Odd Travel Jobs: The Toucan Caretaker Of Cartagena

Meet Wilson Garcia. He’s like the Clark Kent/Superman of his workplace in Cartagena, Colombia. He looks, by first appearances, like an ordinary security guard, the ubiquitous sort one sees all over this handsome Colombian city. But look closer and you might get a clue as to his other job: he doubles as the official caretaker of Mateo, the on-property pet of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel. Mateo is a toucan and hangs out in the courtyard of the 17th-century former convent that houses the hotel. I sat down with Garcia to ask him what it’s like to be the official caretaker of an exotic bird.David Farley: What’s your official job title?
Wilson Garcia: I’m a security guard but I’m also the caretaker of Mateo.

DF: Does it say that on your business card?
WG: No.

DF: How did you become the caretaker of the bird?
WG: Every security guard has a second line of duty here at the hotel. When I started, they told me I’d be taking care of the bird.

DF: What’s his favorite Fruit Loops flavor?
WG: [Laughs] He doesn’t eat Fruit Loops. He does love fruit, though – especially apples.

DF: Do you have to bathe him?
WG: He can clean himself, except for the parts that he can’t reach, mainly his beak. So I clean that for him.

DF: Aw-awwww-aw! Toucans are known as the “chupacabras of the sky.” Isn’t it dangerous to have such a ferocious winged beast just freely hanging around the hotel?
WG: [Laughs] I don’t think they’re called that. There has been some internal discussion about this since Mateo is technically a wild animal. But so far he has been good. He’s only attacked a couple people?

DF: He’s attacked people?
WG: Yes, but nothing serious. He just pinched a couple people with his beak when they were trying to pet him. It didn’t break the skin.

DF: How long did it take to gain Mateo’s trust when you first arrived here?
WG: About a week. Every day I’d try to pet him so that he’d know I was a good person.

DF: What kind of training did you previously have?
WG: I’ve trained dogs. Dogs and birds, and all animals, have the same instincts, especially when it comes to food. You use food as an enticement and it’s really easy to train them.

DF: So have you taught Mateo any tricks?
WG: I don’t have time. But some day I’d like to teach him to catch food in the air.

DF: So when Mateo is bad how do you punish him?
WG: I give him a time out in a place he doesn’t want to be. In this case, it’s the old chapel. He hates it. It’s amazing, though. After 20 minutes of being in there, he’s a totally different bird when he comes out.

DF: So Mateo is not a religious bird?
WG: No.

DF: When you see another toucan in the wild now, do you feel this impulse to teach it tricks or connect with it.
WG: Yes, sure. I do, actually.

DF: So really no Fruit Loops?
WG: Really, no.

[Photo by David Farley]