For his entire adult life, Ron Magill has been responsible for taking care of animals.
Twenty years ago, he was the assistant curator at Miami Metrozoo and the man behind the lens for one of the most famous photos to come out of Hurricane Andrew.
In the picture, a bunch of flamingos huddle in a public restroom in the zoo. Hay covers the tiled floor and a white glare bounces off the tiled walls. The flock of birds looks completely out of place between the sinks and bathroom stalls.
The day before Andrew hit, Magill was nailing plywood over the windows at his house. He was also feeding rhinoceroses and rounding up a couple dozen flamingos.
“I remember thinking, gosh, you know, this hurricane better come after this work because I’m working my butt off and it better not be for nothing,” Magill said.
The staff at Metrozoo waited till the very last minute to move the flamingos. It’s a stressful process for the birds. They can easily break a leg. So, the staff wanted to be as certain as possible that the storm was going to hit.
Around 10 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 23, Ron and a group of his co-workers climbed into the flamingo pond by the zoo’s entrance. They formed a half circle and started advancing on the flamingos.
“That’s when all of the sudden we go: OK, one, two go!” Magill said. “And everybody goes in and just grabs as many flamingos as they can.
“And then we’re handing them up – we’ve got people on the bridge — handing them one by one, and they’re walking them to the bathroom, letting them go in the bathroom, coming back, getting more. A person literally hand walks him, holds him up to his chest, hand walks to the bathroom, opens the bathroom door, lets ‘em go.... It’s the first flamingo that gets in the bathroom that’s kind of freaked out. Oh my God I’m the only one here! It’s just a lot of flapping — and flamingos make a very unattractive sound, RAWG RAWG RAWG…”
After all the flamingos were in the bathroom, Ron looked back and saw a tangled mass of long pink bird legs and necks wedged between the sinks and bathroom stalls.
“Twenty to 30 flamingos just standing there. And they’re all in the corner, hovering in the corner, just kind of looking at you,” Magill said, “and looking at their own reflection in the mirror on the wall over the sink. And you look at their faces and they’re kind of like, what the heck is this?”
The zoo had put the flamingos in the bathroom before, during previous hurricane warnings. But this time, Ron had a camera. He had taken up photography because his research was getting published and he needed photos.
On his days off, Ron would shadow Miami Herald photographers.
“I learned from the guys at the Herald that listen, in journalism, you want to capture a moment, you want to have something that will instill some kind of emotion. And for that reason, I always had a point and shoot camera in my pocket. Always.”
So Magill pulled out his camera.
“I didn’t even look through the view finder,” he said.
And he snapped a shot. The shot, as it would turn out. He had no idea that photo would become an iconic image.
Then, Magill went home to his wife, who was nine months pregnant, in West Kendall . He rode out the storm that would ultimately redefine his community and the zoo he loved.
When Ron stepped out of his house after the storm passed, he saw an overturned van and a neighbor’s couch in his front yard. He was surrounded by destruction. His first thought: I have to get back to the zoo.
A drive that normally took 15 minutes took over an hour. He couldn’t believe the devastation.
“I remember getting to the corner of 152nd and 137th Avenue, Country Walk, and seeing people walking in the middle of the street with their hands on their head, just walking aimlessly and then other people just sitting on the ground just sobbing. It was surreal,” he said.
On his way to the zoo, Ron saw a group of injured monkeys, covered in blood, running down Coral Reef Drive. He later realized they were from a nearby research center.
He thought, if those animals had gotten out… maybe some of the zoo’s animals did too.
“My first thought was: everything is dead, or everything is out, escaped,” he said. “And as hard as it is for me to say, I said to myself, I hope if it’s one or the other, I hope everything is dead. It would become a horrific, horrific scenario if you’ve got bears and tigers and lions and elephants out, scared, confronting people who now no longer have a home or a way to defend themselves.”
By the time Magill reached the zoo, the flamingos were far from his mind. He remembers several staff members gathering with rifles to go looking for escaped lions and gorillas.
It wasn’t until much later in the day — when the staff had scoured the zoo and found that the holding pens for large, dangerous animals had been strong enough to withstand Hurricane Andrew — that Magill checked on the flamingos in the bathroom.
“They were just standing there looking at us like, OK, what’s next? There was nothing extraordinary about what they were doing,” Magill said. “They were just standing there as if they were standing anywhere else.”
All the flamingos in the bathroom survived. But the zoo’s aviary, known as Wings of Asia, folded like a house of cards. Almost 100 birds were killed.
Soon, local news agencies were asking about the flamingos. They heard about the birds being stashed in the bathroom and asked if anyone had a picture. So Magill sent it out.
That image went the 1992 equivalent of viral. Publications all over the world were picking up the photo. The zoo had also put storks in a different bathroom. Ron had taken a picture of them, too.
But it was the flamingos that became such a defining image for the natural disaster that turned everything on its head…
“People are used to seeing flamingos in a beautiful, tropical Caribbean setting,” Magill said. “They are a symbol of relaxation. They are a symbol of Florida Sunshine. They’re a symbol of the reasons people come down to South Florida. And the reality is, to see them locked up in a windowless bathroom with mirrors and bathroom stalls and sinks in front of them, it just seems to be very, very much out of place.”
Today, Magill is an award winning photographer. His pictures have appeared in publications and galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
“And yet, this one point-and-shoot image that I’ve taken with flamingos in a bathroom, that is technically a horrific image, is the image that has probably gotten me more recognition than any image I’ve ever taken,” he said.
It may have not been technically correct or perfectly posed, but it captured a South Florida tropical paradise turned upside down.
Ron McGill is still with the zoo. Now it’s called Zoo Miami, and he’s the communications manager.