The Turtle Man
Video by David Stephenson and Amy Wilson | Staff
Story by Amy Wilson
In a world without the Crocodile Hunter, there has been since 2006 a
swashbuckling-swamp-hero fame vacuum waiting to be filled.
Now comes Ernie Brown Jr., a rogue naturalist of sorts who thinks he
might just be able to step in and be that guy.
The man from Lebanon calls himself, variously, “Kentucky’s best-kept
secret” and “the poorest famous guy around.”
Mostly, though, he’s just The Turtle Man, known for being paid in gas
money to go on his intrepid forays cleaning out Kentucky’s troubled farm
ponds plagued by apple-stealing, horse-biting, cow udder-clutching,
He works only with his hands, in a job few men in the world are equipped
or willing to do.
It is so rare – and, he imagines, so entertaining to watch – that he has
his own superhero name, his own soon-to-be-working Web site, and his own
imagination working on what he has to do to be famous.
“I don’t kill it,” says The Turtle Man. “I only catch it. Don’t never
torture nothing. That’s my name of the game. That’s how you stay into
it. Keep people liking you.”
Entertainment is sometimes just that simple, he figures.
“Most people use cane poles, jugs, stakes and hooks.”
Not The Turtle Man.
He invented his method: Look “for (air) bubble trails, dive on top of
them, and it’s a tug of war from there.”
Actually, from there he uses his brains, his biceps and his back as well
as his finely tuned sense of where to look, even when underwater with
his eyes closed.
He figures he’s darn near halfway to Hollywood.
Somebody in Iraq gave him a shout-out while CNN’s cameras were on. He’s
already been seen on YouTube, and two disc jockeys on a Dallas radio
station wrote a tune that The Turtle Man likes to play for anyone
willing to listen.
He has his own signature rebel yell and a “Snapper-licious” logo.
As silly and circus-themed as all that might seem, the point is, people
need him. Horses really do get bitten on the lips. Cows do get bitten on
the udders. Ornamental birds get bitten, and small pets get killed.
It’s why you have to respect the turtle. And why the public has to
understand what a rare and dying thing The Turtle Man is doing and what
a rare and dying job he is preserving.
“I’m kind of like a warrior, like Robin Hood,” says The Turtle Man. “I
bring a turtle out of this pond, put him in another where he won’t do no
It’s cold this late autumn morning when he’s out to show his stuff. And
that’s good because the turtle has a fighting chance and the audience,
whoever it is that gathers, likes a fair fight.
“Turtles have three natural enemies: the sun, the bulldozer and,” he
adds after a little prompting, “The Turtle Man.”
Most times The Turtle Man wins, though he’s been bitten 25 times in his
36 years of wrestling reptiles. “Let’s see, one got me in the butt back
in 2004. Didn’t see him. Sat down on him. He bit my butt and I was
walking on water,” he says, laughing and pointing at his war-torn pants.
It doesn’t take long for what The Turtle Man calls “live action” to
ensue, when he’s slogging through waist-high mud and picking out turtles
who think they’ve already camped in for the day or the season.
But, no, he yanks them out, yells that piercing, lingering victory
screech and waves his prize above his head.
The turtle, for his part, rails at his own bad luck, snaps wildly at the
warrior that has him by the tail and sneers at those few who might
applaud the warrior’s luck.
On this day, one takes a bite out of The Turtle Man’s arm. A nip,
really. No. 26, more or less. No spilled blood but a trickle.
The Turtle Man openly admires the bite. A foe worthy of his time.
The Turtle Man, like a traveling showman, moves on to the next waiting
throng. His appearance at a Lincoln County family reunion is set up by
The family seems a bit startled by the way he looks, first; his yell,
second; and his special brand of entertainment, finally, when he rolls
up in his truck, muddy from stem to stern, showing off the reptiles he’s
already bagged that morning.
Do they want to go looking for turtles with The Turtle Man?
Indeedy they do.
On a hay trailer parked near a silo on an edge of a slimy, stinking
pond, as family members marvel around her, Lynn Philpot of Cincinnati
wonders aloud: “I hope this is very lucrative because I wouldn’t do it.
Who would get into that nasty water? Does he have a day job?”
He does. He works long days at a sawmill.
Another family member wants to know if he is crazy. Another wants to
know if he is single.
It is a fine afternoon in the waning days of 2008, and Philpot’s family
has the forever memory of how 80-year-old Nana grabbed a clean
handkerchief and held a freshly caught turtle and how 7-year-old Hunter
rethought his career choice. Being a pharmacist, it seems, has nothing
on being like this guy who gets to get filthy and rowdy and gross out
Aunt Lynn, all at the same time.
“Another successful entertainment” for Ernie Brown Jr., aka The Turtle
Man, who, it seems, is on some kind of a quest and learning all the
Finding turtles is easy.
Being famous is hard.126,139 views