When slick-haired, smarmy drug lords appeared with black panthers and snakes in 'Miami Vice,' Ron Magill was there to make sure the animals both behaved and were treated kindly.
An American wildlife expert and photographer, Magill has been with Zoo Miami for over three decades -- his classic moustache as identifiable as his effusive reverence for wildlife.
He's talked animals on 'Good Morning America,' 'Sábado Gigante,' 'The Late Show With David Letterman,' and 'The Today Show,' and worked on Emmy-nominated nature programs.
Huff Post Miami spoke with Magill about his time on set of 'Miami Vice,' being at the zoo during Hurricane Andrew, and mango shakes.
Who are you:
Years in Miami:
First memory of Miami?
Catching lizards that were running free everywhere! Coming from New York, that was pretty cool.
The Crossings in West Kendall
Communications and Media Relations Director for Zoo Miami
Favorite 'Only in Miami' moment?
Seeing a dead shark on the Metrorail!
What's your idea of a perfect day in Miami?
Waking up early with my wife and watching the sunrise on the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades, grabbing a mango shake at Robert Is Here, going on a photo safari at Zoo Miami, and finishing off the day by inviting friends over for a huge barbecue under the many palms in my yard as we watch the Miami Heat win another championship!
Prefer 395 or 195?
395 – I like seeing the cruise ships on one side and the yachts and mansions on the other!
We heard you handled all the animals used on 'Miami Vice.'
The most outrageous moment from my times working on the television show, “Miami Vice” was when “Elvis” the alligator got away from us on the boat off of Watson Island and we had to catch him when he jumped into the bay! Great times!
I worked with everything from black leopards to monacled cobras on that show because it seemed to be the “in” thing for the “cocaine cowboys” of the time to have these weird exotic animals for “pets.”
One of the most interesting shots was having to set up eight 50-gallon fish tanks with large Japanese Koi in them. They were stacked on top of each other as a backdrop behind a desk where George Takei (Star Trek’s “Sulu”) was sitting as the “bad guy.” All of a sudden, a shoot out occurs and all of the tanks shatter! I had to bust my butt to make sure that every fish was recovered and unhurt! As you can imagine, it was a “one take” shot and I am very proud to say that not a single fish was hurt.
You grew up in South Florida after moving here at age 12. Did you frequent any of Miami's animal attractions that predated Zoo Miami?
One of my favorite Miami Attractions was the Miami Serpentarium. I was always fascinated by snakes so as soon as I was old enough, I got a job there as a tour guide. Eventually I became the Curator of Reptiles and it was my first paying job with animals.
Were you at the zoo during Hurricane Andrew?
I was indeed at the zoo during Hurricane Andrew and I will never forget the unbelievable destruction that it caused. It looked as if God had come through here with a 25-mile wide monster weed-whacker and totally leveled the place. I have been at the zoo for over 32 years and have never seen anything so overwhelmingly powerful. I hope and pray that it was indeed the storm of a lifetime.
How do you respond to those critical of captive animals in zoos and animal parks?
Many of those critical of zoos and animal parks have skewed visions of what a good zoo really is. A big problem is that there are many places that call themselves zoos but are nothing more than roadside attractions that keep animals in horrific conditions in tiny cages with little regard for their well-being, both mentally and physically.
Accredited zoos like Zoo Miami, spend millions of dollars providing animals with the best possible care while maintaining them in large, open air exhibits where they successfully reproduce and raise their young in a safe and healthy environment.
Most importantly, zoos like Zoo Miami provide important windows into the world of wildlife that would otherwise be impossible to experience for the average visitor. By allowing people to make a special connection with wildlife through their experiences in an accredited zoo, they are being inspired to protect it for generations to come.
There is an old saying that says, “In the end, we protect what we love, we love what we understand, and we understand what we are taught” and zoos play a key role in teaching about wildlife. The sad reality is that most people will never be able to travel to Africa to see elephants, India to see tigers, or the Amazon to see giant otters. Zoos provide that opportunity while inspiring visitors to learn more.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of animals in accredited zoos today are animals that have been born in zoos and not taken out of the wild. Zoos are in fact an insurance policy against a very uncertain future in the wild and the knowledge that we gain through our work with zoo animals is helping their wild cousins in many ways.
Favorite exhibit at Zoo Miami?
My favorite exhibit at Zoo Miami is the African Plains exhibit, more commonly referred to as the giraffe exhibit. I like it because it is quite large and displays multiple species (giraffe, zebra, ostrich, gazelles, hornbills, and guinea fowl) that are commonly found together in the wild thereby displaying not just an animal, but an entire environment. Having travelled to Africa over 40 times, I can say without hesitation, that it does the best job of truly reproducing what that portion of Africa really looks like. Plus, it offers the opportunity to walk up to a platform and feed giraffe while looking at them eye to eye!
Which animals have you always wanted to have at Zoo Miami?
I’ve always wanted to have some of the marquise Florida animals such as the Florida panther, black bear, alligator, and southern bald eagle. Fortunately, we are in the process of developing a new multi-million dollar Florida exhibit and hopefully, those animals will soon be here.
Last big project you did:
The last big project I did was a television documentary with CBS 4 on the beauty of Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Teton National Parks that was nominated for an Emmy!
Upcoming projects you're working on:
I’m presently working on the building of a new amphitheater at Zoo Miami, travelling to South Africa to bring back two cheetah cubs to be part of our Cheetah Ambassador Program, and a new documentary that I hope to be doing with NBC 6 next year on Peru and the ancient city of Machu Pichu.
Why do you hate Miami?
I don’t “hate” anything about Miami though I wish sometimes that the politics were more for the benefit of the people rather than the politicians.
Why do you love Miami?
What I love about Miami is its passion and its diversity. If you are ever bored in this incredible city, it is no one’s fault but your own and you must be close to death!
What are three local meals you can't live without?
The rib eye steak at Joe’s Stone Crabs, the “Empanizado” at Sergio’s, and anything at Asia de Cuba on South Beach!
In a word or two or three, Miami is...
Passionate, stunning, and unparalleled!