Zoo Miami's Ron Magill: A Life of Weird Animal Adventures
Two Miami-Dade Police officers approached the gate, their eyes level and their hands on their guns. The sprawling ranch sits on five acres deep in the rural Redland, up against the Everglades, where passing aircraft that come and go from a next-door glider port provide the only visible connection to the outside world.
Hovering in front of his parents' garage while using surgeon's tools to pick at a hairy corpse, Ron Magill noticed the flashing lights of law enforcement. He walked over to the gate.
"Is there a problem?" he asked.
"We'd like to have your permission to look around."
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Magill, six-foot-six, with brown eyes and a mustache that rivals Tom Selleck's, understood what was happening. On the table lay a grown male orangutan that had recently died, the property of a private owner. Magill had been cutting off its skin and was just getting through to the musculature.
"Look," he explained. "I'm preparing an orangutan skeleton over there."
"Holy shit," one of the cops said as he moved closer. Nearby, a colony of domestic beetles was on standby to devour the primate's flesh. "We got a report somebody was being dismembered."
The officers lightened up. "Aren't you the zoo guy?"
Indeed, he is the zoo guy. He even has the vanity license plate on his black Cadillac Escalade — "ZOO GUY" — to prove it.
Ron Magill has worked at Zoo Miami since it opened in 1980. He became a world-renowned wildlife ambassador long before reality TV, Jeff Corwin, or Steve Irwin. He got his first taste of fame in the '80s while working as an alligator handler on the set of Miami Vice, then became a hero after Hurricane Andrew destroyed cages at the zoo and his animal rescues made national news. He became a household name with stints on television (as a regular on Sábado Gigante) and radio (as a frequent guest on Dan Le Batard's ESPN show). But after 35 years at the zoo and 27 years on Sábado Gigante, Magill's gig on the Guinness World Records' longest-running show in TV history is winding down. The final episode will air September 19, and it's still undecided whether he will appear one last time. As that chapter of his life comes to a close, Magill sat down with New Times to reflect on his storied and sometimes-absurd career.
Sharing tales from his home office, Magill, 55, recalls that day about ten years ago when he was mistaken for a mutilative murderer. Pilots of the passing gliders had reported the gruesome sight of the autopsy and reported it as a crime in progress, though parts of the dead ape would eventually be used for education. The skull of that very same orangutan now sits in Magill's office as part of his collection of nearly 400 animal skulls.
Dan Le Batard cites that autopsy as one of his favorite stories about Magill. Another top pick is an incident when Magill was excavating an orangutan skull, and the corpse — which had been buried for days — farted on him.
But for a moment, Le Batard lays off the teasing to deliver his genuine admiration: "In the human portion of the animal kingdom, we don't make them better than Ron."
Of all the animals in the world, the harpy eagle is Magill's favorite.
Photo by Monica McGivern
Magill's father Guillermo, six-foot-three and 270 pounds, grew up in the farmlands of Santiago, Cuba, and spoke no English when he came to the States in search of opportunity. Magill's mother Lorraine, who is Colombian and German, grew up in New York City. Ron was born in Queens in 1960, and ten years later, Guillermo packed up his wife, son, and daughter in a 1970 gray Volvo and drove them from New York to Los Angeles to Miami and back to New York — a trip on which Magill realized there's "no greater education than travel." Along the way, they purchased five acres in South Dade's Redland, because Guillermo, Ron remembers, "always had a dream of having a piece of property where he could have a grove of mangoes and avocados." Back then, there was nothing but tomato fields for miles.
Spanish was Ron's first language, but in school in New York, he intentionally forgot it because other kids made fun of him. As the tallest kid wherever he went, little Ron was a big target, sometimes called names like "Lurch," "Frankenstein," and, perhaps most prescient, "Magilla Gorilla." This unwanted attention made him retreat into books. He skipped the fourth grade. Even among classmates a year older, he was still the tallest kid in class. When the family moved to Florida in 1972, Magill also found solace in the land and its critters.
