Federal authorities 'looking into' allegations about Turtleman

jpatton1@herald-leader.comJanuary 24, 2014 

The Turtleman might be in some hot, murky water.

Kentucky icon Ernie Brown Jr., aka "Turtleman" and the star of Animal Planet's television reality show Call of the Wildman, is under scrutiny from federal and state officials after a critical report in Mother Jones magazine.

The article, published Tuesday at Motherjones.com, accuses Brown's show of setting up situations for Brown to "rescue" animals, sometimes to the detriment of the animals involved. According to Mother Jones' report, a baby raccoon in Kentucky and bats in Texas died after being used on the show.

"When you're filming, in TV nothing is necessarily perfect, and filming with animals is even more unpredictable," Patricia Kollappallil, senior vice president of communications for Animal Planet, told the Herald-Leader. "You do everything you can to make sure those conditions are as safe for the people and the animals involved. For Animal Planet, the animals are our main priority."

She said that the claims raised by the article surfaced about nine months ago and have been addressed by Sharp Entertainment, which has since hired a federally licensed wildlife handler to be on the set at all times.

Since the Motherjones.com article came out, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, is reviewing the situation.

"We need to determine whether or not a license is needed to exhibit animals, based on the information in the article," said Tanya Espinosa, USDA spokeswoman. "We're looking into it; there isn't an investigation at this point."

A federal license is required under the Animal Welfare Act to exhibit regulated animals, generally mammals, to the public whether on TV or in person such as at a zoo or circus, Espinosa said.

Two animal welfare groups — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States — have weighed in.

Carney Anne Nasser, attorney with PETA, said that her group has filed a request for USDA to immediately investigate the conditions reported in the Mother Jones article, which she said represent clear violations of AWA. Nasser said they also plan to file complaints with state and local animal humane officers.

Nicole G. Paquette, vice president of Wildlife Protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said: "We are grateful to Mother Jones for shining a spotlight on this form of animal exploitation that few would ever think about when watching reality TV shows involving animals. We hope that networks that air reality shows like Call of the Wildman reconsider including staged shows that place animals in harm's way all for entertainment's sake. We encourage the state of Kentucky to investigate and revoke Ernie Brown's nuisance wildlife control operators permit."

Call of the Wildman, which ended its third season in December, is produced by Sharp Entertainment. It first aired in October 2011.

Brown, who lives in Marion County, was unavailable to comment, according to Animal Planet spokesman Jared Albert. But in an interview with the Herald-Leader on Friday, Brown's cohort on the show, Neal James (aka the Banjo Man), denied that any animals were harmed in their presence or with their knowledge.

Of the Mother Jones article, James said, "It's all mistruth. It's some kind of doctored up story, and I don't know why they are coming after us."

What James wants to tell the world: "If I saw any of that kind of stuff going on, I would have stopped it. Rest assured, no animal was harmed."

Brown is what is called a nuisance wildlife control officer in Kentucky, licensed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

In August, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife sent Brown a warning about an incident involving a deer filmed in a store in Brownsville.

"As you are aware, your Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator (NWCO) permit, issued by the Department, does not allow you to take or handle cervids, including white-tailed deer," wrote Fish and Wildlife legal counsel David B. Wicker.

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife stopped short of taking action against Brown but warned that any further violation could result in the revocation of his permit for at least three years or a criminal citation. (Kollappallil said that Sharp's producers were unaware of Kentucky's law at the time, and they have not used deer since.)

The letter was sent two months after an episode filmed in Danville raised doubts about the "reality" of Brown's exploits for the show. In that case, a poisonous non-native snake was released into a city swimming pool without proper authorization, which made it appear that cottonmouths or water moccasins had invaded a Central Kentucky park.

A Danville city investigation found the incident was completely staged.

Kollappallil said: "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."

Mark Marraccini, spokesman for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, said that Brown is not currently under investigation.

"It would be fair to say we're not aware of any major wildlife irregularities at this time. We let him know the deer was a potential violation. And we will probably look more closely at" records from the show, Marraccini said.

One big worry for the department is that wild animals captured in one area will be released into another and inadvertently spread disease that could harm the native population or pose a public health problem.

Some records filed with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife that detailed what was captured, released and euthanized on Call of the Wildman might have been falsified, according to the Mother Jones report.

The story alleged that for an episode involving raccoons caught in Boyle County, records showed all four were released on private acreage when at least three were taken to wildlife rehabilitators. The producers acknowledge this was clerical error.

Karen Bailey, with the Kentucky Wildlife Center in Georgetown, said producers contacted her days before filming the episode, in which a mother raccoon and her babies were supposedly found in a laundry room. Actually, the raccoons came from two separate places and the "mother" was a male, Bailey said.

The babies eventually reached Bailey in such dire shape that she wasn't able to save one of them, she said.

"I think the whole premise behind the show is wrong. These animals are being put in repeated, stressed environment," Bailey said. "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."

Marraccini said that the incident happened in 2012, so the statute of limitations has run out, and as far as he is concerned there is nothing to investigate.

Animal Planet spokesman Jared Albert denied that Bailey had any involvement in the show.

"As far as we know, Karen was not involved in Call of the Wildman. Sharp contacted her for initial scouting," Albert said. "Sharp Entertainment made one phone call to her and that was it. She had nothing to do with procuring animals, being on set or otherwise."

Bailey said Friday that the show used a possum from the Wildlife Center on an early episode, before she had seen the show. Two of the center's volunteers accompanied the animal to a fraternity house on the University of Kentucky campus, she said.

Dan Adler, senior vice president of Sharp Entertainment, said he couldn't confirm that. But he disputed Bailey's claim that the baby raccoons were in their hands for more than the 48 hours allowed by law before they were turned over to Broadbent Wildlife Sanctuary, which apparently took them to Bailey.

"We're not sure about one of them dying, just to be clear," Adler said. "The animals came in from a nuisance call, where they would have died otherwise."

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife once helped publicize the Turtleman: Marraccini said Brown was featured on their program Kentucky Afield in 2008. (Later that year, Brown was featured in a story and video published by the Herald-Leader.)

"That's how he came to the attention of the national folks" Marraccini said. "None of our shows are concocted, of course."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.

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