Empowering Others to Help Wildlife: A Conversation with Ron Magill, Communications Director and Good

If you grew up in Miami, you probably recognize the name and face of Ron Magill. He’s the face of Zoo Miami and uses his passion and enthusiasm to help people connect with the natural world through media appearances. Magill has worked at the Zoo for its entire 37 years at its current site and serves as its communications director. He also serves as the zoo’s goodwill ambassador and is known for his dedication to the conservation of the harpy eagle. Here is his story.

@ Ron Magill

Magill’s career began when he worked at the Miami Serpentarium in the 1970s which has since closed down. “I always knew I wanted to work with animals,” he stated. “My house growing up was near where the Zoo is now. I knew I wanted to work at the new zoo when it came out and actually dropped out of the University of Florida right before graduating to become a zookeeper at the Crandon Park Zoo. The new zoo had not been built yet so I wanted to get my foot in the door." The Crandon Park Zoo was Zoo Miami’s predecessor which closed down when Zoo Miami (then Miami Metrozoo) opened. “It was a very small facility on the beach and it was really primitive when it came to zoos,” he explained. “It had the typical cages with bars and concrete. The animal exhibits were really archaic. There was a hurricane in the 1960s where many animals were lost and they realized having a zoo right on the ocean was not a very good idea. By the late 1970s, the era of having animals on concrete in small cages was beginning to pass. The Zoological Society of Florida used the image of an orangutan asking to be moved to lead the campaign for the new zoo. It was advertised as a cageless zoo.”

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“Starting out fresh, the new zoo was used as an opportunity to build a truly large and magnificent facility. “The government donated a huge amount of property which used to be the Richmond Naval Air Station,” Magill explained. “It was for blimps in World War II which went out searching for Nazi U-boats. Once we realized we had a tremendous amount of space, we took advantage of this fresh new palate to create a precedent setting zoo. Dr. Gordon Hubble, past director of the Crandon Park Zoo, and T. A. Strauser, a zoo design specialist, went around the world looking at zoos to learn about the newest concepts in zoo design and created a master plan for the Miami Metrozoo. They followed a zoo geographic concept where people would not just see animals but also the environments they come from. It allowed you to take a trip around the world without leaving Miami.”

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As a keeper at the new zoo, Magill worked with the rest of the Zoo Miami (then Miami Metrozoo) team to care for a large variety of animals for the new zoo. These animals came both from the Crandon Park Zoo and zoos around the country. “I was part of the whole exodus from the Crandon Park Zoo,” Magill said. “I remember driving down US-1 with a giraffe on a flatbed truck and people staring at it. It was like Noah’s Ark! Being part of that was a once in a lifetime experience. I eventually became an assistant curator at the zoo and we won the Bean Award for our crocodile breeding program which is the most prestigious award in the zoo industry.”

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The new zoo took full advantage of its space, climate and youth. “We were located in a subtropical environment with hundreds of acres,” Magill remarked. “We started out with Asian animals then added African animals.” The space and location made the Zoo well suited for hosting a large variety of large mammals, particularly hoofstock and pachyderms. “We were able to create open moated habitats without a lot of cages” Magill stated. “We could use these to keep animals like antelope in spacious habitats with natural soil and grass substrates. The moats are designed as much to keep people from going in as they are to keep the animals from going out. These open grassland habitats are great for hoofstock from tropical and subtropical climates. We concentrate on animals that are healthiest and most comfortable in the environment which is why you won’t see polar bears or penguins here.”

One thing that makes Zoo Miami unique is its one of the only zoos to have both African and Asian elephants and, as of this writing, is the only accredited zoo in America to have them in separate habitats. “Elephants are an iconic animal,” Magill said “We have the environment and space to house them properly and have been voted one of the best zoos in the country for maintaining elephants. Our ability to have facilities for two elephant species is great. We have the moral obligation to provide great homes for these animals- elephants are a huge commitment.” While the male Asian elephant came from the Crandon Park Zoo, the African elephants arrived from other institutions. “That Asian elepahant, named Dalip, is one of the few original animals from the Crandon Park Zoo” he added.

