At Zoo Miami, Ron Magill draws a crowd. This time, to fight a zoo project: Miami Wilds

By Douglas Hanks
Updated November 05, 2023 9:16 AM

Ron Magill has spent his career in county government promoting Zoo Miami, but he arrived there Saturday morning to fight his employer’s project.
Standing on a parking lot planned for the Miami Wilds water park that would anchor a new Zoo Miami Entertainment Area and generate an estimated $3 million a year in rent, Magill ticked off the reasons he thought Miami-Dade commissioners should vote against the plan.
“If we took a countywide vote on this project there’s no way it would pass,” Magill, 63, said about an hour before the longtime zoo communications director took the stage at a rally he organized to oppose Miami Wilds. “I hope the commissioners understand that.”
Environmental arguments against Miami Wilds hadn’t prevented a string of supportive commission votes for the project in the last few years.

But developers lost momentum in September with a delayed vote days after Magill publicly urged commissioners to reject a project that his ultimate boss, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, had recommended.

It’s Ron Magill versus Miami Wilds in Miami-Dade debate
Management at the Parks department, which operates the zoo, made the case to commissioners to support the project, which first won board approval in 2020. A main selling point for Miami Wilds is that the bulk of the rent would go into the $43 million budget at a zoo that only sells about $21 million worth of tickets a year.
Magill said those factors have put him on the outs with superiors, as Zoo Miami’s most famous employee leads the charge against a project now set for a final vote on Dec. 12.

“He’s the Zoo ambassador,” said José Romano, president of the Zoo Miami Foundation, a charity supporting the zoo that recently voted to oppose Miami Wilds. “When I go out with him in public, people stop him and take pictures.”
Now in his 43rd year as a county employee in a $130,000 a year job, Magill got his start when the county zoo was still in Key Biscayne. His longevity puts him well past the 30-year mark that locks in a full county pension, and Magill said he’s limited his Miami Wilds fight to hours before and after work.

Raquel Regalado, a commissioner who opposes Miami Wilds, said Magill’s opposition undermined the notion that the project would help the zoo.
“He took a stand when a lot of the employees were afraid to take this on,” she said during an interview at the rally. “His leadership has been amazing.”
Standing 6-6, Magill gained fame as the zoo representative who made the media rounds, including frequent appearances on national Spanish-language shows filmed in Miami.
During a 2015 visit with fellow zoo professionals to his father’s native Cuba, Magill was alarmed when two guards stopped the Miami-Dade County employee at the airport. Then he heard in Spanish: “Are you the guy from Sábado Gigante?”