"The things I went through with that child and the things that he brought home," Lorraine Magill remembers. She still lives on the family property.
Animals were plentiful then: bobwhite quail, rabbits, bobcats, snakes galore. "That place was a utopia of wildlife," Magill reminisces. When his grandmother passed, Ron's menagerie expanded; he took over her bedroom to care for an owl and breed snakes, lining all the bureau space with glass reptile housing.
Although his father believed that "the only good snake is a dead snake" — and once used a 12-gauge shotgun to blast away a 12-incher — Magill's parents nurtured his love for animals. In the bedroom, he kept deadly gaboon vipers — 16 of them, sometimes all hissing at once when the door opened. Once, a ball python escaped and ended up curled up in his father's toilet.
His parents even got him a horse, Tampico, which Ron describes as a "huge social lottery win." One time, Magill was riding Tampico at full gallop when a falling avocado hit him in the face and broke his nose. But the attention Ron received — particularly from girls — simply for having a horse helped him understand the power that animals have over people. He had his first kiss astride Tampico.
Yet even in Miami, the teasing continued, and Magilla Gorilla's awkward height was still a target of other schoolchildren. Magill never really felt accepted until the day when social studies teacher and head basketball coach Jay Bouton pulled him aside in the halls of Palmetto Senior High.
"I think he was a little on the shy side, and I think a lot of big, tall kids at that age suffer from that," Bouton remembers. "He wasn't the most coordinated guy." That didn't stop Bouton from spending every day with Magill after school, playing one-on-one, backing him up, and making him jump chairs and run stairs. "He was willing to work, and I was willing to try to help him develop."
"The first layup I went to take, I tripped and I fell," Magill remembers. "I didn't even make it to the basket — that's how bad I was." But Bouton became "one of the single most influential people in my life, a man who built my confidence." Eventually, "Dr. R," as Magill came to be nicknamed, could do 360-degree dunks. He was offered college scholarships. Against the advice of Coach Bouton, Magill chose the University of Florida over less competitive schools. This led to his being relegated to the practice squad and never seeing a minute of action. It didn't matter: Magill wasn't interested in playing pro basketball, and UF had a fantastic zoology program.
"There was no other decision," Magill remembers. "I loved Gainesville. I loved basketball, but I knew where my dream was."
During his summers while in high school and college, Magill strategically pinpointed where he wanted to work: the Miami Serpentarium on South Dixie Highway at SW 120th Street, where a massive, three-story concrete cobra loomed like Cleopatra's crown over the entrance. The tourist attraction, which opened in the 1940s, had become legendary for its displays of snakes, iguanas, crocodiles, and tortoises.
Magill knew it would be the best place to get his foot in the door working with animals. He played up his experience with snakes — "snakes were easy because everyone hates snakes" — and got close to Bill Haast, the Serpentarium's founder and director. Haast was known as the "Miami Snakeman" for his showmanship and because he believed in the healing powers of venom, injecting himself with it every day. Once, Haast eyed down a king cobra, which bit him, and he ended up near death and in an iron lung. (Haast died in 2011, and Magill keeps a signed photo of him with the cobra over his desk as an homage.)
The Serpentarium, which was lined with cages and outdoor pens, offered tours, followed by a venom extraction show, 365 days a year. The attraction coexisted with Haast's venom production business, which sold the poisonous secretions to universities and research centers that made drugs from them. Magill would narrate the shows and conduct tours.
"I guess that's where Ron developed a lot of his showmanship," says Joe Wasilewski, a conservation biologist who worked at the Serpentarium. "I'm sure that's where he developed a lot of his persona that he has to this day."
He also learned bad habits. "I was messing with cobras," Magill remembers. "I was pretending I was Bill Haast" — who was 60 years older. "Instead of being extra-cautious, I was trying to tail-hold it like Bill Haast did, instead of using two hooks as I should have."
