The Duckmaster Rules the Roost at the Peabody Hotel


Duckmaster Anthony Petrina leads the ducks through the lobby during the twice-daily Peabody Duck March at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Peabody Hotel

People get paid to do all kinds of weird stuff: stand in lines for other people, write fortune cookie fortunes, move icebergs, cuddle strangers. But though there are a few, say, professional snake venom milkers, there's only one Duckmaster.

For the past 85 years, the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee has been paying someone to tend to its five North American mallard ducks. The Duckmaster is responsible for feeding, training and cleaning up after the ducks that live on the roof of the hotel by night and entertain guests in the lobby by day, but this is not a simple animal caretaking job. Each morning, the ducks must also be ushered from their $200,000 "Royal Duck Palace" on the roof of the hotel, down the elevator, and into the lobby, where a red carpet has been laid for their waddle to the hotel's Italian marble indoor fountain. Hundreds of people crowd into the Peabody's lobby each morning and afternoon to watch the spectacle, so somebody's got to make sure it all happens smoothly.

Which is why the Duckmaster is an indispensible, albeit niche, profession.

A Short History

The Peabody got their first ducks in 1933, after the general manager of the hotel released three live hunting decoys in the fountain after a weekend hunting trip. Legend has it he and a friend were inebriated at the time of the notorious prank, so it's not like he was a marketing genius or anything, but boy, did the duck thing ever take off. People went bananas for those ducks, and in 1940, a bellman named Edward Pembroke took over the job of caring for the ducks full time. Pembroke had spent time as an animal trainer for Ringling Brothers circus, and over the next 50 years, he forged the position of Duckmaster into what it is today.

Pembroke realized, for instance, that the ducks needed to be "teenagers," — around a year and a half to 2 years old — and that the ducks have to be swapped out pretty frequently, as the they start becoming harder to control over time.

"They start getting sassy after about three months here," says the current Duckmaster, Anthony Petrina, who has held the position for the past six years. "And when we switch over to Daylight Savings Time, forget it — you can't keep them in the fountain after what they think is 5 pm."

This means that every three months, five new ducks — a drake and four hens — are brought in from the local family farm that has been providing the Peabody ducks for the past 37 years. The retired ducks go back to the same family, where they're set loose and free fly to a neighboring pond, or Florida if they like. This means, though, that the Duckmaster has to retrain a new group of ducks about four times a year.

Duckmaster Qualifications

So, the Duckmaster trains ducks, but what are the other qualifications?

"More than I had, actually," says Petrina, who has a degree in hotel management. He started at the Peabody waiting tables and then moved up to supervisor. But when the Peabody needed a new Duckmaster, Petrina thought it sounded like fun, so he applied. It turns out it's not only a duck job, it's a people job.

"As Duckmaster, I'm in charge of...all the ducks! I have to make sure they're happy and healthy and that their room's turned down and all that. And of course the guests need context — they need to understand why we march ducks in and out of the lobby every day. I have to be as consistent as possible — for most people who come to see the ducks waddle down the red carpet, this is their first time, so I have to make sure I do it exactly the same every single time."

Because the job description is so specialized, Petrina's training for the job had to be provided by the Duckmasters before him, in addition to the family that raises the ducks. Now he's an expert at duck care and maintenance, as well as making sure the ducks feel comfortable while they're in the fountain.

"Most of the guests are very respectful of the ducks, but every once in a while we get an excited kid, and it's my job to make sure everyone knows the ducks are just there to observe and enjoy."

HowStuffWorks headed to 2018's Memphis in May for some duck watching and BBQ eating in partnership with Chevy, who sponsored the trip and provided the 2018 Chevy Equinox that got us there. This article was written by HowStuffWorks without editorial oversight from Chevy.


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