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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill took a long-awaited trip to Cuba in early April.

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He spent six days on the island, getting to know the people and seeing places his Cuban-born father, who died 24 years ago, always talked about.

“I had a yearning to see the land where my father came from,” Magill said. “I wanted to see what, if anything, Cuba had to do with who my father was, and I can tell you I have never been prouder of my Cuban roots.”

Magill said he debated whether or not to take the trip, but in the end, he said, “It was the best decision I ever made.”

Magill traveled with other zoo officials from across the country on a people-to-people visit allowed by U.S. law. He traveled on his personal time and was not representing his employer Zoo Miami. He did, however, visit Havana’s Zoological Park with fellow zoo officials from zoos that included the Bronx Zoo and Philadelphia Zoo. Magill said the U.S. zoo officials were impressed with the health and living conditions of the animals at the Havana zoo.

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Click here to watch Eliott Rodriguez’s report. 

“We went to the African Plains exhibit and it’s the finest African Plains exhibit I have ever seen in my life,” Magill said. “On one exhibit they had elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, antelopes and zebras all living together. That is unheard of.”

When asked if it’s possible Cuban zoo officials staged the conditions to impress their U.S. visitors, Magill said: “Absolutely, but you can’t stage healthy animals.”

He added, “You cannot say, ‘Okay, the Americans are coming make sure the animals look healthy,’ because if an animal is starving or unhealthy it’s not a matter that’s resolved in several weeks.”

While the infrastructure of the Havana Zoo needs help, Magill said he was impressed with the resilience of the zookeepers who do much of their work on horseback. It’s much like, he said, the resilience of the Cuban people who made an impression on a visitor from South Florida.

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“I miss my dad every day,” Magill said, choking back tears. “Having gone to Cuba and talked to these people and listening to their stories, their jokes and their laughter it reminded me of my dad, so this trip showed me that Cuba will always be a part of who I am and a proud part of who I am, which I realize because of this trip.”

Eliott Rodriguez