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When the Miami Metrozoo opened, guests were outraged to find the king of the beasts were nowhere to be found. “Originally the plan was not to have lions at all and instead have more than one species of tiger,” Magill recalled. “Tigers were endangered while lions weren’t. However, people were not happy when they realized we weren’t going to have lions. Because of the public demand, we decided that lions need to be included in the collection. Unfortunately a lion habitat had not been designed so they put the lions in the second tiger exhibit.” This story explains why the lions today are found in the Asian section of the Zoo even though they’re from Africa.

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Zoo Miami is also one of a handful of zoos to have three species of great apes: gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. “We’re located in a wonderful subtropical climate close to that of the great apes,” Magill said. “We also have a lot of space for them as we’re one of the five largest zoos in the country. Up north, during the winter time, you have to go into the ape house and the animals have to be kept indoors. When you’re in an ape house you know you’re in an ape house. Here they’ve thrived as they can be outdoors and use their trees and climbing structures year round. We’ve had breeding success with gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.”

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In 1989, Miami became one of the few zoos in the nation to have koalas. “We have a great climate for koalas and work closely with the San Diego Zoo on their husbandry and management,” Magill remarked. “They’re considered a national treasure so they’re all on loan from the government of Australia and the San Diego Zoo acts as the administrator of them in the U.S. We had the first koala born in America outside of California and are currently working to get another female to breed with our male. They’re a very popular and misunderstood animal.”

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Since day one, all of Miami’s large animals have received top notch care. “We have our own enrichment staff and a curator of enrichment to develop ideas for objects to stimulate the animals,” Magill continued. “They do things like make fruit popsicles for the apes in the summer. We have three full time veterinarians and a wonderful animal science department who all work together. Out keeper staff is passionately dedicated to each animal.” The staff trains many of the animals through positive reinforcement not only to stimulate them mentally and physically but also to allow staff to take better care of them. “The orangutans have been conditioned to open their mouths and let you draw blood voluntarily,” Magill said. “This type of training can prevent the need for chemical immobilization which can be risky.”

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Ron Magill’s career path took a defining turn one particular day when the first Siamese crocodiles ever born in the Western Hemisphere hatched in Miami. “They asked me to be there while the media was there,” he recalled. “The spokesperson was quite boring and I felt didn’t do justice to the excitement of the story so I started talking and the cameras all came on me. I talked about how cool the Siamese crocodiles were and why this hatching was a big deal. That night only the parts where I talked were used on the news. I was called into the director’s office the next morning and was reprimanded for speaking to the media when I wasn’t authorized to. I thought I would be fired. After I apologized, I found out the spokesperson was a bit perturbed so I needed the official reprimand. Then in the next breath, the director told me from now on I’d be the spokesperson of the Zoo. He said the Zoo needed to be put in the best light possible and he received many calls from the media saying they wanted to talk to me for future zoo stories. A very uncomfortable situation turned out to be a promotion. This job was created for me.” Ron Magill has been the face of Zoo Miami ever since and the rest is history.

@ Zoo Miami

Magill gave great credit to the late Robert Yokel, the Zoo’s longtime director, for recognizing his talent. “He was one of my greatest mentors,” he reflected. “People would think I was the director but he had no problem with that. Bob told me ‘The people below you are much more important than the people above you. I need to make sure you’re doing what you do best.’ I’m still a person who believes the people below me are much more important than the people above me.” Magill’s talent for telling the story of the Zoo is evident from the moment he opens his mouth. “It’s important to be a good storyteller when you work at a zoo,” he stated. “People sometimes tend to work with animals because they don’t like to work with people. Many keepers back then didn’t feel comfortable in front of a camera but I had no problem doing that.”

@ Zoo Miami

Ron Magill’s tenure has seen many successes for the Zoo but also some obstacles. The biggest one by far was the destruction of Hurricane Andrew, which hit South Florida in 1992. “The whole zoo was pretty much destroyed. It was as if God came through with a 25 mile wide lawnmower and leveled the place,” Magill recalled. “I didn’t recognize much of it because of how badly it was destroyed. Other facilities ended up housing many of our animals for months, even years as we rebuilt the zoo. Our Asian elephants went to a sanctuary until we could rebuild the barn. The flamingos and koalas went to Busch Gardens. Most people thought we’d never recover.”

