Kentucky man catches snapping turtles, TV audience
LEBANON, Ky.—Ernie Brown's search for dangerous snapping turtles in a central Kentucky pond ends in a swirl of muddy water and loud whooping sounds, his bare hands clutching one of the angry, armored reptiles.
"Wooh man -- they feisty today!" Brown shouts, breathing heavily on a hot day in mid-May.
Brown says he has spent four decades turtle trapping, earning him the nickname "Turtleman" around his hometown of Lebanon, which is nestled near the heart of Kentucky's bourbon country.
He took his show on the road some years ago, drawing crowds to backwater ponds to see him wade through green scum to fight with snappers. A video posted on YouTube of him snatching the spiny critters from the water has attracted more than four million views.
Cable television came calling after a production company saw Brown doing a stage show with a massive snapper in West Virginia. His new show on Animal Planet, "Call of the Wildman," has him serving as a kind of bare-handed exterminator, helping people rid their property of raccoons, rats, coyotes, skunks and possums.
The show, returning to air on Sunday, joins a growing list of reality TV offerings where humans are pitted against animals-- many of them set in the South. The shows typically star brawny, blue-collar protagonists roaming in far-flung, backwoods settings. Along with "Wildman" there's "Billy the Exterminator" on A&E, "Hillbilly Handfishin'" -- also on Animal Planet -- and History Channel's "Mudcats" and "Swamp People," featuring a group of alligator hunters in Louisiana that has become one of the highest-rated shows on cable TV.
The shows are typically filmed in a style similar to major sporting events, with elements of competition and dramatic tension, Slate.com culture critic June Thomas said.
"These shows approximate that vibe, and attract some of that audience, without the expense -- and unpredictability of live sports and elimination tournaments," said Thomas, who recently wrote about the popularity of "Swamp People."
But unlike that show, where gators are routinely killed during Louisiana's 30-day alligator hunting season, the animals on Brown's show are corralled and set free elsewhere.
An Associated Press reporter joined Brown last month as he was clearing a pond for a local farmer in his hometown. After pulling out an especially cantankerous turtle, Brown -- who has a penchant for the theatrical -- held it in front of his face in a stare-down.
"I'm trying to hypnotize him now. I got to be faster than he is, it's like a waiting game," he says.
The prehistoric reptile finally rests its jaws -- and in an instant Brown clamps its mouth shut with his fingers and kisses it on the head.
"There it is, live action," he says. The turtle was later placed in a barrel to be moved to another pond.
Brown, who says he has only seen his TV show twice, lives in a tiny home with no television or phone just up the road from his mother's house. A man who spends his days living off the land and hunting dangerous animals is appealing to viewers who crave authenticity, said Rick Holzman, Animal Planet's senior vice president for programming.
"It gets back to some sort of primal yearning we all have to get out and tap into something real," Holzman said. "Ernie was doing this before we ever pointed a camera at him."
With his folksy style, sharp drawl and eccentric personality, Brown fits the mold of the distinct Southern characters who populate cable TV. He wears a leather hat adorned with animal teeth, though he lost his own two front teeth in a chainsaw accident years ago. When looking for turtles, Brown goes into the water shirtless, carrying a foot-long bowie knife named "Thunder."
Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky., said reality TV built around southern characters presents a distinctive culture for audiences that is either "exotic or outrageous or noble."
Davis says he hasn't seen Brown's show but said his concern with reality TV shows that depict rural Southerners is "the thin line between an honest documentary and exploitative reality show."
Brown and Holzman each said they have not heard much criticism that the show perpetuates Southern "Hillibilly" stereotypes.
"You either like the show and watch it, or you don't," Brown said. "I'm not doing anything wrong, just cheering people up."
Holzman said shows like Brown's and "Hillbilly Handfishin'" are "not holding people out there to be ridiculed."
"There are portrayals on television of stereotypes that are mean-spirited," Holzman said. "But I think we do (our shows) with a lot of admiration, and we think they're a fairly accurate representation of finding the good and the heart in all of these characters."
Follow Dylan Lovan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dylanlovan.