Most people call an exterminator when they have a pest problem. Not in Kentucky, though. When a skunk takes up residence in your basement, you call Ernie Brown Jr. and Neal James. TV’s newest dynamic duo and stars of the hit Animal Planet show Call of the Wildman catch critters—with their bare hands. Beyond bold captures, though, lies a bond between Turtleman and the Banjoman that warms your heart and is good, fun family television. Celebrity Parents caught up with Ernie and Neal in NYC to talk about their breakout show, their beliefs and why you should never squeeze a skunk.
Photos: Gabbeli Photography
Ernie, how long have you been capturing animals?
Ernie: I’ve been doing this since I was 7 and I also did farm work. A teacher asked me what I wanted to be in the future, and I said that I was going to be a farmer but I was also going to be a guy on TV catching critters on my off days, and here I am! [laughs] It took a long time, but I made it.
How did you and Neal meet?
Ernie: We were doing a show together, and Neal wrote a song for it. When I met Neal he was paralyzed; he had a triple bypass and had a tumor on his back and it paralyzed him. I said to him, “Why don’t we hook up and travel together? You play the banjo and I’ll catch turtles.
Neal: I told him, “I can’t walk!” and he said, “You will. I’ll take your rocking chair to the edge of the pond and set you by the water and play. That way people won’t stare at me while I’m catching.” I was the musical entertainment at first, and then he found out that I had long distance phone service. Then I became his secretary. [laughs] We traveled around, doing these shows, catching animals, and people would pay us in empty beer cans and leftover BBQ. We don’t drink, so we would turn in the bottles for gas money. So when you see that we work for green beans, that’s for real.
That was one of my big questions. When you capture these animals and you’re given a bone for Lolly [Turtleman’s dog], or $20, does that bother you?
Turtleman: They way we were raised, if you were given something, it was given from the heart. We were raised to respect other people and to appreciate everything that you’re given. So we never get upset at what we are given; we’re grateful to get it.
Neal: He wanted to be on television. He wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Turtleman: When I was born, Nikita Khrushchev was on the cover of Rolling Stone. I had no hair until I was five years old, so that was my nickname. But he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, and I wanted to do it, too! Neal thought I was the craziest loon he had ever met. But I love Jesus and I love life. I told Neal to come along with me. I said, “If you love Jesus, soon you will be throwing away that cane.”
Neal, I’m sorry to hear about your medical condition. How are you now?
Neal: I’m fine now, but they found a tumor on my spine as big as an embryo. They took it out and then I walked to the nurses’ station. My wife is an OT and she thought I was crazy for doing it, but I walked my big naked butt there! I called Ernie, told him that I could walk, and that I was good to go! So we started calling production companies trying to get a show.
Turtleman: I had been doing shows with some big snapping turtles.
Do you ever keep the animals you rescue?
Turtleman: I do keep some of the turtles for the winter. I have pet ones, and the little ones I keep and feed them until they’re big enough to be released back into the wild. At one of our shows, I did my Yeyeye! Animal Planet was there and they heard me and they said that they had been trying to get a hold of me for a long time. They wanted to get us on the channel, and after calling Neal, we met in November 2010 and we signed up to do the show.
What is it like being on one of the most popular shows on TV?
Turtleman: It is fabulous. I think a lot of people thought that it was fake, but then they saw me doing it and realized that it’s very real! It took a while to get used to everyone being with us, but now we’re all used to each other. We have a rhythm and it feels like a real team. They’ve seen me catch everything now.
That’s another great aspect of the show is that you’re not just catching turtles all the time. It adds variety.
Neal: We don’t want to make anyone mad, but we can’t go to everyone who has a skunk.
And you hate skunks.
Turtleman: I do, I hate skunks.
Neal: We have to go to something that is both educational and fun. So we’ll go to someone who has a deer, or a possum, or a fox. That’s what people want to see.
For me, I found out about the show through my kids. They were watching Call of the Wildman, and from the moment I sat down with them to watch it, I fell in love with the show. There’s no cursing, so I never have to worry about what they’re hearing.
