Getting real with Ron Magill: What Miami's beloved wildlife advocate learned from animals
Ron Magill is a rare breed.
As a boy, he hand-fed squirrels in his backyard. He grew up dreaming of watching lions chase gazelle across the plains of Africa, like they did on his favorite TV show.
A lot of us had that dream as kids, too. The difference is that Magill grew up — but he never grew out of it.
As communications director for Zoo Miami, Magill serves as a spokesman for the animals. Magill has become famous around the world for his animated animal advocacy, and he will gladly hop on any platform to bring attention to the plight of endangered animals and local ecosystems.
On the Dan LeBatard Show, he answered hair-brained call-in questions like, who would win in a fight between a crocodile and a bull shark. He narrated animal videos with zeal and the appropriate animal sounds.
Latin America knew him as the animal expert on Sábado Gigante, a Spanish-language television program, where he would introduce viewers to baby tigers and lions.
His goal: help people connect with animals.
"In the end you protect what you love, you love what you understand and you understand what you're taught, and animals teach me something everyday," he told Sundial host Carlos Frías in an interview this week.
His latest foray puts those lessons down on paper.
In his new book, The Pride of a Lion, he tells the story of K’wasi, the first male lion cub raised at Zoo Miami who beat unimaginable odds. Magill, a noted wildlife photographer, documented every stage of K'wasi's development and answered tough questions about the best way to raise the cub.
Magill and his co-author, Miami Herald reporter Greg Cote delve into the emotional intelligence of animals and examine what their behaviors can teach us.
Magill said humans tend to forget that animals feel pain, joy, love and jealousy — and his book aims to capture those emotional crests and downfalls. In a perfect world, Magill said there would be no zoos.
"I came, not to work for an attraction but for a facility to protect animals in the wild where they belong," Magill said. "This is gonna be kind of contrary to what a lot of people might think. I would never ever support taking an animal out of the wild and putting it in captivity, unless it was a last ditch effort to save that individual animal's life or species."
But The Pride of the Lion not only tells K'wasi's story of survival — it's about Magill, who has devoted his life to safeguarding the well-being of animals.
And he's not afraid to put his career on the line for it.
In September, Magill publicly criticized a controversial plan to develop the Miami Wilds water theme park over a parking lot near disappearing, rare pine rocklands near Zoo Miami. He opposed the plan as a private person, despite explicit instructions from supervisors not to speak up.
"I'd rather be fired, hold my head up high than be a hypocrite," he said.
For this reason, Magill started The Ron Magill Conservation Endowment that’s raised millions of dollars to help animal populations in the wild.
Love for animals from an early age
Magill has always felt like he was a fish out of water.
Born in New York, he said he found solace in a love for learning and for animals. Growing up, he idolized Jim Fowler who co-hosted the wildlife show Wild Kingdom. He wanted to be just like the man on the screen.
"I watched that show like people go to church," he said.
Animals didn't judge him, unlike his peers who would tease him — a 6 ft. 6 gangly son of Cuban immigrants. His height made him stick out like a sore thumb and customs from his Latin culture made it hard for him to fit in with other boys his age.
"My father looked and me and I remember [him] saying, 'I promise you, one day you're gonna be grateful for every inch of this height,' and he couldn't be more right," Magill said.
His father passed away at a young age and didn't get to see him on TV. Magill grew to embrace his culture and his height, and tries to live by his dad's advice — work hard and follow your passion.
During his senior year at the University of Florida, left to work at what was then Miami Metro Zoo to be a zookeeper, much to the chagrin of his father.
"The sacrifices that they made for me and my sister were just enormous, so I felt really devastated when I realized how disappointed my dad was," Magill said.
But Magill Sr came around.
"My dad came back one day and said, 'Listen son, I just want you to know, I just want you to be happy ... I don't have to live your life but you have to live your life,' and that resonated with me," Magill said.
And what seemed like a custodial job to some was his foot in the door to bigger and better opportunities. Before he could become the Magill we know today, he said he had to start with the grunt work — mucking out the stalls in all kinds of weather.
A distinguished UF alumnus
Dropping out of college was a monkey on his back for a while, until he became a distinguished alumnus of the University of Florida.
He remembers being stage with former Gator football quarterback Tim Tebow when then UF President Kent Fuchs told him, "your career is worth multiple degrees."
He's also a Zoo Miami's Goodwill Ambassador and an Emmy-Award winning documentary filmmaker. Oh, and there are two wild eagles named after him and his wife, Rita. But despite his accolades, Magill is quick to give credit to the behind-the-scenes people and the mentors who have taken him under his wing.
"I want people to understand, listen, hey, I may be a face, because people see me on TV, but I am the least valuable person at that zoo," he said. "It's the frontline people — they are the backbone, the foundation of everything that is good that we do."
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