In 1977, a 6-year-old fell into a reptile pit at the Serpentarium and was killed by an 1,800-pound crocodile named Cookie. In 1984, Haast, who is said to have never fully recovered from the incident, closed the attraction. The colossal concrete cobra was donated to South Miami High School but toppled and broke into hundreds of pieces during the move. Haast himself lived to 100 years old, with some crediting his longevity to his venom injections.
Meanwhile, Magill's career would take a happier turn.
Home for the summer from UF in 1979, Magill noticed a sign for the soon-to-open Miami Metrozoo and applied immediately. He dropped out of school when he landed an assistant zookeeper position. He remembers his father asking why he was "going to leave college to shovel shit."
Magill congratulates a pair of mating tortoises. His "Sex With the Animals" presentation, in which he explains how critters reproduce and imitates their mating sounds, sells out every year on Valentine's Day.
Photo by Monica McGivern
His first few years on the job, Magill mostly handled animals, but many of his bad habits from the Serpentarium, such as tail-holding and taking risks with dangerous animals, followed him to the zoo. Eventually, Robert Yokel, the founding director of Metrozoo, chastised him in a profanity-laced tirade about his recklessness with the animals. Magill hasn't been careless since.
His skull collection really began to take shape when he started working at the zoo. "You can learn what it eats, you can learn what kind of power it has, if it's a carnivore, if it's an herbivore," he says. "There are so many things you can learn by looking at a skull, and I was fascinated by that touch." As an educator, "I felt it made a much bigger impact if I could take a lion skull and put it in a kid's hands."
One day, a local news crew stopped by to film a pair of Siamese crocodile babies — the first of their kind to hatch in the Western Hemisphere.
"It was really cool stuff!" Magill nearly screams 30 years later. But the public information officer at the time wasn't conveying as much to the camera crew. "He was regurgitating like he was reading from a script," Magill remembers. "And this was cool shit, man. And I just started talking about it that way, and the cameras came over to me."
The cameras loved Ron's raw excitement for the animals. Although Yokel reprimanded him for speaking to the media without authorization, official permission was handed over immediately afterward. Yokel recognized the savvy and passion behind Magill's presentations and gave him the same power the communications department had to speak to the media. Over the next few years, Ron would massage his contacts in the media and build up his local profile through popular presentations such as "Sex With the Animals," a lecture about animal reproduction that he delivered to sold-out crowds every Valentine's Day. Featuring Magill imitating mating noises, the event became a wildly popular date night for South Florida couples.
Magill implemented a policy that the zoo would announce the deaths of the animals in addition to the births. Before this, news releases went out only when animals were born, hiding half of the circle of life from the general public. Magill insists, "I will never say 'no comment.'?"
Longtime South Florida NBC news anchor Michael Williams remembers being invited to the zoo for one of Magill's presentations. "Basically, it was dried-up animal manure and he was having a shit-throwing contest," Williams laughs. "It was just the goofiest thing."
These relationships, along with Magill's infectious enthusiasm for wildlife, eventually led him to the set of Miami Vice in 1985 for a side job as the official animal handler — primarily responsible for Elvis, the pet alligator that Don Johnson's character Sonny Crockett kept on his boat.
But Magill will be the first to admit it: "Yeah, we lost Elvis," he laughs. "Yeah, Elvis got away." Elvis slipped into the bay, but alligators can't submerge in salt water, so the reptile was quickly retrieved. Also, there were six or seven Elvises.
On the set of Miami Vice, Ron realized the power of the media. He was paid several times his zookeeper salary. He watched countless women go into Don Johnson's trailer and emerge looking "like they'd got caught up in a ceiling fan." He began flashing his Miami Vice business card instead of his card for the zoo.
Not long after, he was invited to do segments on Sábado Gigante, a variety show watched in most households in the Spanish-speaking world. Guests come and go while host Don Francisco interviews them or puts them in hilarious situations.
"I didn't realize the impact of that show, because to me it's just going down to Doral here and taping the show," Magill concedes. "I was thinking it's very local. I'd never heard of the show."
