Ernie Brown Jr., aka the Turtleman, has faced down many a vicious animal, including giant snapping turtles, snakes, skunks, raccoons and wild hogs, in most cases trapping the critters with his bare hands.
But a trail in Lebanon named in honor of the star of Animal Planet's wildly popular series Call of the Wildman, reduced TV's toughest animal trapper to tears.
"It breaks my heart," Brown said. "It's an honor, to have all them people behind you."
Behind him they are. Brown has legions of fans all over the world, a remarkable feat for a man who grew up in the backwater of Kentucky and once made his living about as far from the spotlight as possible, in a factory cutting barrel staves.
As a kid who "jumped in ponds and caught turtles," Brown snared his first snapping turtle, a 25-pounder, when he was 7. Even before that, he knew he had a singularly unique skill, one that could land him on the much-coveted cover of Rolling Stone, his grandpa's favorite magazine.
"Grandma said, 'Find a talent, get people to love it, stick with it and know every inch of it. They'll put you on TV and on that magazine.'
"At five years, I went and got myself a talent," he said. "Haven't heard from Rolling Stone, but I'm still trying for it. I'm knocking out my goals one at a time."
In the meantime, Brown is touched by the trail that lets fans of Call of the Wildman follow in the footsteps of this animal lover from Lebanon. A town of 5,539 in south-central Kentucky, it's where the Turtleman maintains his rural lifestyle when not taping the show.
The trail debuts as the second season of Call of the Wildman premieres Sunday.
Christened the "Turtle Trek," it meanders through downtown and into the county to neighboring Gravel Switch, and features six stops, including sites seen in episodes of the TV series and local landmarks famous for their connection to either Brown or his alter ego.
The Marion County Heritage Center, listed as the No. 2 stop on the Turtle Trek, should be the first place visitors go. Here is the world's only Turtleman exhibit — and it is comprehensive, with many of the items donated by Brown himself. You'll see traps made and used by Turtleman before he became an international sensation and those he has created on camera.
There are display cases spilling over with memorabilia, including boots, tools, the banjo Neal James used in composing his Turtleman song, turtle shell paintings created by Brown and his mom, Lola Brown (aka TurtleMom), fan-made gifts like colorful wood carvings and touching fan letters. Since the show debuted in the fall of 2011, Turtleman has become a hero to thousands and thousands of kids — and it is a role he takes seriously.
"I feel like I got to be that man, that hero — and I'm honored when kids call me that."
In one letter, a boy named Tim invites Brown to visit South Carolina to see the wildlife there and calls him a hero because "you are a good turtle-catcher and you love it!" Tim closes with a request for Brown to write back when he has time.
"My whole house is full of fan mail," said Brown, who says he receives 5,000 letters a week and opens every envelope himself. "I open one bag at a time, and I keep the letters in order. I don't have no help. It's backed up, and I don't get to it every day — I gotta do shows and I'm out of town.
"But one of these days, there may be a letter there in your mailbox from the Turtleman."
One exhibit not seen in many museums is a life-size model outfitted in camouflage and tagged with every injury Brown has sustained going mano-a-mano with varmints. Fans of the show may know that Turtleman has been bitten dozens of time by snapping turtles and other critters, has had his ribs broken and was once stuck by a porcupine quill. The display puts it all out there, each bite and break locked and labeled.
Other stops include the new WhiteMoon Winery, featured in the episode titled "Tee'd Off Turtles" and the first stop listed on the Turtle Trek. Although the barrels Turtleman used to catch the critter are on display at the Marion County Heritage Center, visitors can sit back and sample Kentucky Proud wines in a countryside setting.
Stops No. 3 and 4 are downtown: The Stillhouse Restaurant and art gallery is famous for its Turtleman Cheesecake, but that's not all. With Maker's Mark Distillery just outside of town in Loretto, the restaurant has a Maker's Mark Bourbon Fried Grill menu, featuring chicken, steak and pork entrees perked up with one of Kentucky's most beloved brands of bourbon. The Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission is where fans will want to pick up a souvenir "Lebanon, KY — Home of Turtleman" T-shirt.
Two other stops include Historic Penn's Store, a 19th-century country store in nearby Gravel Switch, seen in the episode "Fort Rattlesnake," and the Sandusky Mule Barn, featured in the episode "Groundhog Day."
Other things to see while in Lebanon are Maker's Mark Distillery, where visitors can take a tour, enjoy a tutored tasting and dip a souvenir bottle into the signature red wax; Limestone Branch Distillery, home of legal moonshine; and the Kentucky Cooperage, with tours showing the process of barrel making.
Lebanon's Turtle Trek attraction is ready for visitors just as fans of the show will be tuning in to Call of the Wildman for the start of Season 2. Episodes will challenge Team Turtle's prowess with nuisance animals at several Kentucky venues, including Louisville's notoriously haunted Waverly Hills Sanatorium, the Marion County Heritage Center, and Turtleman's childhood home in an episode featuring TurtleMom.
Fans will see Turtleman take on coyotes, llamas, venomous snakes, pigeons, skunks, raccoons — even bulls — rescuing and relocating them to the wilds. And he'll do it with pure animal instinct gleaned from a lifetime of studying all variety of critters.
"You got to learn their bad habits and their good habits. If you're not fast enough, you're gonna get bit. If you grab the wrong end, you're gonna get bit.
"You got to make a magic hand — wave your hand like a wand — distract the critter with your hand and count your seconds. You got to time it just right, and you'll never miss your grab. That's my secret tip."
Viewers will also hear Brown's trademark yodel-scream, a talent he attributes to TurtleMom and grand-TurtleMom, and see plenty of "live action."
Favorite home-cooked meal: squirrel and dumplings, blackberries and dumplings
Easiest meal to put together from the land: "If you can catch frogs or fish, that'd be easy. You can always make a line and hook from wire and hook you a fish. You can eat crawdads, blackberries and raspberries in the summertime, cattail root, dandelions, wild mustard greens — gotta watch for parasites. If you get water, make sure it's out of a spring. Boil it before you drink."
Animal phobia: Skunks. "Their spray can blind you for two or three days and it burns like fire, and then there's the issue of skunk odor. I would rather tackle 100 raccoons than one skunk any day. True story."
Favorite critters: "Dogs and cats are my favorites, and I love pet squirrels. They're the best little rascals. They'll cuddle up on you. They'll go in a litter box. They're clean animals. If someone breaks into your house and you got a pet squirrel, they'll attack. They're vicious with strangers, very territorial."
Best skin care tip: Mud. "It may stink a bit, but it's a natural sunscreen. Also, wallow in clear creek water. People say I look 30 to 35 years old; I guess the mud keeps the sun off me and keeps me young."
Critter turtleman won't take on: A monkey. "I'm not gonna tackle one of those critters. They're strong and mean and will rip your face off."
How to impress the ladies: "Dance and show your stuff — and show it without fear. Have fun in your life. If you don't have fun in your life, you can't live proud. And you gotta live proud. Living fun and living proud — that's the message I want to get out to people."
'Call of the Wildman'
Season 2 premieres at 9 p.m. June 2 on Animal Planet
Get Turtle Trek details here: Visitlebanonky.com/itineraries-tours/turtleman-trek.
Learn about visiting Lebanon: Visitlebanonky.com