Central Park Zoo's Flaco Is Dead

RIP to owl that became a Manhattan mascot after escaping from zoo in 2023
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 3, 2024 2:10 PM CST
Updated Feb 24, 2024 7:00 AM CST
A Year Later, It's Still a Mystery Who Freed Central Park Zoo Owl
This photo provided by David Lei shows Flaco the owl, Dec. 25. 2023, in New York.   (Courtesy David Lei via AP)
UPDATE Feb 24, 2024 7:00 AM CST

New Yorkers are mourning "one of the city's most beloved celebrities" this weekend, per the AP. Officials from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Central Park Zoo, says that Flaco, the 13-year-old Eurasian eagle-owl that escaped the zoo in February 2023, has died after apparently slamming into a building on the Upper West Side, reports the New York Times, which honors the bird of prey as "a feathered feel-good figure in troubled times." Flaco's body has been retrieved and sent to the Bronx Zoo for a necropsy. The Manhattan Bird Alert account on X, which notes it was "heartbroken" to hear the news coming out of West 89th Street, retweeted numerous tributes and goodbyes for Flaco on its X feed. "The vandal who damaged Flaco's exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death," the WCS said in a statement. An NYPD probe is ongoing.

Feb 3, 2024 2:10 PM CST

This New York love story begins with a criminal act of sabotage. Under cover of darkness a year ago Friday, someone breached a waist-high fence and slipped into the Central Park Zoo. Once inside, they cut a hole through a steel mesh cage, freeing a majestic Eurasian eagle-owl named Flaco who'd arrived at the zoo as a fledgling 13 years earlier. Immediately, Flaco fled the park, blinking his big orange eyes at pedestrians and police on Fifth Avenue before flying off into the night. In the year since his dramatic escape, Flaco has become one of the city's most beloved characters, the AP reports. By day he lounges in Manhattan's courtyards and parks or perches on fire escapes. He spends his nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city's abundant rats.

To the surprise of many experts, Flaco is thriving in the urban wilds. An apex predator with a nearly 6-foot wingspan, he has called on abilities some feared he hadn't developed during a lifetime in captivity, gamely exploring new neighborhoods and turning up unexpectedly at the windows of New Yorkers. "He was the underdog from the start. People did not expect him to survive," said Jacqueline Emery, one of several birders who document the owl's daily movements and share them online with his legions of admirers. "New Yorkers especially connect to him because of his resilience." But as Flaco enters his second year in the spotlight, it can be easy to forget that his freedom is the result of a crime, one that has improbably remained unsolved.

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The break-in happened steps from the shared headquarters of the New York City Parks Department and the Central Park Zoo, in the vicinity of at least one surveillance camera. But if they've collected any evidence on a potential suspect, police and zoo authorities have declined to share it. Since the zoo suspended efforts to recapture Flaco in February 2023, there has been no public information about the crime. In the absence of official information, theories of the crime abound—a youthful prank, perhaps, or an attempted owl heist gone awry? For many invested in Flaco's fate, the most plausible explanation is that he was freed for ideological reasons. (See much more at the AP, including why one person calls the owl's zoo habitat "ridiculous" and detailing the threats he faces in the city.)

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