Francisco puts Magill in skits with animals where he has to imitate the sounds of the creatures and usually has one dangling from his person or even from his face. A recurring segment is "Los Huevos de Ron Magill." Guests make animal sounds, and the best performer gets to choose an egg, which might be filled with cash. The host makes quite a few jokes at Magill's expense, given the double meaning of the word "huevos" in Spanish. Magill's gringo Spanish also gets lots of laughs.
"That show," Magill admits, "more than any other show, instilled in me the power of television." He says he gets paid but doesn't disclose the amount.
Ron met his wife Rita when she was his physical therapist for a crocodile bite on his hand. Rita says she wasn't immediately smitten. "I guess part of me was impressed that he still had all his fingers," she jokes. "I just didn't know how big the crocodile could be that you'd still have your hand."
When Rita told Ron that she didn't socialize with patients, he told her that was OK because he was discharging himself that day. He wooed her with a tour of the zoo and proposed to her after a gondola ride to Vizcaya, where they ate by candlelight and had the whole estate to themselves. They married and moved into a house near the Crossings neighborhood of Kendall, only five minutes from the zoo.
Rita was eight months pregnant with their son in 1992 (they have one son and one daughter, now both college-aged) when Hurricane Andrew hit. The massively destructive Category 5 storm devastated Metrozoo. The facility was destroyed.
Most prominent was the decimation of the aviary, where many birds perished. Perhaps the most iconic image of Andrew's impact was snapped by Magill, who captured the moment when countless flamingos stood clustered inside one of the zoo's bathrooms, hunched over one another with nowhere else to go.
"I was just the face," Magill says. "I was out there talking about it, but we had secretaries who were using chainsaws. They're the ones who saved the institution."
A snapshot by Miami Herald photographer Bill Frakes, of Magill holding a baby duiker (an African antelope) in the foreground of the ravaged remains of the zoo, put the destruction in the national consciousness. The Today show called, and Ron was scheduled to have two minutes with Katie Couric. The producers were so enthralled by the feed of the destruction, and Magill's presence, that they kept the cameras rolling for around eight.
"That was my springboard," he admits. Those minutes on Today cemented his position at the zoo and launched his fast-growing media presence.
Magill's profile has been bolstered not only by his Sábado Gigante gig but also by the nationally syndicated radio program The Dan Le Batard Show, on which he has appeared weekly for about five years.
Asked why the hell a zoo spokesperson is on a sports show (which Magill does for free), Le Batard explains, "He's Miami, and it was important to us to keep the show Miami." Once a week over the airwaves, Magill is introduced by the familiar "Ah Zabenya" tune from the The Lion King. He fields questions from the audience, many about beast wars ("If a polar bear fought two tigers, who would win?") but also a remarkable number exhibiting genuine curiosity about the animal kingdom.
"It's our most popular segment," Le Batard says. "People love him, his passion, and his information. He's a five-hour energy drink for our show — if five-hour energy drinks had terrible mustaches."
Magill began his career working with reptiles at the Miami Serpentarium.
Photo by Monica McGivern
The Darién Gap on the border of Panama and Colombia has no road access. It is one of the most remote stretches of wilderness in the Western Hemisphere. Here, in the early 2000s, Magill paddled a dugout canoe for miles and hours through the tree-lined river, deep into one of the heaviest rainforests in the world. Beside him was Jim Fowler, the former cohost of the famed Wild Kingdom and Ron's childhood hero.
Magill has traveled the globe and visited Africa 50 times. It's fair to say he's had quite a few fantastic wildlife moments. But the best one of his life was in Panama in the '80s, the first time he saw a harpy eagle chick face-to-face in the wild.
One of the largest eagles in the world, it has a black back, a white belly, and a grayish double crest on its head that sprawls out when the bird is startled. They are beautiful and rare; catching sight of one in the wild is a birder's dream.
Magill and Fowler paddled through the Darién Gap to persuade the natives in the area to look out for these majestic eagles and their increasingly scarce nests. Tucked into his bag were photos of the bird to show people. He hoped to learn what locals knew about these apex predators' whereabouts and to impress upon people the significance of the birds' protection.
