All eyes are on New York City’s latest avian celebrity: Flaco the Owl. In February, the Eurasian Eagle-Owl, a large species native to Europe and Asia, escaped his enclosure in the Central Park Zoo after an act of vandalism. News of his escape quickly spread, and almost immediately Flaco became a star of the local birding scene, attracting crowds of birders wherever he has been spotted. Despite initial concerns that he would not be able to feed himself, the owl has been hunting and living alongside native wildlife in Manhattan’s Central Park for more than a month. This success has led a cohort of Flaco fans to argue that he should be allowed to continue to live freely.
But in an urban setting, Flaco, who previously spent his entire life in captivity, faces life-threatening risks—from rat poison in his diet to collisions with vehicles or buildings. He also could potentially harm other wildlife in the park by preying on native birds, which he far outsizes. Many conservationists and raptor experts argue it is better for him and his surroundings if he returns to his “home” in the zoo.
The saga started on February 2 at 8:30 p.m., when Central Park Zoo staffers found Flaco missing from his enclosure, which is “the size of a bus stop,” Gothamist reported. Vandals had cut a hole in the enclosure's stainless steel mesh large enough for Flaco to slip out, according to a statement from the zoo, which is run by the Bronx-based nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society. The culprits have not been identified as of March 6, the police say.
Later that evening, passersby spotted Flaco exploring Manhattan’s busy Upper East Side neighborhood, which is next to his home of 13 years. He spent some time on the sidewalk near the Sherry-Netherland Hotel on 5th Avenue, about 380 yards from the zoo, before flying south, according to the NYPD’s 19th Precinct. Onlookers then located him perched on a tree near the luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman before he flew back to Central Park. Since then, Flaco has spent most of his time in and around the park, hopping from one tree to another in forested areas, such as the Hallett Sanctuary at its south end and near the Loch, a narrow waterway in its northern region.
It didn’t take long for Flaco to become a local attraction. He’s an unmistakably beautiful animal, with pumpkin-orange eyes and feathery ear tufts. He’s most noted, however, for his immense size: The Eurasian Eagle-Owl is considered the world’s second largest owl after Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. The wingspan of a male like Flaco can reach up to six feet—a foot and and a half more than the Great Horned Owl, a frequent inhabitant of Central Park. As such, Flaco has attracted photographers and admirers from around the city as well as a throng of fans following along on social media.
Flaco has eluded any attempt to be captured so far. Zoo staff have baited cages and played audio recordings of Eurasian Eagle-Owl calls to lure him into traps—but he has shown no interest. At first, staffers were concerned that Flaco, who they have cared for almost his entire life, would not be able to hunt for himself. In the species’s native habitat in Europe and Asia, Eurasian Eagle-Owls live far from human settlements, amid patches of woodland or inaccessible cliffs. Now he’s in the middle of a major metropolitan area.
But those fears were swiftly put to rest. On February 12 the zoo, in a written update on their website, shared that they observed Flaco “successfully hunting, catching, and consuming prey.” From his pellets—regurgitated remains of undigested prey such as bones and fur—zookeepers concluded that he had started feeding on Central Park’s abundant rats.
This development fueled a vocal contingent on social media that began urging the zoo to let Flaco remain loose in the park. A petition, titled “Free Flaco, the Central Park Zoo Owl,” wants zookeepers to stop all recovery efforts. If they do recapture him, the petitioners say he should be moved to a sanctuary with more room. “If Flaco is captured, he will return to a TINY, sad looking excuse for an owl habitat. He deserves better,” petitioner Nicole Barrantes wrote. The petition has been signed by more than 1,500 people as of March 6.
But ecologists find that stance short-sighted. Despite Flaco’s recent successes hunting on his own, his new food source is potentially toxic. To address its rampant rat problem, New York City agencies applied roughly 62,500 pounds of rat poison in 2021 alone, according to the most recent data from the New York City Department of Health. When predators such as owls and hawks eat rats, they accumulate the rodenticide in their system. Feeding on rats with high poison levels can result in death and a loss of coordination. Even a small amount of rodenticide is enough to prevent a bird’s blood from clotting, putting the animals at high risk of bleeding to death if they are wounded. Rodenticides have become a threat to birds in many parts of the country, especially in urban settings like New York.
