Live like Flaco

I'm one of the many people who was inspired by the way a Eurasian eagle owl found freedom in New York, which made the news of his death feel like an absolute gut punch.

There was a fatal accident four blocks south of us in Manhattan that has affected me more than I expected.

Flaco the owl, who’d escaped from the Central Park Zoo just about a year ago, was found on W 89th Street after having apparently flown into one of the nearby buildings. He later succumbed to his injuries.

When I say that New York is mourning him, I am not exaggerating.

Flaco was a Eurasian eagle with a low hoot and these incredible orange eyes. He weighed 4 pounds. Last February, vandals damaged his cage at the Central Park Zoo, and he escaped on Feb. 2, 2023. It was a few days after that I saw him for the first time in Central Park. Well, actually, I saw a bunch of people who were gathered in the park with binoculars and tripod-mounted cameras, necks craned upward. One of them was kind enough to point him out to me. I saw what appeared to be distinctive eyebrows, but I later learned are actually called ear tufts.

At first, there was a great deal of concern that Flaco would not know how to eat. After all, he had been born in captivity back in 2010. He’d always been fed. Would he know how to hunt on his own? Could he maneuver around the park?

For this reason, the naturalists who work at the zoo were especially concerned in trying to corral him. However, he did not seem all that interested in the food they’d left out and was even less inclined to step into one of the cages or carriers they brought.

Then, on Feb. 12, the park announced that Flaco appearing increasingly confident in flying around the park, and that he’d been seen snatching prey. The examination of his scat — known as owl pellets — showed bone and regurgitated fur, indicating he had been chowing down on some of New York’s abundant rat population.

The next concern was how healthy the rats were or more specifically how healthy they were for Flaco to eat due to the abundance of rat poison that’s doled out around this city. But Flaco seemed to be unaffected and over the next few months something remarkable happened: Flaco thrived.

This was understandably inspiring, and as people wrote about Flaco, he came to be described much like a person who was finding his own way in this sharp-elbowed city than the apex predator he actually was. Flaco became a New Yorker. I remember there was even a story about him landing outside a department store on 5th Avenue. This story from the New York Times — which ran on the one-year anniversary of his release — has some great details and a number of remarkable observations and stories. Dr. Ruth was even quoted discussing the unfortunate fact that with no other Eurasian eagle owls in New York City, Flaco’s dating pool did not exist.

New York is an incredible place to live. The sheer concentration of people from such disparate parts of the world, the collective ambition is what makes the food, the art and the spirit so vibrant. It can also be a fairly difficult place to live, which is what made Flaco’s story inspiring. This odd-looking orange-eyed predator with the eyebrows of a muppet decided he was going to live on his own terms, and he’d actually freaking done it. When I’d heard that he'd died, it felt like it hollowed this story out. It felt like it hollowed me out, feeling like happiness is something that just doesn’t last. Not in this city. Over the past couple of days, I’ve found myself thinking about two paragraphs from the obituary that ran in the New York Times:

“But each day outside captivity was risky — even without the hazards presented by an urban environment. Wild Eurasian eagle-owls can live more than 40 years in captivity, but only 20 on average in their natural habitat.

“Striking a building, especially a window, was one of several lethal threats he faced. Others included death by poisoning via the rodenticide in the rats that he ate, and a fatal collision with a vehicle.”

The first thought I had was that New York is, in fact, a city that presents a wide variety of lethal threats to all of its residents. About a month after moving to New York, there was a body found in a manhole at Columbus Circle, which had apparently been there two weeks. That was at 58th and 8th. We lived at 59th and 9th.

The second thought I had was significantly less macabre. It was that we don’t usually have all that much control over how we die. We do, however, control how we live, and in that way Flaco was and always will be an absolute inspiration.

Rest in freedom, Flaco. Rest in freedom.

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