"It's the thing I'm most proud of as far as working with conservation," Magill explains.
The first time he saw a harpy eagle in captivity in Panama City, he was appalled at the horrid conditions and small cages in which his favorite creature was kept. So he met with the mayor; raised money from big corporations like Sony, American Airlines, and Visa; and in 1989 helped see through the design and construction of the Harpy Eagle Center at Summit Zoo and Gardens just outside Panama City. He even successfully spearheaded a grassroots campaign to designate the harpy eagle the national bird of Panama.
On that trip with Fowler to the Darién, as the team paddled to the riverbank, the Choco Indians indigenous to the Panamanian jungle hurried down to the bank. As the canoes approached, a buzz began to grow among the topless women and loin-clothed men. The chief approached the party, loudly yelling, "Raun mah-geel! Raun mah-geel!"
They took Ron to one of their huts and showed him a homemade battery rigged to some kind of satellite contraption. Once a week, the tribe watched Sábado Gigante.
These Indians, Magill says, were "the kind of people you see in National Geographic who have supposedly never seen, like, a light bulb in their life. Then, all of a sudden, they're telling you they watch you on a show. It was ridiculous. I thought I was getting punked. It was surreal."
Recently, in Mexico City, he had to hire a security detail because he was getting mobbed in the streets. This past April, on a trip to Cuba, again the people there all recognized him because of Sábado Gigante. (Magill went to his fatherland on a familiarization trip with other zoo directors, but he traveled as a private citizen on his $93,000 annual county salary so as not to spend any of Miami-Dade's money for the visit, which was controversial because so many Miami Cubans still resent Fidel Castro.)
"I thought I was gonna get killed on social media," Magill admits, but for the most part he wasn't. "I went over there for nature and for people. I don't want to have anything to do with the government. If Cuba loses a species, we all lose a species."
His immunity from criticism extends beyond social media; few people will bad-mouth Ron Magill to the press. "Teflon Ron," as some called him off the record, has a reputation for being somewhat untouchable. But there are also murmurs of his willingness to bulldoze those who get in his way, particularly his superiors.
In 1994, a tiger mauled zookeeper David Marshall to death. After the zoo and the police finished their investigations, Magill decided to let the press corps onto the scene of the tragedy. He saw the gesture as the ultimate in transparency, though he believed he would be fired for it. He almost was, but when the mayor commended him for his actions and transparency, his job was saved.
And he admits that on at least two occasions, he has locked horns with people in positions above his. "I'm not patient when it comes to incompetence," Magill states flatly.
In scathing memos, he called out an administrator for being "the type of CEO who enjoys the perks of the job like free tickets to events and traveling" and undeserving of his reported $211,000 salary.
"I was a driving a force in getting him out of here, and I put my neck on the line," Magill says.
(That former administrator tells New Times he left of his own accord. Memos also hint that Magill helped oust another previous administrator, who could not be reached for this article.)
Magill says his interference is justified. "As long as I'm speaking about the zoo and representing the zoo, it is my business."
At Zoo Miami, he instituted a policy of announcing animal deaths as well as births. Here, he shows off an armadillo and an iguana.
Photo by Monica McGivern
This September, all of the long-running jokes on Sábado Gigante will cease after the series finale airs. "Everything comes to an end. I had a 27-year run on that show, and I feel incredibly privileged to have done so," Magill says. "I'm certainly gonna miss it, but at the same time, I'm glad to be going out happy and on top."
"He is a great human being," Don Francisco beams. "He is a character, and most important, he is doing something he loves." Asked about Ron's charm, Francisco says, "I think you know the combination of his charisma and that problem he had with the Spanish language."
In his home office, Ron picks out curious objects from his eccentric collection and excitedly explains each: megalodon teeth, the feather of an Andean condor, a dinosaur egg. His prized possession is a 20,000-year-old skull of an extinct cave bear, in near-perfect shape. It's an animal that stood probably at least 15 feet tall — a detail he can glean from the skull itself.