“Every meal he takes is a bit of a risk,” says ornithologist Scott Weidensaul, who studies Snowy Owls with the scientific group Project SNOWstorm. “Why risk his life out there with this game of Russian Roulette with potentially poisoned rodents?”
Those fears are justified. When a different Central Park owl celebrity was killed in 2021, experts suspected rodenticides played a role. Barry, a female Barred Owl who lived in the park for about a year, died after a collision with a park management van. A necropsy by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation later found a potentially lethal level of rodenticide within Barry’s system, presumably affecting her ability to avert the vehicle. Fortunately, the Central Park Conservancy has suspended the use of all rodenticide from February through August—the period when birds of prey nest in the park—but the risk of eating contaminated rats from outside the park remains.
Toxic rats are not the only danger Flaco might encounter. He is now living and flying in a bustling urban setting with many vehicles and buildings he can collide with—vastly different surroundings from the eagle-owl’s native habitat. Window collisions are one of the city’s top causes of bird mortality, annually killing 90,000 to 230,000 birds, including raptors like owls, according to NYC Audubon.
Meanwhile, a vehicle collision is how another fugitive Eurasian Eagle-Owl is thought to have died. In October 2021, after two weeks living on her own in woodlands near the Minnesota Zoo, Gladys was found on the side of the road. She died from injuries presumably sustained in a road accident.
The risk of Flaco meeting his fate from these urban-specific risks are getting higher as birders spot him flying farther from the zoo, though still within the park. As of March 6, Flaco was last seen in the northern part of Central Park, resting over a waterfall at The Loch. Several days prior, local birders spotted him hanging around in a construction site at Harlem Meer, a lake in Central Park’s northeast corner. “If Flaco starts leaving the park and exploring more into the city, there are risks everywhere,” says Dustin Partridge, NYC Audubon director of conservation and science.
A less-discussed concern is how Flaco’s freedom affects Central Park’s native birds and wildlife. Flaco is now competing with other birds for food and habitat, says avian ecologist Katherine Gura from Teton Raptor Center. And Weidensaul, for his part, is worried that Flaco might prey on native birds, including smaller owls like the Great Horned Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl.
There’s also the rare possibility of crossbreeding. Beth Watne, the executive director of wildlife rehab center Montana Wild Wings, says Flaco could potentially try to mate with a Great Horned Owl, North America’s closest relative of Eurasian Eagle-Owls. Offspring of such a pairing might struggle to hunt and survive in the wild. “You want to do everything you can to prevent that kind of crossbreeding in nature,” she says.
None of these arguments are likely to sway Flaco’s most passionate proponents, though. Bioethicist Lisa Moses from Harvard Medical School says she can understand why people are cheering on the owl, wanting to see him live free as opposed to being restricted to an enclosure—and she even feels herself pulled in this direction. But she also thinks the discourse on Flaco’s fate should consider the bird’s individual welfare, including the environmental hazards he now faces. “Is it better for him to have a short life, and a life where he is living the way he chooses to live, or a long, protected life in captivity?” she asks. “Everyone has to decide for themselves what they think is a bigger determinant of quality of life.”
Zoo staffers would prefer Flaco be safe in his enclosure. However, for now they have given up on catching him after the series of failed attempts, the last on February 16. “We are going to continue monitoring Flaco and his activities and to be prepared to resume recovery efforts if he shows any sign of difficulty or distress,” the zoo wrote in a statement on February 17. Zoo staff did not respond to questions about an updated timeline. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the steward of the city’s public parks including Central Park, also did not respond to questions about Flaco’s future.
While Weidensaul agrees that Flaco should be returned home, he, too, understands the alternative perspective—that Flaco might live a fuller life flying across Central Park rather than being cooped up with his meals provided. If Flaco had escaped from a zoo in Spain, near his native habitat, Weidensaul says he would be more supportive of letting him remain free. But as it is, he says, New York is no place for a Eurasian Eagle-Owl. “The best thing for him, long-term, even though it might not be as full or enriching as life could be for him, is to be back in captivity.”