Like Many a Hero, Flaco the Owl Made His Choice

Saturday, March, 2024

by Patrick Reevell


Flaco the owl is gone, but his life had all the elements of a classic hero’s story, not soon forgotten.

Born in captivity, he lived a dozen years in a comfortable cage in the Central Park Zoo where little happened and less was needed. His was a safe existence. But it was also a life without agency. Then, a little over a year ago, someone released him.

On Friday, when he died of acute traumatic injury, perhaps from a collision with a Manhattan apartment building’s glass windows, his death offered us a chance to reckon with the question at the heart of many a hero’s journey: Can we put a price on freedom? Flaco’s liberation from his comfortable confinement came at a cost — he spent the final year of his life free, but threatened from all sides by a booming city. Was it worth it?

Almost from the moment he was released, Flaco became a symbol of hope for many of the people who followed his story and recognized parts of themselves in him. Some saw him as the embodiment of the American dream, an outsider who had come to Manhattan and made a life for himself here, like millions of others who arrived penniless and unconnected in their quest for freedom. Others saw him as a poignant reminder that you can find happiness even if you’re alone (as the only free-living Eurasian eagle-owl in the Western Hemisphere, he had no chance of ever finding a wild mate).

As a result, as he flew around the city, landing on rooftops and crosswalks from the East Village to the Upper West Side, we were terrified that he’d succumb to the dangers of city life. Flaco had no experience living outside a cage, and New Yorkers initially doubted his chances of survival. We worried that he’d eat a rat with enough poison in its system to kill him. (After Barry, the wild barred owl, was killed by a maintenance truck in 2021, a necropsy showed that she had ingested so much rodenticide that it might have compromised her agility.) And we worried about his chances with oncoming traffic.

On Christmas Day, The Wall Street Journal even issued a stern command: “Capture Flaco.” “If he remains free,” one of the paper’s editors wrote, “rat poison or something worse will kill him.”

But Flaco never looked back. Though the animal literature is peppered with stories of animals — usually pets — who suffer hardships and return home, Flaco never retreated to the zoo. Perhaps freedom itself was the home he’d discovered.

And though we feared for him, his new life thrilled us.

How many of us, our circumstances familiar and safe, are too timid to seek our more fully realized selves? How many of us, viewing our confinements as nothing out of the ordinary, have long stopped wondering what our wings are for? In one of his most surreally profound moments, Flaco turned the tables on all of us — photographed staring into the playwright Nan Knighton’s apartment through a window grate, as if declaring his human viewers the captives, behind bars we built for ourselves.

Have we not all yearned for a life beyond the scope of the one we lead? Flaco showed that our yearning is not misplaced, that we were not merely projecting. His choice reaffirmed a truth: that given a chance, living things choose agency and freedom of movement.

In my own turns as a wildlife rehabilitator, falconer and conservation biologist, I have often observed that when the power of choice is returned to them, animals prefer to take their chances in a free-living existence. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, my wife and I helped rehabilitate a nestling screech owl found near death, whom we named Alfie. Once she was fit to fly, Alfie briefly came and went from the enclosure that had become her secure home, but she soon chose the larger life.

Humans and owls last shared a common ancestor several hundred million years ago, but a preference to rediscover who we were born to be seems to be a truth universally shared. William Butler Yeats wrote in his poem “The Second Coming” of the falcon “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” oblivious to the calls of the earthbound falconer. In Homer’s “The Iliad,” Achilles declines a long and peaceful life for one that is glorious and short. Ridley Scott’s film “Blade Runner” tells us that the life that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Even those of us who are not mythic heroes confront the trade-off and make our choices.

In life, Flaco’s single year of freedom proved vastly more thrilling and resonant to us than his anonymous years of cage-bound safety, proving that freedom is worth the cost, even when it comes bundled with danger.

News of Flaco’s death came to me in an eerily timed coincidence. Just as I was doing a little maintenance on Alfie the screech owl’s nest box, my wife, Patricia, came outside, near tears, to convey the sad news of Flaco’s demise and the sadder likely cause. Every year, window collisions kill more than half a billion birds in the United States alone. There are solutions: People can hang sheer drapes in their windows or put stickers invisible to the human eye onto the panes to ward off birds; contractors can install bird-friendly glass. But too many windows remain untreated and lethal, especially those that reflect trees and grass.

Alfie — having survived at least one window collision that I witnessed — is coming up on her sixth birthday this spring. We still see her frequently around our backyard. Of course I worry about hawks and stray cats preying on her and about her flying across roads with zooming cars. But her movements and choices are hers. Using that nest box I was cleaning, Alfie has raised 10 wild owlets with two wild mates. Which shows again, I guess, that the prospects of discovering who one was born to be can still outweigh the perils. And we can pay it forward.

Patrick Reevell

Patrick Reevell serves as the principal political analyst at RicanMagazine, specializing in American politics. He delves into elections, public sentiment, demographic shifts, and polling trends. With a keen eye for detail, Reevell provides insightful commentary on the dynamics shaping the political landscape.