Magill's cell phone rings; it's a reporter from The Miami Herald. Over the weekend, Danda-Loo, Zoo Miami's 20-year-old koala, died. Magill's voice changes almost immediately. The reporter asks about the animal deaths in recent years, such as an elephant, a rhino, a lioness, and a silverback gorilla, among others. Magill takes pain in describing each and every one and concedes that the zoo's animal population is aging.
"One of the biggest challenges we have at the zoo is coming up with the decision, when is the quality of life irreversible?" he laments. It's yet another reminder that death is a part of life for animals, the same as humans. "The zoo is not Disney World," he states bluntly. "The fact is the zoo is a living thing, and as part of a living thing, parts of that living thing will die." Perhaps most telling, he says, "Animals face the same challenges that we as people do, whether it be cancer, whether it be injury," and animals actually live much longer in the zoo because of the care they receive. "In the wild, Danda-Loo would have been dead years ago." When she died, she was the oldest koala in all of North America and Europe.
A full CBS4 Miami investigation spearheaded by reporter Jim DeFede recently concluded that two deaths were the zoo's fault: a camel that slipped its head through a broken chain-link fence and an oryx that went misdiagnosed with a life-threatening parasite. That leads to a discussion about the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity. "I am not a proponent of animals like tigers jumping through hoops in circuses," Magill says defensively, "and I've always said I didn't come to the zoo to work for an attraction." But "the overwhelming majority of people of this world will never see a lion walking in the Serengeti, will never see a tiger walking in Bandhavgarh, will never see a polar bear walking in the Arctic. Zoos provide a window to that world that plants a seed in people. It planted a seed in me, as a kid growing up in New York City. A zoo, the Bronx Zoo, at the time, had a lot of cages and stuff too, but I looked at these animals and said, 'Man, I want to do something for these animals.'?
"Are zoos perfect?" he muses. "Absolutely not... And for zoos to come out and say... 'We're saving these animals, we're saving these animals for reintroduction into the wild.' Bullshit... The thought of us introducing tigers back into the wild is almost ludicrous. The problem is, there's no wild for us to introduce a lot of these animals to."
That's not the fault of zoos, but the larger problem of habitat loss due to overpopulation, deforestation, and pollution. "Zoos are an insurance policy against a very uncertain future in the wild," Magill says, and the zookeepers are stewards, producing real science about how to protect the future of the natural world.
This is a man who has been bitten by hundreds of animals, including three crocodiles, countless snakes (nonvenomous and one venomous), a snow leopard, an African leopard, a serval cat, a caracal lynx, and a young white tiger. Apparently, a macaw bite is the most painful.
To this day, he doesn't set an alarm clock to go to work and claims to have taken only ten sick days in 35 years. And his vacation time is usually filed under the guise of work, because he is flown around the world with media organizations and as one of two wildlife photographers who take pictures of animals and give lectures as Nikon ambassadors.
"I can't believe this is my job. Every day, I say it at least once," Magill says happily.
Walking around the zoo with him means stopping every few feet to take pictures with excited fans. He never says no. This year, though, he's retiring his "Sex With the Animals" talk. "I'm done," he smirks. "I don't want that on my tombstone."
What he does want on his tombstone is a mention of conservation. "I am very proud to say that by myself I have raised millions." The $1-million-plus Ron Magill Conservation Endowment at the zoo is money he raised and can never be used for anything but conservation projects around the world. As part of that, the University of Florida will also give $5,000 yearly to a UF student in its Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Program.
Yet Magill remains humble. "People are just enamored with that television thing; it gives credibility to people who don't deserve it." Despite all of the fame that's come his way, he says, he's still his father's "shit-shoveler."
And with no plans to retire, he hopes to stay with Zoo Miami until they drag him out.
Le Batard, too, hopes Magill will be at the zoo and on his show for years to come. Except for one thing: the mustache. "That is the one thing at the zoo that needs to be extinct."
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