Gators Going Greater

Ron Magill’s Wild Ride

Photo: Rita Magill

Bringing attention to and protecting wildlife has been Ron Magill’s passion since leaving the University of Florida 40 years ago for a job at Zoo Miami.

For a Gator who’s carted Komodo dragons to Letterman’s show, handled animals for “Miami Vice” and traveled the world to see wildlife, his greatest career thrill sounds tame. But the impact of his most important work is profound.

Will an ostrich glide if it jumps off a cliff? In a death match between a bull shark and crocodile, who wins? What about a cobra and rattlesnake? Animal combat is a persistent theme on ESPN Radio’s popular “Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz” whenever Ron Magill is a guest. Another listener, though, wants to know if the NFL’s five best linemen together could block one silverback gorilla. (It is a sports program, after all.)

Magill, one of the world’s best-known wildlife experts, answers each with a mini science lesson. The radio show, for him, is an opportunity to make a case for conservation.

The ostrich will splatter “like a pizza,” he tells the first caller, because its wings are “little feather dusters.” The crocodile’s hide is too thick for the shark’s bite; the croc’s teeth, on the other hand, can shred a shark. The king cobra eats other snakes and its venom can take down an elephant — cobra wins. Yes, the linemen could block the gorilla but players might be killed in the process.

What keeps me going is seeing the faces, especially of kids. It’s investing in generations, knowing that when we invest in this generation we help them understand the value of wildlife.

— Ron Magill —

Bringing attention to and protecting wildlife has been Magill’s passion since leaving the University of Florida 40 years ago for a job at Zoo Miami. If curious radio listeners want to discuss falling ostriches, hypothetical snake duels, dog flatulence or the lifespan of goldfish, that’s fine with him — it encourages people to care about animals, wild and otherwise.

“When I was a kid, you’d put an animal in a small cage and it’d pace back and forth on a concrete floor behind bars. There would be a little girl in a bikini holding a baby tiger for a photo op,” Magill (AA ’80) says. “You would never do that today because this generation has been a product of knowledge, of learning about conservation and what is right for an animal.”

When it comes to getting people interested in nature’s wonders, almost anything is fair game, he insists. Bringing a 7-foot Komodo dragon to New York’s Times Square and “Late Night with David Letterman” — not a problem. Introducing a cheetah to children in their school auditorium — sure. Caring for animal extras on the “Miami Vice” TV show — why not? Hosting wildlife documentaries — absolutely.

It’s all part of the job for Zoo Miami’s communication director. And he’s thrilled to do it.

“What keeps me going is seeing the faces, especially of kids,” Magill says. “It’s investing in generations, knowing that when we invest in this generation we help them understand the value of wildlife.”

Boy from Queens

Sunday evenings in the 1960s were sacred to Magill. That’s when “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” was on TV. Hosts Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler’s adventures mesmerized Magill. To a kid growing up in Queens, New York, Perkins and Fowler were supermen.

“It was like going to church for me,” Magill says of watching the show.

Back then, the closest he could get to the wilds of Africa or Amazon rainforests was the Bronx Zoo. But those encounters with chimps, big cats and pink flamingos were life-changing.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I am today if it wasn’t for going to the Bronx Zoo with my mother,” Magill explains. “That was the only opportunity I had to make eye-to-eye contact with a wild animal. That made a connection that is very hard to describe.”

Bars no longer separate Magill from the wildlife he adores. He’s crisscrossed the globe to see them in their natural homes. The Spanish-language version of “Mutual Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” — called “Mundo Salvaje con Ron Magill” (“Wild Kingdom with Ron Magill”) — reaches 44 million homes on HITN TV. The Discovery Channel and History Channel have featured him. He’s won five Emmys for his work on documentaries and his photos have appeared in publications and galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He’s even been the behind-the-scenes animal handler for Hollywood movies.

Magill is stunned at his “luck.”

“What surprises me is this kid from immigrant parents and a small apartment in New York City has been able to travel around the world many times, experiencing everything from polar bears in the Arctic to penguins in the Antarctic to tigers in the jungles of India to lions in the Savannahs of Africa, and being able to see those things firsthand,” Magill says.

“If I had one wish, it would be to take every kid’s hand and show them those places. If I could do that for five minutes it would change the world. So what we need to do is the next best thing — we need to find whatever ways possible for them to feel like they’re there.”

The Zookeeper Against Cages

The politically correct thing to say, Magill knows, is that his favorite animal is the one he’s working with at the moment. But that, he admits, would be a lie.

“I’ve always been inspired by one particular animal, even though there are many I love,” he says. “When I was a kid we’d go to the Museum of Natural History in New York. There was a bird there called the harpy eagle — I remember seeing it in a case. It was much bigger than the bald eagle. It had talons the size of my hands. It was the most majestic bird I’d ever seen, and I hoped I’d see one alive.”

Years later, on a trip to Panama to visit his wife’s family, he finally did. There was a pair at the local zoo.

“It was one of the most bittersweet things, because I did see my first two live harpy eagles but they were inside this little cage,” Magill says. “I thought, ‘How could you keep these majestic animals in such horrible conditions?’”

