Here’s one I forgot to post back in early March when it was closer to the “breaking news” category. At great expense, I traveled to New York City to photograph this elusive bird.
On Groundhog Day (February 2), 2023, a Eurasian eagle-owl emerged from his zoo enclosure and took flight out across the landscape, for the first time in his life. Flaco had come to the Central Park Zoo thirteen years earlier and had served as one among many wildlife attractions in this sort of penitentiary. Zookeepers had long ago assumed it was ill-advised to release this domesticated owl back into a wild world he’d hardly known.
I noticed the Flaco story on A20 of the February 11th New York Times. Flaco was still on the loose though the people of the zoo very much wanted him back and expected he would soon be back in custody. He’d bumbled around parts of the city clumsily before settling into the forest of Central Park. It was easy to guess that he was disoriented and hungry. His chances were slim, out here on his own.
The Times seemed to understand how desperate his plight was now, away from the care of handlers and far from his carefully prepared foods and medicines. So many dangers he’d never faced now waited all around.
“Still, each day spent outside his familiar surroundings puts Flaco at risk, and not just because, having lived his whole life in captivity, he is not used to finding food on his own. If he did make a meal of, say, a rat, it could well be hazardous to his health,” the writer informed us.
A director of conservation and science with Audubon described Flaco’s release as “unfortunate,” citing the multitude of hazards such as poisoned rats and reflective windows.
The threat of starvation was mentioned more than once, reasonably, since this bird had only ever had food handed to him. It was also notable though that the two other stories sharing Flaco’s page were a piece on the rats infesting the mayor’s row house rentals and the sad story of a pink NYC pigeon.
Elsewhere, I found video of a bird expert on scene opining on the matter, offering equally dismal prospects with an air of certainty. All the experts seemed to be in agreement as to Flaco’s fate.
Fortunately, the NYT chose to continue covering the Flaco saga, probably because he was now certainly a celebrity. The next piece that ran, a few days later, made much of the fact that he’d coughed up a “pellet,” a characteristic digestive artifact of all owls – undigestible bony prey remnants. Notably, the first of several celebrities to cough up bone pellets this week. He had been seen chasing rats already and a squirrel too. He’d evaded traps set by zoo officials for him and had found favorite perches high in certain trees where he remained untouchable.
Also in this article was the announcement by zoo officials that they were taking a step back, giving Flaco space and waiting for an opportune time to trap him.
I’ve been rooting for Flaco the owl and not just because I love all kinds animals. I saw something relatable in his struggle to defy the experts and the authorities, adapt, make the best of things and ultimately bring himself a better life. We humans are told in modernity, by all too many publications like the New York Times, to trust the experts and follow the direction of authorities who certainly know better what’s best for us than we do for ourselves. Freedom is dangerous – there’s an endless litany of pitfalls and death traps awaiting us if we break away from our prescribed roles and strike out on our own. Our overlords, we’re told, have only our best interests at heart as they expand the welfare roles, provide healthcare for all and scheme endless altruistic schemes. There’s no reason to slip away through a ruptured window and out into the perilous light of day.
It’s certain though that Flaco’s just enjoyed the best weeks of his life so far even though he had to find his own rats, learn the dangers of automobiles and windows and how to evade the zookeeper’s nets. He’s adapting rapidly in ways that weren’t predicted by the experts. If he weren’t having the time of his life, it seems reasonable to expect that he would have turned himself in by now. Could it be that freedom is a value unto itself, something worth risking it all for and that this highest of values even transcends the human realm?
If Flaco the owl is killed by a bus tomorrow, would it have been better to have spent the rest of his days in captivity, never experiencing evening flights across Central Park?
POSTSCRIPT: As of mid-May, 2023, reporting on Flaco is now sparse. The news cycle moves fast. Yesterday, David Lei reported on Twitter that Flaco’s still doing well, discovering innovative ways to corner rats and to hide among Central Park’s leaves.
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