When online videos began circulating of Lebanon's Ernie Brown Jr., aka "The Turtle Man," wrestling giant snapping turtles out of Kentucky waters and hoisting them up with a yodeling yell, some viewers were more than entertained.
"We saw Ernie in action with the rest of the world on YouTube and were immediately intrigued by his ability to catch monster snapping turtles with his bare hands," Animal Planet's Dawn Sinsel says via email. "Ernie is unlike any other animal rescuer out there. He uses his bare hands to safely capture and relocate animals back into their natural habitats.
"Also, he's an amazing character with a heart of gold. His rebel yell didn't hurt either."
Sinsel is executive producer of Call of the Wildman, Animal Planet's new half-hour reality show featuring Brown at work, humanely ridding Kentucky properties of unwanted critters. The show, which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday, is poised to take Brown's star to new heights after videos on the Herald-Leader's Web site, Kentucky.com, and from Kentucky Educational Television made him an Internet sensation in late 2008.
They introduced the world to The Turtle Man, who uses his well-honed wildlife wits to capture animals that have wound up in the wrong places.
The videos caught the eyes of Sharp Entertainment's Matt Sharp, whose producing credits include the Travel Channel's Man v. Food.
"They said, 'We'd like come down and film with you, see what you do, and see if we can get a show,'" Brown said from Frankfort, where he was hunting possums at the Buffalo Trace Distillery with a camera crew in tow.
That was last November. In July, after seeing the initial footage, Sharp Entertainment producer Jill M. Horgan came to visit Brown.
"She said, 'If you can entertain me for 12 hours, you might have a chance to have a show,'" Brown said.
He said he took her out an adventure catching 11 turtles, a catfish (which, he says, he threw in her lap) and some treasure.
"She said, 'I think you got something here,' and here I am on Animal Planet, doing what I love to do," Brown said.
The initial online videos focused on Brown diving into murky waters to nab snapping turtles weighing 30 pounds or more. Call of the Wildman goes further, following Brown into adventures with snakes, rodents and other wildlife.
Sunday's premiere episode starts with Brown hunting a huge turtle that had been terrorizing cows in a pond where they had gone to cool off. The farm owner called Brown when the turtle started taking bites out of the cows' udders.
The sequence details the polluted nature of the manure-filled pond to such a point that viewers would be well advised to refrain from eating while watching the show. But Brown dives right in, and the drama is intensified because this is a particularly deep dive for Brown, and if a turtle got hold of him first, he might not be able to resurface.
He does resurface, of course — with his yell, of course. Then he's off to rid a barn of an unwanted raccoon.
In each case, he moves the animal to its natural habitat in a wildlife preserve. (Mice in his home don't fare so well: Brown sets up a snake trap for them.)
In his Kentucky.com video, Brown introduced himself as "the poorest famous man around." The show portrays him living a Spartan existence in the woods, needing to go to his mother's home to take a shower after diving into that fetid cow pond.
Poverty in Kentucky has long been a minefield for national media in dealing with a population sensitive to stereotyping.
Sinsel says, "As with all shows that explore a subculture of America that people might not be familiar with, we're careful to make sure that we represent the talent in their true colors and not 'cover up' their natural character. We hope Ernie's carefree and loyal personality and love of animals will replace any stereotypes."
As for Brown himself: "I don't drink or do drugs. ... My high is making people laugh and making them happy — kids of all ages. I told everyone about two years ago that I was going to make Kentucky happy — that I was going to start with Kentucky, then I'm going worldwide. Now it's going worldwide, and I'm tickled with that."
One thing that comes across is that even though Brown does not have formal education in animal control, years in the Kentucky backwoods have taught him a lot about how animals act, react and interact in the wild.
Brown says that knowledge came from a lifetime in the woods, including a self-imposed exile years ago when he worked to learn the habits and instincts of a variety of animals.
"Ernie's approach is not only hands-on, but crafted to ensure the safety of both himself and the animal he's rescuing," Sinsel says. "It's a pleasure to know that his knowledge of animals transpires onscreen and not only entertains but educates the audience about these amazing animals as well."
Introducing a camera crew changes the equation, but both parties seem to have enjoyed it.
"You couldn't ask for nicer and more devoted people," Sinsel says. "I also had the privilege of sharing a dance with Ernie when I was down in Kentucky. He's quite the ladies' man."
Ladies' man: This might be a new role for The Turtle Man.
Reach Rich Copley (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217, or firstname.lastname@example.org.