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“I think Hurricane Andrew was a mixed blessing,” Magill reflected. “It brought a tremendous amount of attention to the Zoo and it helped people appreciate the type of people who work here. I remember how everyone came together. It gave us the opportunity when we rebuilt everything not to make mistakes we initially made. It also made us realize what we’re capable of. The human spirit and the determination to recover is much stronger than what we anticipated. Until you’re faced with something that gives you few other choices you really don’t know what can be done. Zoo Miami is like a phoenix coming out of the fire and we’re much better now than ever before partially because of the hurricane. The overwhelming memory I have of Hurricane Andrew is rebuilding the place to the point people couldn’t tell we were ever destroyed by this disaster. For instance, the habitats look better because we were able to replace and enhance previous vegetation with good native trees. We now have the single greatest stretch of royal palms in Miami at the zoo entry, which was planted after the hurricane.”

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He is a firm believer that zoos should be as transparent and articulate in telling their stories as possible. “One of the philosophies I tried to instill at Zoo Miami is we’re going to be as proactive and transparent as possible,” Magill explained. “I don’t want to just be reactive to criticisms. I remember in the 1980s when a tiger was diagnosed with cancer and I told them to be open about it but the veterinarian did not agree. She insisted that by letting the public know the tiger had cancer that the zoo would be blamed for it. I explained that if we educate people that animals, like people, get cancer, it would allow them to feel more connected and informed. People need to realize these animals are not animatronics and these animals get sick and die like people do. We need to make people understand we’re doing the best job we can to give the animals the best lives they can have. In the end, we received nothing but sympathy and understanding from the public because we included them. “

@ Zoo Miami

Magill also believes zoos should be clear about their missions. “There’s no documentary or book that’s a substitute for seeing an animal face to face,” he said. “The people who say animals should just go extinct rather than have them in zoos are unfair to future generations. The Arabian oryx, black footed ferret and California condor would be extinct if it weren’t for zoos. Zoos provide a window to a world most people will not be able to see. The sad reality is most people will never see a lion in the Serengeti or a polar bear in the Arctic. Zoos have a responsibility to provide that window to see and connect to animals. We teach people to love animals for future generations. We protect what we love, love what we understand and understand what we are taught.” However, Magill believes people should be selective in which zoos they go to. “People need to select accredited zoos to visit that are doing the right thing,” he said candidly. “There are many roadside attractions and so-called sanctuaries that do nothing more than exploit animals for profit under the premise that they are helping them and those places need to be closed.”

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Fundamental to doing the right thing is being proactive in wildlife conservation. “What I’m most proud of in my career is that I started raising money on my own to do conservation in the field,” Magill remarked. “The Ron Magill Conservation Endowment at the Zoo Miami Foundation raises hundreds of thousands of dollars which can only be used to help animals in the wild. Zoos are hypocrites if they spend millions of dollars for animal exhibits but don’t do anything for animals in the wild. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has now made it a requirement that by 2020 accredited zoos will need to allocate 3% of their budget to conservation in the field. Conservation is needed to justify the existence of zoos. I’m glad I have this conservation endowment at the Zoo. It allows me to sleep at night. I could not continue to work here if I didn’t know conservation was being done because of my work. You can’t just open a multimillion dollar complex and say you’re doing enough for conservation.”

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A textbook example of what zoos can do for conservation is Ron Magill’s work with the harpy eagle. “Harpy eagles have always been my favorite animal even before I ever saw one,” he recalled. “When I visited my wife’s family in Panama I got to see my first harpy eagles but they were in a horrific chain-link cage. I told the zoo director they had to do something but they had no money. Then I wrote a letter to the mayor of Panama City and she explained to me how she could not get additional money to do a better harpy eagle exhibit because of the day to day responsibilities she had to the people of Panama City.”