What surprises me is this kid from immigrant parents … has been able to travel around the world many times, experiencing everything from polar bears in the Arctic to penguins in the Antarctic to tigers in the jungles of India to lions in the Savannahs of Africa, and being able to see those things firsthand.

— Ron Magill —

A crusade began. Magill convinced the mayor of Panama City to endorse a grassroots campaign to teach people about the bird and to raise money for a harpy eagle center. Magill went on to speak to the Panamanian Congress in 2002, and soon after, a law passed declaring the harpy eagle Panama’s national bird. Police badges were redesigned to feature the eagle — and the first one presented to Magill, who also received a key to the city and a letter of thanks from Panama’s president.

“You go to Panama now and the harpy eagle is everywhere. People talk about it with pride,” Magill says. “I was just a zookeeper going down there seeing two birds in a horrible cage, and now there’s a national harpy eagle day.”

It’s a reminder to him of why he does what he does.

“That’s the kind of thing that teaches me that if you believe in something strong enough, even though you’ll fall down a few times, just get up and keep on going,” he says.

Which, for Magill, means preserving wildlife and wild places.

“When you lose a species, all the money in the world isn’t going to bring it back,” he says. “There’s an old saying that states, ‘We haven’t inherited this earth from our parents; we are borrowing it from our children.’ We have a moral obligation. I cannot look at my kids straight in the face if I don’t think I’m doing everything I can to make sure this world is at least as good as it was when I was their age.”

The Gator Inside

Magill was 12 when his family moved from New York City to a 5-acre patch in South Florida to grow mangos and avocados. Magill loved exploring the farm and searching for frogs and snakes. The call of the wild grew from whisper to roar when he started to raise those snakes and rehabilitate injured animals.

He thought he wanted to be a veterinarian. And UF, it seemed at the time, was the place to become one.

Chemistry class changed his mind.

“I knew I had to come up with a Plan B,” he says with a laugh. “But I realized I had to work with animals in some way to help protect them in the wild.”

As it turned out, three of the most respected professors in the wildlife field — Walter Auffenberg (Komodo dragons), Archie Carr (sea turtles) and Thomas Emmel (butterflies) — happened to teach at UF. Those men, for Magill, became as influential as the animals he wanted to work with.

“These were icons in the world of conservation,” Magill says. “Those three people were heroes. And to talk to them and listen to them, I thought, ‘How am I so lucky to be at this institution that is home to these eminent professors?’ It was the greatest blessing in the world.”

Then, in Magill’s junior year, came a job offer from a new zoo in Miami.

“I’m the son of a Cuban immigrant who only had a third-grade education; my mother is the daughter of a Colombian immigrant — I was the first person in our family to go to college. I told them, this is my opportunity to work with animals, and I left the university,” Magill says.

“My father was beside himself. He said, ‘You’re leaving the university to go pick up manure?’ I said, ‘Pop, it’s more than that. It gives me an opportunity to learn about these animals.’ In the end, he was very supportive, and, in hindsight, it was the right decision.”

Even now, Magill feels a “void” having left without his bachelor’s degree. It’s one of the reasons he established the Ron Magill Conservation Graduate Scholarship.

“There’s a guilt that I carry for never finishing,” he explains. “There are only so many slots to get into this incredible institution, and when you’re granted a spot you have the obligation to follow through and finish. So I’m trying to give back in another way.”

One of the students who did finish, though, was his daughter, Alexis (BHS ’18, BS ’18).

“I cried like a little girl watching her go up on that stage,” Magill recalls. “I could never be prouder to call myself a Gator. To watch my daughter graduate with honors from this school was one of the greatest thrills of my life.”

It’s Alexis and Gators like her who give him hope. The young people his scholarship supports and other UF alumni are going to “change the world,” he predicts.

“This isn’t just to save the animals,” he says, “it’s to save us.”

The Day a Big Cat Changed a Little Boy

You’d think it might be swimming with sea lions. Or the time a tigress carried her newborn cub from her den to show it to Ron Magill. Or when he witnessed 27 little Komodo dragons emerge from their shells.

But the greatest moment in Magill’s long career is none of those — not even close. It’s a phone call from a mom whose son was struggling with school and life.

“I brought a cheetah to an inner-city school in Miami. The teachers prepared me, saying, ‘The kids don’t listen; they’re out of control; these are kids from pretty bad homes,’” Magill recalls.

“When you walk on stage in an elementary school auditorium with a cheetah, everyone thinks they’re going to get killed so they pay attention. So I did my talk on cheetahs.

“These kids were great, but it wasn’t until the next day that I got a phone call from a mother. She said, ‘Yesterday you came to my son’s school, and let me tell you, my son has been in detention three times, he was suspended for misbehavior. He came home yesterday and asked to go to the library because he wanted to check out books on cheetahs. He wanted to learn about cheetahs. I want to thank you for inspiring my son. I’ve had him go to counselors and physiatrists — all of the sudden he’s infatuated with cheetahs. He has something that interests him.’

“One moment like that is beyond price,” Magill says. “In the end, it doesn’t matter how much money you have in your bank account or what kind of car you drive or how big your house is. What matters is you made a difference in the life of a child. Man, that’s huge.”