As Miami-Dade County residents await the controversial decision regarding the location of the proposed Miami Wilds Plan, Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill is advocating for the rights of animals who cannot defend themselves. This past Saturday, the public face of the zoo hosted a rally in the parking lot of Zoo Miami. He and other speakers aimed to spread awareness about the dangers of developing the attraction on the planned location near the zoo on a rare stretch of pine rockland that is home to more than one endangered species. They hope to dissuade Miami-Dade County commissioners from approving the construction of the water park.
Although officially ordered to be silent by his employer, Magill has come forward as a private citizen to advocate for the many species that inhabit the pine rocklands, regardless of the impact it may have on his career.
“If I am going to get fired for standing against the construction of a boondoggle, so be it,” stated Magill. “I’d rather have the anger of some than the respect of none.”
The plan for Miami Wilds was born decades ago on land by the zoo as a way to save it. (Receipts don’t match operating costs.) Back then Magill supported the idea.
“In 2006, I voted in favor of this plan and I would call for citizens to vote for it, but as more research came out, I opposed it,” Magill said. “Later, I realized the damage it may cause. We’re talking about endangered species and the last stretch of pine rocklands left in South Florida.”
Environmentalists’ concerns have also continued to rise as more of the plan’s details have been revealed. Without proper plans set in place for the current and future safety of the species of the pine rocklands, some are concerned there has not been sufficient research done.
The project’s developer, Miami Wilds, first received clearance in 2020, but legal issues have complicated the timeline for building and necessitated a revision to the county lease. Moreover, developers – and county attorneys say the project presents little threat to the rare species, noting that much of the space is already a parking lot.
Commissioners are currently debating whether to extend the lease, considering ongoing legal proceedings.
“I was told not to speak about this water park development,” said Magill. “But this time is different, I am not going to let this happen again in my backyard. I already feel ashamed about what happened some years ago here in the pine rocklands.”
Magill’s rally gathered environmentalist groups to discuss the ecological concerns of the pine rocklands, which are home to the endangered Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly, the Florida bonneted bat, and an array of rare species that are already struggling to survive due to overdevelopment in many parts of South Florida.
While on the stage, Magill briefly referenced the controversial decision by the University of Miami in 2014 to sell 88 acres of pine rocklands land to a developer, resulting in the construction of a shopping center including a Walmart, L.A. Fitness, an apartment complex, and a large restaurant area.
Magill stayed silent on that development, a decision he regrets to this day.
“I think the statement seen here today by hundreds of people showing up is that they care more about the environment than dollars,” said Magill. “It’s a statement that inspires me more than words can say.”
After dedicating over 40 years of his life to the zoo, Magill is now facing one of the toughest challenges of his career. He is using his status to inform residents of the county of the importance of the pine rocklands’ species through social media posts, news interviews, events, such as this rally, and by word of mouth. To kick off his rally as a voice for the animals, Magill set free a red-shouldered hawk healed in a local shelter from rat poisoning to symbolize the freedom of the animals.
Several hundred people attended the rally. A sea of blue T-shirts that said: “The smallest among us need the greatest protection. #Let them thrive.” They also carried signs that read, “Save it, don’t pave it.” “No Miami Wilds. Yes Miami Wildlife.”
District 7 commissioner Raquel Regalado, who strongly opposes Miami Wilds, was in attendance Saturday morning. She explained that the commission is working with the zoo to find other fiscal opportunities that do not involve a water park because of the endangered species involved and to protect the bio-diverse ecosystem of the rocklands.
“I’ve taken an official position against building a water park here,” said Regalado. “This is the wrong place to build a water park. We have to protect the Pine Rocklands that are adjacent to the parking lot. Nothing against water parks, we just do not want one here.”
County commissioners are set to again take up the plan on Dec. 12.