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Seeing as the city and zoo were unable to do it on their own, Magill then took it upon himself to find the money himself. “I got a letter of endorsement from the mayor, met with the ambassador to Panama and wrote a letter to major businesses in Panama soliciting support. I was asked to do a presentation about harpy eagles to the president of Sony and they ended up giving me hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods and services. Then I went to other businesses and together, we raised money to build the most beautiful harpy eagle center in the world just outside of Panama City.”

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”I also helped to lobby the Panamanian government to get them to name the harpy eagle the national bird of Panama,” Magill continued. “Now the image of the harpy eagle is everywhere there- this project completely changed the country’s view of this bird! We had a contest for the schoolchildren of Panama to make paintings of the harpy eagle to be considered for the national symbol. We didn’t even have harpy eagles at Zoo Miami until after this. A zoo should prove itself worthy of helping animals in the wild before having them on exhibit.”

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Another conservation program at Zoo Miami started by Ron Magill is the cheetah ambassador program. “Years ago I met a woman named Catherine Hilker who especially loved cheetahs,” he explained. “She started the first cheetah ambassador program at the Cincinnati Zoo. She connected people to this cat and suddenly people fell in love with cheetahs. Back then cheetahs were on our logo but we didn’t have cheetahs. I made the argument we needed to bring cheetahs here and use them in an ambassador program.”

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“I went to Africa’s top breeding facility of cheetahs and convinced them we were worthy of receiving one of their cubs,” Magill continued. “I was able to bring the first cheetah back from South Africa and helped to raise her. Her name was Savanna and we took her everywhere. She inspired people to care about not only cheetahs, but wildlife in general. When you walk into a school with a cheetah you get people’s attention.

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“I remember receiving a call from a mother thanking me because her son had always been a troublemaker but had seen our presentation and had asked her to take him to the library so he could learn about cheetahs,” Magill remembered. “Now her son was so focused on helping cheetahs he’d forgotten about the things that got him in trouble. With an ambassador program you connect kids with something they weren’t connected to before. Nothing connects with kids as much as animals. Our cheetahs go on stage three times a day at the Zoo so people can learn about them. The cheetah ambassador program also raises important money for their conservation in the wild. “We’ve sent lots of money to cheetah conservation programs,” Magill added. “We want to get that money to assistant protecting cheetahs in the wild.”

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Last year Zoo Miami opened a major expansion in Florida: Mission Everglades. “It has always been a desire of mine that we have a space to exhibit Florida animals,” Magill commented. “I’m amazed at how many kids here have never been to the Everglades. It’s an international treasure but local people take for granted what they have in their own backyard. We needed an exhibit to show windows into what the Everglades has to offer. We want to inspire people to go to the Everglades and have an obligation to get people to understand why this ecosystem is important. We do conservation programs directly connected to the exhibit such as the Florida panther and gopher tortoise programs. We want people to realize what we’re doing is directly helping animals in the wild.”

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Ron Magill is determined to keep Zoo Miami at the forefront of zoo conservation. “My dream is to become the zoo for tropical wildlife,” he reflected. “It needs to be the gateway zoo for Latin American wildlife and the flagship zoo for conservation in those areas. We can effectively do great conservation work there without going halfway around the world. It’s one thing to send a check once a year and another to assist in the work being done. We don’t just provide the check but the feet on the ground to help in making sure the project is run properly. I see us becoming the marquee zoo for Latin American conservation.” Magill also added the zoo is going to do more conservation work for elephants and tigers.

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“I’m proud we’re able to provide a venue for people to be inspired,” Ron Magill reflected. “This is a place where they can be empowered to help wildlife. I want visitors to care and be aware of their behavior knowing what they do makes a difference for the future of our world’s wildlife. We do what is most respectful to our animals and have a staff that’s second to none. Personally what I’m most proud of is the Ron Magill Conservation Endowment. Long after I’m gone that endowment will still be here. I didn’t come to the zoo to work at an attraction. I came to the zoo to make a difference for animals in the wild.”

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