MIAMI, FL — Jimmy Carter was president when Ron Magill began working at Zoo Miami two days before Earth Day in 1980 as a zookeeper
As the public face of the largest zoological garden in Florida and one of the largest in the country, Magill has many fond memories from the four decades of Earth Days spent working there, but none more memorable than this year’s.
“I feel like I kind of won the lottery in a way,” the TV personality and animal expert said in an Earth Day interview with Patch. “I have profound sympathy and empathy for the people struggling through this. But again, I always try to look at the positive side of things. Right now, I’m trying to eat up every day I have with the solitude of this amazing wildlife.”
While he has been at Zoo Miami during other closures, this one has been different.
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“I’ve been through times when we’ve had to close the zoo after Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Wilma,” Magill recalled. “Those are all forms of destruction. You’d go out into the zoo, and it was depressing. Now, I go out into the zoo, and it’s like — wow, I’ve come into my own private world of wildlife.”
The experience has been surreal. The zoo’s animal stars that are accustomed to throngs of visitors seem to have noticed things are very different.
“I cannot be in their heads. I cannot say, ‘Oh my gosh they miss the public.’ I will say that now when I walk into the zoo, they notice me right away,” he said. “They certainly notice that there’s been a change in the routine.”
Much like humans, animals are creatures of habit. “They have routines that they go through each and every day, and when those routines are changed, it does add, I believe, a certain amount of stress to their routine,” according to Magill. “We at the zoo have tried to keep the routine as regular as possible. We’re still doing everything we do with them. We’re going through enrichment programs with them. We haven’t had any animal get sick or seem depressed.”
He has been working on a video project that will be released publicly about Zoo Miami’s Wings of Asia aviary, which is one of the largest in the county with more than 500 birds and 73 different feathered species.
“If you go into our aviary right now, you’ll feel like you have been transported into a Southeast Asian rain forest,” he said. “The birds are singing like you can’t believe …. Just the soundtrack alone is unbelievable — the songs of the birds. It happens to also coincide with spring, so they are all courting, and they are all breeding right now.”
With so many animals at Zoo Miami, Magill concedes the aviary has been one of the most under appreciated exhibits, yet one of the most impressive.
“These last few days I’ve been getting in here right before sunrise, so I’m in the aviary as the sun is rising. I’m listening as these birds start singing. I’m watching the dances they do with each other. I’m watching birds hatching out of eggs and their mothers feeding them,” he said.
“I’m 60 years old, and I feel like a little kid again sitting in there, understanding that if we lose this stuff — if you lose a species — all the money isn’t going to bring it back,” he said. “I think to myself, how sad it would be if the only way I could hear the sounds of these birds were on recordings.”
Some of the footage he has captured has been amazing — mother birds feeding their young chicks and even a mother removing a chick that has died from the nest.
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“I’m thinking this is the greatest movie on Earth. We don’t have to watch ‘Terminator.’ We can watch nature, and it has this great story,” Magill said. “These stories watching the birds sing, watching them court, watching them breed — and then building the nests, seeing them work together, seeing those eggs hatch and chicks growing and fledging and leaving the nest.”
Magill celebrated his 40th anniversary with the zoo April 20 amid the new coronavirus shutdown. It has taught him the importance of unplugging from smartphones and computers from time to time.
“I teared up. I think this is amazing. This is beautiful,” he acknowledged. “How many people never get to hear this, never get to see this. We get all caught up in our smartphones, our computers and our daily grinds.”
Wildlife has also been thriving outside the zoo along Florida’s beaches like never before in Magill’s experience.
“We’re seeing manta rays, lots of dolphins coming into canals and estuaries. The water is crystal, crystal clear — not tons of sediments from all the people in it, and not sunscreen oil floating on the top and all that other stuff.”
His message to Americans stuck at home is to take the time to appreciate nature to the extent possible, even if it’s in their own backyard.
“It shows that when given a chance, the Earth can rebound. I’m not saying that we have to stay in lockdown all the time, but I think it’s a ray of positive hope to all of us that if we try hard, if we compromise, that we can coexist with nature,” Magill said. “We just need to give it a chance.”