Ernie Brown Jr.- The Turtle Man of Kentucky
Thaddeus J. Wislinski
The turtle man, Ernie Brown Jr. was born and raised in Kentucky. At the age of five, Ernie found a Rolling Stone magazine on his grandparent’s table, and from then on he wanted to do something that warranted him being on the cover some day. Turtle Man never did become a rock star. However, turtle man has certainly taken on a “rock star” persona of late, including starring in his own show on Animal Planet. He has certainly done enough to warrant such publicity, and he has gained all of his notoriety for one simple reason, his waywardness. No, he isn’t wayward like a typical new celebrity, by being in a sex tape or doing drugs. He is wayward by being himself, and being a product of his environment, which, oddly enough, turned him into a very good person. Turtle man catches turtles…snapping turtles…like the big ones…that can chomp a finger off. He also catches foxes, armadillos, snakes, racoons, possums, you name it, he catches it. Also, most of the time he uses his bare hands. Turtle man basically responds to nuisance calls, and always finds a new safe home for the animals once he’s caught them. Plenty of people are “exterminators” and the like, but none are quite like the turtle man. Turtle Man is probably one of the most wayward Americans that live today, and he’s done it just by being himself.
There is perhaps no better example of American waywardness than the culture of the rural American South. The people of the South are just living how they want to live, being themselves, and yet most of the country considers them wayward.
This video illustrates the history of turtle man himself. Though it is only a few minutes long, it gives pretty much all the insight into Ernie’s life that you would need to know. It is interesting to see the people that come out to watch him catch turtles. You can’t help but wonder if they are watching for true enjoyment, or are just in awe of the spectacle of what Ernie does.
Turtle man is certainly a classic example of someone who doesn’t care for technology. Not only does Ernie not have a phone, a computer, or a climate-controlled house, he doesn’t even have electricity or running water. Ernie has built his own rain collection system to supply himself with water, and he even bathes in a large plastic storage tote, like the Sterlite brand containers sold at Wal-Marts and Targets. It is one thing to not be in touch with modern electronics of today’s day and age, but to not even have running water is a concept that is just insane to most. Most people would consider running water a necessity, but Ernie sees it as a convenience. It’s a convenience he decided he doesn’t need. His mother lives fairly close to him, and he can shower there whenever he needs to (which is usually about once a week) unless he is attending a barn dance, in which case he will put on his “dress jeans” and get cleaned up. On a final, rebellious note, Ernie exhibits another wayward behavior. He apparently has not washed the pants he uses to wade into the various Kentucky ponds in years. Imagine the smell!
Ernie doesn’t just catch turtles, which is how he got his famous nickname, but he will catch anything. Also, these aren’t your cute, slow and steady wins the race box turtles in your suburban backyard that he is catching, these are as big as 55-pound snappers that will bite a finger off in the blink of an eye. Ernie tackles them barehanded, and couldn’t think of any other thing he would rather do for a living. It is obvious that it is considered wayward to put oneself in danger on a regular basis, but Ernie does it pridefully and shamelessly. One thing that makes Ernie really stand out is the fact that he truly, truly cares for the animals he catches. He will never kill or harm an animal, and always relocates whatever he catches to preserves, or secluded ponds (in the turtle’s case) where they can live happily and won’t bother anyone. So, not only does he put himself in regular danger by confronting poisonous rattlesnakes, racoons, and skunks, but he cares for them deeply and always employees the utmost amount of care in handling them. It’s safe to say that most people wouldn’t be kind to a skunk that encroaches on their territory, but that is exactly what Ernie does, and why he is so…wayward. Though Ernie’s snappers are a bit different (especially in size) to the Sea Turtles that Archie Carr saves in “The Man who Saved the Sea Turtles,” the concept surrounding the practice of conservation ecology is the same. Every animal has its purpose, and we should take care to preserve those purposes, no matter what. This is a common bond that both Carr and Brown Jr. share, though an odd one.
There are many judgments that come to mind when portraying the people of the rural American South, most of which are looked upon as negative. One of the most common of these is that the people are illiterate and uneducated. By no means is Ernie uneducated, as it takes a great deal of knowledge to know all the wildlife in his area and how to handle it. He is always able to back up his actions with factual information on the critters he catches. His command of the English language and accent might make him seem like a regular rural southerner, but he is actually extremely intelligent.
This clip is taken from Ernie’s new show on Animal Planet titled, “Call of the Wildman,” where he saves an albino raccoon that has fallen down a well. In this video, Ernie demonstrates great knowledge about albinism and racoons in general, which shows he truly is smart.
The interesting thing about Ernie, is that not only is he wayward “by association” by being from the rural south, one could say that he is wayward even in the context of the rural south. What this means is, Ernie embraces the nuances and basic aspects of southern rural life (no electricity, running water, living off the land, etc), but a lot of the common stereotypes about the rural south do not apply to him. Basically, yes Ernie could be classified as a “toothless redneck” because, well, he is missing many teeth, but exactly how did that happen? He didn’t lose his teeth by chewing tobacco, smoking cigarettes, drinking, getting into bar fights, cooking methamphetamine, (point made) like most people would probably assume because he is from the rural south. Now, partaking in these things is wayward in itself, but the fact is, is that Ernie lost his teeth during an honest day’s work due to a chainsaw accident, and lost more in a car accident. In fact, Ernie doesn’t drink, smoke, chew, or do any drugs unlike most “toothless rednecks” are expected to. Instead, he looks the way he does because of something entirely different (and a lot less negative). I’m not trying to say that all southerners aren’t hard workers, because the majority work extremely hard, but what I am trying to say is that Ernie is a wayward example (by not abusing substances) of an already wayward person (a rural southerner). I think that this truly makes Ernie stand out, and for a good reason, which again is wayward, because most “toothless rednecks” don’t stand out for positive reasons. Ernie is full of waywardness, and oddly enough, it’s a very beautiful thing.
In a candid interview with The Frisky, Ernie proves through his answers that he is wayward in yet another way; that he has not let his fame get to him. He has caved in and checks and responds to email now and then, and even has his own website, but in reality he is still the same old Ernie, and always will be. He will never let fame get to his head like some do, and for that he is wayward…wayward but special, in a good way.
Davis, Frederick Rowe. The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.
Evans, Sterling. “The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology- A Review.” Rev. of The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology, by Frederick R. Davis. Oxford Press Journal (2010).
Schwartz, M. W., C. A. Brigham, J. D. Hoeksema, K. G. Lyons, M. H. Mills, and P.J. Van Mantgem. “Linking Biodiversity to Ecosystem Function: Implications for Conservation Ecology.” Oecologia 122.3 (2000): 297-305.