Amid Harambe Debate, Miami Remembers Deadly Case When Boy Fell Into Croc Cage

The entrance to the Miami Serpentarium, where a 6-year-old boy was killed by a Nile crocodile in 1977.
The entrance to the Miami Serpentarium, where a 6-year-old boy was killed by a Nile crocodile in 1977.

America is still arguing today about whether the Cincinnati Zoo should have shot and killed Harambe, a 17-year-old male gorilla, after a 3-year-old boy slipped past a fence and tumbled into the animal's enclosure last week. Zookeepers say it was the only way to save the boy from the 400-pound primate, but animal rights activists have argued that Harambe was protecting the boy and didn't need to die.

For some in Miami, though, the whole debate has stirred up painful memories of another tragic incident. The year was 1977 when a young boy tumbled into an enclosure at the Miami Serpentarium. And before anyone could save him, a Nile crocodile killed the child.   

The incident became a landmark in Miami's animal history, causing the Serpentarium's founder to decry the tourist attraction and deeply affecting a young employee there named Ron Magill — who would go on to become the face of Zoo Miami

Located on South Dixie Highway near SW 127th Street, the Serpentarium — easily spotted thanks to its towering 35-foot concrete cobra — opened in 1947. It doubled as snake venom research lab and tourist attraction.

Magill began his work with animals in the late 1970s at the Serpentarium, working off and on during breaks while attending the University of Florida. The main personality behind the Serpentarium, though, was its founder, Bill Haast, a "herpetologist, medical researcher, dreamer, humanitarian, and saver of lives," as the Miami Herald later described him.

His assistant Barbara Harrell told the Herald in 1984 that "Mr. Haast has been bitten 141 times by poisonous snakes. Of those 141 snakes, today only two are alive."

Bill Haast milks a cobra for venom in a show for tourists at the Miami Serpentarium.
Bill Haast milks a cobra for venom in a show for tourists at the Miami Serpentarium.

Haast, says Magill, wasn't particularly fond of the tourists — some 50,000 a year — who showed up at the Serpentarium to gawk at all manner of lizards, snakes, turtles. But he tolerated them, Magill says, because he needed the revenue to continue his research into what he believed were the healing properties of snake venom.

Haast was convinced that a serum made from snake venom could help cure neurological disorders in humans. So several times a day, Haast would put on a show and "milk" a cobra or other deadly snake for the tourists.

But Saturday, September 3, 1977, visitors to the Serpentarium got much more than they bargained for. David Wasson of West Palm Beach was among the weekend crowds visiting the Serpentarium with his 6-year-old son, Mark.

While waiting for Haast to start his reptile show, Wasson had perched his son on a masonry wall surrounding a mud pit that was home to a 14 foot-long, 2,000-pound Nile crocodile named Cookie. The boy tried to get the croc's attention by tossing sea grapes at it.

Then, somehow, Mark fell into the pit.

An Associated Press dispatch quoted a wildlife officer who described what happened next: "When the boy hit the pit, the croc moved in the blink of an eye, like lightning. There was a crunch, and after a moment the boy screamed. His father... ran for help."

The croc continued to hold the boy in its jaws, at one point submerging his lifeless body underwater. Only when someone poked the beast in the eye with a stick did the croc loosen its grip.

The day after the tragedy, Haast pumped nine shots from a Luger pistol into the croc. The reptile clung to life for an hour before dying. Haast buried the dead reptile in the same pit where the boy was killed.

As for the Serpentarium's future, Haast was quoted as saying, "I don't want anything else to do with it. I just want to do my research. I've created a monster with this place. Now I'm stuck with it."

But Haast held on for another seven years, finally closing the tourist attraction in 1984. Haast died in 2011 at the age of 100.

Today, a shopping center stands on the spot once occupied by the Serpentarium. And it's quite possible that Cookie's remains still lie beneath one of the shopping plaza's real-estate offices or restaurants.

Oddly, Miami and Magill actually have an even stronger link to the Harambe story that has unfolded — with very different results — 40 years later.

Three years after the boy's death at the Serpentarium, Magill joined Miami Metrozoo (now called Zoo Miami), where he has become the face of the operation. Magill tells New Times that although Harambe was never at Zoo Miami, his grandmother, Josephine, now 49, still lives there.

In 1984, Josephine gave birth to Moja, the very first gorilla born at the zoo. Moja was later moved to a zoo in Texas, where he fathered Harambe.

Josephine gave birth to Harambe's father, Moja, at Zoo Miami in 1984.
Josephine gave birth to Harambe's father, Moja, at Zoo Miami in 1984.
Photo by Bill Cooke

Magill told New Times last week that Zoo Miami has never had a visitor stray into an animal enclosure in the zoo's 36-year history. (In June 1994, however, a 21-year veteran zookeeper was attacked and mauled to death by a white Bengal tiger. It is Zoo Miami's only fatality.)

Following the Harambe incident, zoo officials across the United States have reexamined safeguards at their facilities. Magill says that some fences at Zoo Miami are being replaced by higher bamboo fences.

Update 2:15 p.m.: Joe Wasilewski, a noted South Florida biologist, got his start alongside Magill at the Serpentarium. He sent New Times his recollections of the tragedy involving Cookie the Croc and says the creature actually used to routinely escape her enclosure. 

Here are Wasilewski's recollections:

Haast went into the Serpentarium one morning and there was a box on the doorstep—-it contained Cookie, who was about 7 feet long. The croc was kept there for years, joined by a male American crocodile named Sam. They got along pretty well. Cookie learned to crawl out of the pit and after a while all Mr Haast had to do was show up with a croc stick and Cookie would climb right back into the pit ...

I don't have much to say about the child falling into the pit, but it happened. Afterwards Mr Haast could not sleep and went to the pit at 4:30—5:00am with his German luger and shot the croc. Mrs Haast called me at that time and I, along with several other workers rushed to the Serpentarium to bury the croc. It was too large to get out of the pit, so we buried it in place.

He also sent along this photo of Cookie out on the prowl:

Cookie the Croc routinely escaped her enclosure at the Miami Serpentarium, says biologist Joe Wasilewski, who once worked there.
Cookie the Croc routinely escaped her enclosure at the Miami Serpentarium, says biologist Joe Wasilewski, who once worked there.
photo courtesy Joe Wasilewski

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