Jackie Kohlman is something of a “rare bird” when it comes to how she earns her paycheck. For the last 20 years, she has worked as the bird handler supervisor at the beachfront Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa—a tropical, Polynesian-style accommodation located on eight acres of San Diego’s Mission Bay.
Far from being stuck in front of a computer from 9 to 5, Kohlman spends her days feeding, caring for, and cleaning up after the resort’s feathered residents, which includes six large parrots and nine Mandarin ducks, as well as the other occasional wildlife that migrate to the property. She also oversees the resort’s real-life, enchanted outdoor Tiki room, where the parrots get the chance to impress guests with their talking and tricks.
Recently, Kohlman, 56, took time out of the morning cage-cleaning routine to talk to Fortune about her anything-but-traditional job. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s a typical day look like for you?
A typical day here at the Catamaran for an exotic bird handler depends on the day. In the morning, we typically come in and check on our ducks. We have a lot of exotic ducks here right now, so we feed them and make sure everybody’s doing okay.
Then we come into our bird room where our parrots are. Every morning, as we walk in the room, you open the door and they start going, “hi, hi.” We make sure they’re okay, and we do some feeding, then we put them outside in our yard so we can clean inside.
During the day, we work on teaching them new behaviors, so that we can add different little behaviors or tricks for summer and spring break shows where we introduce guests to the birds, tell a bit about them or their species, and have them run through all their other tricks and behaviors and vocalizations
Working on new things with them is fun for us, it’s fun for the guests, and it’s good for the bird. They can learn things very, very quickly. They could learn a phrase in maybe a week, and a new behavior—depending on what it is—in a week or two. Or it could be months. It depends upon what you’re working on and who you’re working with.
It depends a lot on personality, too. The youngest parrot, Cornell (named after the university) is a Green Winged Macaw, and he knows so many behaviors and so many phrases. The oldest bird, Mercer, is 34 and she knows two words and three behaviors—if you get her on the right day and you have the right treats.
They’re so smart and so social, so they really need a lot of attention—a lot to do every day. They can be very mischievous, so you have to keep them busy, for sure.
Sounds like most of your day is feeding and cleaning?
There is a lot of cleaning involved! So typically I’m cleaning their cages and making their diets. The parrots get a parrot pellet, and they get a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. They get a little bit of seeds and a few treats. They really like pistachios and a little cracker or a little parrot muffin.
Wait, the whole phrase, “Polly wants a cracker” is true?
Parrots usually love crackers. And a few of ours will say that, too. They’ll say “cracker.” We’ll ask them what goes good with cheese, and their response is always: “cracker.”
How did you end up in this type of role? Was this something of a lifelong ambition?
I grew up in Wisconsin. We don’t have a lot of exotic animal things going on there. But when I was 19, I moved to California—just for fun. And I got a job in a restaurant at Knott’s Berry Farm right before Christmas. It was a lot of fun.
But after Christmas, they cut my hours. And I went into HR, and I said, “Can I work at different places in the park because I really need 40 hours.” They didn’t really like to do that then, but the manager did ask me how tall I was. And I said I’m five foot—and he said do you want to be a Snoopy? And I said no. But it turned out that it was for the animal show. So I was a Snoopy in the animal show because I like animals. And I like shows. And everybody that I’ve worked with went to Moorpark College for animal training. And that’s how I learned about it. That’s how I got into my career—because I happen to be short.
You mentioned college. What kind of degree do you need to do this type of work?
I have a degree in exotic animal training and management—that is what I went to school for at Moorpark. It’s a community college, and they have a zoo on campus with about 200 animals there—from lions and tigers to primates to birds of prey.
Getting into birds as a specialty mainly happened because when I was doing the show at Knott’s Berry Farms, they had an animal show and a separate bird show. So I had a lot to do with the birds there. After I left Knott’s and went to college and graduated, I did some different things. It just happens there are a lot of bird-related jobs as opposed to say, chimpanzees. So that’s kind of how I got into it. But then once you get into it, birds are so much fun. It is hard to imagine working with other animals really, now that I’ve worked with parrots for so long. They’re really the only animal that will talk to you back in English—and that’s kind of fun.
If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?
I can’t imagine doing anything else. I would most likely be doing animal work—zookeeping or rehab or education. I’ve done a lot of different things in my career. I was a zookeeper at the L.A. Zoo and at the San Diego Zoo. I did the bird show and the animal show at Knott’s Berry Farm and at the L.A. Zoo. And I’ve worked at a bunch of different places with animals doing rescue and rehab work, some educational things—all kinds of different things.
What’s the most challenging part of the job?
It’s pretty much a little fun every day. A lot of people are just amazed to see the birds. They’ve never really seen parrots or seen them perform or talk before, so it’s really interesting to talk to the guests, educate, and entertain them. A lot of the guests will say, is this your real job? Or, they pay you for this? People are pretty amazed I can do it for a full-time job.
It can be a little bit difficult, you know, if somebody gets sick or something. They can get respiratory issues, just like any other animal. Here at the Catamaran we take really, really good care of our animals. They’re very, very pampered. We also have a really good exotic bird veterinarian about 10 minutes away if we need them.
Is the biggest occupational hazard getting pooped on?
You do have to be able to stay out of the poop zone.
That sounds akin to the splash zone at SeaWorld…
You gotta know where to stand.
How often do you get new residents?
Very rarely, because they live so long. In general, the larger the parrot, the longer they live. So macaws (the resort currently has three) usually live about 60 to 70 years. Sometimes they can live close to 100 years old.
And there’s space constraints and time constraints. We want to spend a lot of time with all of them. So we don’t really get new birds very often. We do have a lot of people that ask us, “Do you take rescues?” But we can’t really do that here.
One of the things that we do try and stress to people is that even though you can go out and buy a parrot, and you can have one as a pet—for most people, they don’t really make a good pet in the home. If you have them as a pet at home, you might have to go to work or you might have to go to school, so you might not be able to spend the time and the attention that they’re going to need. Here at the Catamaran, we have a team. Right now, we’re a team of three. So we will generally have two people here for eight hours a day to play with the birds.
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