Kentucky "Turtleman" Ernie Brown Jr. has a way with the animals he wrangles weekly for his Animal Planet show. But that approach has prompted an investigation in the city of Danville and raised doubts about Brown's television antics.
An episode that aired June 2 on Animal Planet showed Brown fishing a cottonmouth snake out of the Danville-Boyle County public pool. The program, Call of the Wildman, often features Brown cornering unwanted animals and using unconventional methods of capture.
Now Danville's Board of Commissioners has asked the city manager to look into who permitted the filming of the show on the land owned by the city. The county, which helps fund the pool, has joined the inquiry, Judge-Executive Harold McKinney said.
The city government must approve any filming on city-owned land, but no one in government knew about the episode until hours before it aired, city manager Ron Scott said.
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Someone in Danville Parks and Recreation, which is not part of city government, might have given approval, Scott said. The parks department is an independent agency with its own governing board that oversees parks and pools.
Parks and Recreation director John Drake said he was unable to comment because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with the show's producers. Calls to other officials were directed to Drake.
The show's producer to whom Drake was told to route media questions could not be reached for comment. Neither Brown nor a representative could be reached for comment.
"At this point I have more questions than answers," Scott said.
McKinney said the inquiry should determine whether anyone or any agency received money in exchange for the filming at the pool.
City leaders worry that the show will cause people to be uneasy and deter people from using the pool, Scott said.
It is unclear whether the snakes were found in the pool or placed there for the episode, which was filmed in September, he said.
"We have never in the many years since it opened had a snake, venomous or otherwise, in the pool," Scott said.
A Kentucky snake expert is adamant the episode was staged. Snakes are rarely found in chlorinated pools because the chemicals are harmful to them, said Jim Harrison, founder of Kentucky Reptile Zoo and an expert on venomous snakes.
Cottonmouths are not found in Kentucky outside of the far western part of the state, he said. Also, the snakes in the show appeared to be a subspecies of cottonmouth native only to Florida, he said.
Since the show aired, Harrison has received several calls with claims of cottonmouth sightings and has been sent pictures of harmless, misidentified water snakes that have been killed, he said.
"My biggest problem is that they are putting false information out there that is causing panic," he said. "Untrained, uneducated people are messing with dangerous animals they have no business messing with."
Harrison has concerns about the program, not just the snake episode.
"No one who actually knows what they are doing handles animals the way they do on that show," he said.
Animal Planet called Harrison asking him to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would stop him from commenting on the snakes on the show, but he refused, Harrison said.