“I never thought you could get a condescending look from a duck, but as it turns out, you definitely can,” Anthony Petrina explains.
He remembers the day clearly: It was his second week on the job as the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and he thought he was doing a pretty damn good job of marching those ducks down the red carpet in an orderly fashion. (It’s a twice-daily occurrence at the hotel that attracts hundreds, including names like Jimmy Carter, Oprah, an incognito Michael Jordan and Nicholas Cage.)
But he had pressed the wrong button on the elevator, and instead of opening into the lobby, Petrina was greeted by an open expanse of balcony. The five mallards turned around and just looked at him – the duck equivalent of major side-eye.
Along with his assistant duckmaster, a retired hotel veteran, Petrina oversees the decades-old, now-famous Peabody Duck March – and the care and keeping of the ducks. He can even see the duck palace on the roof of the Peabody from the window of his apartment down the street. “I can literally keep an eye on them at all hours,” he says, “though that’s probably taking the job a little too far.”
Based in: Memphis, Tennessee
Graduated from: University of Memphis
Years in the business: Three years, which puts me at the bottom of the totem pole. The first-ever duckmaster, Edward Pembroke, held that role for 50 years.
Previous jobs: An executive from the Peabody Hotel taught one of my college classes, and I fell in love with the hotel. I’ve been working there every since, first in the hotel restaurant as a server, then as a supervisor and now as duckmaster.
So, what’s the big deal with the ducks? In the 30s, back when it was legal to have live duck decoys, the general manager of the Peabody Hotel was out hunting and drinking whiskey. He was a little tipsy when he got back to the hotel in the middle of the night, and he thought it would be funny to sneak some wild ducks into hotel and let them loose in the fountain in the lobby.
I think he expected them to be gone in the morning, but they had stayed in the fountain the whole night! The general manager ran over and started apologizing to staff and guests, but people laughed it off. They decided to let the ducks stay, first for the weekend, then for the week, then for the month, then for the year. And that was 80 years ago.
The ducks have become a point of pride for the hotel, which is a genius marketing move. How did that transformation happen? In 1940, Edward Pembroke, a former animal trainer with Ringling Bros., began as the hotel’s bellman and said we should take things to the next level – put the ducks on a red carpet and play music. It has grown into a great Southern tradition; in fact, it’s one of the top three attractions in Memphis and among the top three reasons people choose to visit Memphis, along with Graceland and Beale Street.
If a general manager in 2014 drunkenly dropped ducks in a hotel fountain, he would probably be fired.
Length of the march: About 5 minutes; there are two duck marches, at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. I give the tour group a short history of the duck march, and then I go get the ducks and bring them downstairs in the elevator. As the elevator doors open, the music begins, and the ducks waddle down the red carpet. Then they swim about in the fountain all day, eating and preening and napping, until the 5 p.m. march.
Where are the ducks from? A local family raises them, and we get a new group of five every few months. When the new ones come in, the veterans get sent back to the family that raised them, where they stay until they’re ready to fly into the wild.
Is it difficult to train wild ducks to walk in a straight line and stay well behaved? The ducks are trained professionals – they’re routine-based, so they know where to go, but they are never tamed. But while I can train them for days on the rooftop, it’s a different story when a new group comes downstairs for the first time. I have to make sure there are no duck-sized holes between the people lining the red carpet, which I learned the hard way.
That sounds like a funny story. Once, early on, the ducks started running in five different directions, and I had to chase them through the crowd. I was shouting, “If you have a duck next to you, please raise your hand!” Our duck secret service had to help me corral them.
Your outfit: A pseudo-tuxedo shirt with black dress pants; a red duck tie; a black-and-white striped vest with brass buttons; and a big red coat that reads “duckmaster” on the sleeve and has ropes on the shoulders. I also use a brass-headed duck walking cane to herd the ducks from their duck palace to the elevators and back.
Duck palace?! Yes, it’s on the rooftop, with a great view of downtown Memphis. It got a $200,000 upgrade in 2008 – granite lining, a custom fountain, a front lawn, butler service (me), and anything else the ducks need. I feed them high-protein ducky chow and fresh lettuce off a silver platter at the end of every march. Their favorite food is cracked corn.
What would people be surprised to learn about your job? The duck march is one of the greatest equalizers you’ll ever see. People stand for an hour, just waiting to watch ducks waddle. I’ve had tour groups from Hong Kong, South Africa, England, Portugal, all over – along with celebrities like Katy Perry, Oprah, Kevin Bacon, Larry King, Lisa Marie Presley and even Bert and Ernie – come to watch.
I am also resigned to the fact that I will receive duck-themed gifts for every holiday for the rest of my life.
Best part of your job: The people. Usually we have about 300 to 500 people for each duck march, but on busier days, that number swells to 700 to 900 people.
Most challenging part of your job: Being in charge of the care, protection and training of the ducks. That includes everything, like getting them ready for bed at the duck palace. And wild ducks are messy.
Do you travel with the ducks? Quite often, to local schools and retirement homes in the area. We bring along the red carpet for the ducks to waddle on.
What kinds of questions were you asked during the interview for this job? Whether I was a duck hunter. And how comfortable I was as a public speaker, and whether I had any issues with the dirtier parts of the job.
Have the ducks ever caused any serious injuries to you or a guest? I’ve been nibbled before by one of the sassier ducks. There was also an incident last year around the holidays, when people were sitting on the fountain. The ducks nipped them on their back ends because they were invading their space. Wild ducks are divas; they know they’re the stars, and can get easily offended.
OK, now this is slightly awkward, but do you ever eat duck? I never cared for duck – and I rarely even came across it, even working at a restaurants. Now, I absolutely can’t eat it; I know too many of them.
It’s an official but unspoken rule that no duck is allowed on the menu in any way, shape or form at any of the restaurants at the Peabody.