turtleman to say the least; according to this Facebook video, he and Oliver have taken the past two years to write 90 songs that they plan on turning into three total albums. "Ya'll ain't seen nothin' yet. Turtleman's comin' back 2017. Turtleman strong," the Kentucky wildman insists at the end of the video. He—or someone running his page—also addressed a question about his now-defunct show, saying, "Actually, the contract with the production company expired and they parted ways. Future TV projects are being considered…" Which leads us to…

The return of The Turtleman

Though his trapping methods are decidedly low-tech, the Turtleman has embraced the wave of new media, launching his very own YouTube channel. As of this writing, the channel has been up for over three weeks and has just 910 subscribers, so the word on the Turtleman's new venture is obviously not out yet. Or it could be that without professional staging, his adventures aren't quite so entertaining, like this video where a monkey pets his arm for awhile, or this one where he gets a haircut. In another video, he does "relocate" a snake that's hanging out in the rafters of a cabin at the Little Ponderosa Zoo, although we eventually find out that the snake, who even has a name—Earl—has lived there for 12 years. Not exactly the "live action" of capturing potentially rabid raccoons, but the zoo patrons seemed to love it, and the Turtleman is back to doing what he does best.