Turtleman: No, you won’t hear us saying anything bad. But I saw them beeping me one time and I asked Dawn, one of the producers, why I was getting beeped. She said you can’t say “crap” on television, which I didn’t know. But I say it means poo, so that’s why I now say “pooty poo”! Now I know what to call it! I do have to thank everyone at Animal Planet; they have been amazing. I could cry every night, knowing that I am really doing this.
Awww! But do you know what I love most about the show? It’s the friendship between the two of you.
Neal: Ernie lost his dad about three years ago. He was a hard man; he picked his friends and it just so happened that he liked me. He told Ernie to trust me, and I believe he knew that he wasn’t going to be around. I worry about Ernie a lot. It’s weird because sometimes he’s my mentor. He’s not a scientist or a biologist, but he has a way with the animals. He doesn’t have to tell you about the reproductive cycles or their longevity. He just knows how to catch them because he can identify with them.
Turtleman: I am always calculating how to catch an animal. If I get striked at, then I didn’t calculate it right. When I grab, I’ve calculated it. But every animal is different, so every technique is different. People think it’s fake, but it’s completely real. Some things you can’t grab.
What can’t you capture?
Turtleman: A bobcat was the hardest thing. I’m trying it out, but I got scared. It attacks. I think I can do it, because I did catch it, but it took a holy amount of strength to get it into the cage. It totally ripped my jacket off.
And I love that when you say you’re getting suited up for a catch, it’s only your jacket, a pair of gloves, a bucket and a stick!
Turtleman: Those are my tools of the trade.
Neal, do you ever catch?
Neal: A little bit but that’s his job.
Turtleman: He caught a skunk once.
Neal: I squeezed it a little bit and it went off like a perfume bottle!
Let’s talk about the recent episode of Holler Day Cheer. It was hilarious.
Neal: I don’t want to think about that. A squirrel ran up my pants’ leg!
Turtleman: He had me laughing so hard I thought I was going to pass out! I couldn’t concentrate and it was messing up my calculations. I couldn’t get words out to speak.
Let’s talk about the softer side of you gentlemen–your families.
Neal: I have four kids, and they are grown. We have a tackle of grandchildren, six in all. They all call me Papi, and I can’t wait for my buddy over here to become a granddaddy.
Turtleman: I have two daughters: Courtney is 16 and Megan is 12. Courtney just got her driver’s license. My kids have had it rough. They’ve been run over by a car and I know that’s when I saw Jesus. I never wanted to ask for anything, but that day of the accident I did ask for Jesus’ help. They were in a coma for 3 months, I prayed for them and He brought them back. I have a great relationship with my daughters. We go out and play and the respect me. Me and my ex-wife get along. We go out Christmas shopping with my girlfriend, Julie, and everyone gets along.
I know that a cause near to your heart is juvenile diabetes.
Turtleman: We do fundraisers for juvenile diabetes since Courtney has it. She has it really badly, too; she takes ten shots a day and she’s been in a coma.
Neal: Our focus for 2013 is the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. No offense to anyone else, but that is our priority because Courtney lives with that on a daily basis.
Turtleman: My little girl Megan has healed since the car accident. They thought she had a bad gallbladder, and the surgery paralyzed her neck and face. She knows Braille now, and she’s smarter than my girl who can see!
Neal: What impresses me about Megan is that she is such a happy little girl. She’ll dance around and put on a show, just like the old man. But she can’t smile, but we know that one of God’s greatest miracles is that she will be able to smile again.
You’d never know from watching the show that there’s so much going on behind the scenes.
Turtleman: Yes, there is a lot of drama but there is also a lot of faith that it will all get better.
Neal: When someone gives you a smile, never take for granted how much it cost them. This is the first interview where it’s been disclosed about our kids. And yes, like the rest of the world, we have problems. It’s how you react to them. We keep moving forward, making people happy with our show, and doing what we were meant to do.