A recent article on the Knoxville Celebrity Examiner reported that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had filed charges against Ernie Brown, Jr., the Turtleman, from Animal Planet's "Call of the Wildman." In an email dated June 17, Jinnine Pak, Communications Administrator from PETA, contacted the Knoxville Celebrity Examiner with a detailed explanation of the reasons behind the organization’s disapproval of the popular Kentucky personality. For a longtime fan of this unique show, it is difficult to admit that the documentation presented by Pak is compelling.
The dialogue begins with the usual verbiage used to criticize reality TV. She wrote, “As you noted, the ‘rescues’ that Mr. Brown performs for the camera are staged." However, in this case, the “staging” they were referring to did not mean just scripting lines, but literally bringing animals (sometimes drugged) into locations for Turtleman to rescue. These animals were either trapped or provided by exhibitors, at least in the incidents for which they provided documentation.
PETA made reference to an expose conducted by Mother Jones magazine but also cited three specific examples which are difficult to refute. Most startling is this Department of Agriculture document regarding a citation received by Jason Clay, the owner of a drive-thru safari that permitted a zebra to be used in the “Call of the Wildman” episode filmed in Texas. A citation was issued because the exotic animal was drugged and placed in an area for Turtleman to “rescue.” The manner in which it was wrestled to the ground was part of the seriousness of the incident.
Another incident of interest cited by Pak was the episode in which poisonous snakes were transported to a swimming pool in Danville, Ky. There was a great deal of consternation on the part of the town’s government officials when the news spread of what had taken place. You can read about their reactions and what followed in this memo from the city manager.
The episode in Houston involving the bats in the hair salon has been under investigation by Texas officials, according to Pak. PETA claims that the bats were actually released in the salon for Ernie Brown to catch by hand. Kentucky officials had already warned him that catching bats by hand is illegal, but it was done again in Texas. (It is potentially fatal for bats to be handled in this manner.)
Earlier seasons focused on more “pesty” wildlife indigenous to Kentucky, but as the show went on, more exotic animals were included in the episodes, ramping up the excitement. It might be possible that the producers and writers at Animal Planet might be responsible for these unacceptable practices. If they had just let Ernie Brown do what he says he does, maybe it would have been fine. The whole thrust of the show is rescuing and removing animals by hand to protect them instead of hurting or killing them. Responding to questions along that line Wednesday via email, Pak explained that even if Turtleman was doing what Turtleman claims that he does, PETA is against his method for “catching critters.” On the surface, that response is surprising, but Pak explained:
Basically, our concern is that instead of humane handling—which should be done in a calm manner that, frankly, is not that exciting on camera—these animals are being violently chased, wrestled, and traumatized because it's more "exciting."
PETA supports the use of “repellants, deterrents and exclusion.” Another problem that was mentioned is that people try to emulate Turtleman and may engage in cruel behavior with wild animals because he does it. This type of capture is often deadly to wild animals, to which anyone who has ever tried to raise a baby rabbit can attest.
“Wildlife who have been chased or tackled often suffer (and can die) from stress-induced metabolic disorders such as capture myopathy, heart failure, and an inability to thermo-regulate.”
Fans of the Turtleman and “Call of the Wildman” don’t want to hear this information. Ernie Brown, Jr., is quite an entertaining and lovable character, along with his “Turtle Team.” Viewers have gotten attached to them all over the years, so this information from PETA is not pleasant to hear. It is, however, very well-documented and unsettling even to the most ardent of the show's supporters. There is not much of an argument to be made here. Maybe, Turtleman should just stick to removing turtles?