Flaco Never Had a Chance

It’s been more than a week since I read the news and I can still hardly believe it. Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped the Central Park Zoo and spent a year on the lam in Manhattan, is dead. My disbelief is of a piece with the grief I feel at news of an unexpected human death. How can a vibrant, irreplaceable creature be safely here among us one instant and irretrievably gone the next? How is that even possible?

The truth is that Flaco never had a chance. Few apex predators fare well in the built human environment, and Flaco was an apex predator who had never been taught to hunt. Until someone freed him from the zoo last year, he had spent his entire life in a cage.

He learned to hunt anyway, as a wild owl in the urban unwild. All New York was rooting for him — and, thanks to the reach of social media, many others were too. I live in Tennessee, but I began to follow the wonderful urban wildlife photographer David Lei on Instagram just for the pure joy of seeing Flaco, day after day, in all his ill-fated magnificence. He was our outlaw, our tragic hero, our symbol of resilience, our fellow bewildered immigrant, determined to master the perplexities of life in a foreign place.

Flaco had spent his life among our kind and seemed to be as curious about us as we were about him. He perched on fire escapes and air-conditioners. He peered into windows, blinking those huge, inscrutable eyes. In his glorious wildness, he tolerated our oohs and ahs, our long lenses, our honking taxis and our double-decker buses and our wailing sirens. Somehow he found his way among our glass-clad canyons, navigated the inexplicable patterns of our traffic and our days.

Flaco knew us. He felt like a friend.

But there were things he did not know about our kind. The rats he killed and ate, to human cheers? He didn’t know they were laced with poison. The windows he peered into? He didn’t know they could, in certain light, give back the sky and the street trees. He didn’t know that reflections in glass aren’t real trees or the real sky.

A Eurasian eagle-owl far from his native habitat is not alone in failing to understand the dangers of life in an urban environment. Up to two billion birds die from window strikes every year, some quarter of a million in New York City alone.

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