All eyes are on New York Metropolis’s newest avian celeb: Flaco the Owl. In February, the Eurasian Eagle-Owl, a big species native to Europe and Asia, escaped his enclosure within the Central Park Zoo after an act of vandalism. Information of his escape shortly unfold, and virtually instantly Flaco turned a star of the native birding scene, attracting crowds of birders wherever he has been noticed. Regardless of preliminary considerations that he wouldn’t have the ability to feed himself, the owl has been searching and residing alongside native wildlife in Manhattan’s Central Park for greater than a month. This success has led a cohort of Flaco followers to argue that he must be allowed to proceed to reside freely. 

However in an city setting, Flaco, who beforehand spent his complete life in captivity, faces life-threatening dangers—from rat poison in his food plan to collisions with automobiles or buildings. He additionally may probably hurt different wildlife within the park by preying on native birds, which he far outsizes. Many conservationists and raptor specialists argue it’s higher for him and his environment if he returns to his “house” within the zoo.

The saga began on February 2 at 8:30 p.m., when Central Park Zoo staffers discovered Flaco lacking from his enclosure, which is “the scale of a bus cease,” Gothamist reported. Vandals had lower a gap within the enclosure’s chrome steel mesh giant sufficient for Flaco to slide out, based on an announcement from the zoo, which is run by the Bronx-based nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society. The culprits haven’t been recognized as of March 6, the police say. 

Later that night, passersby noticed Flaco exploring Manhattan’s busy Higher East Facet neighborhood, which is subsequent to his house of 13 years. He spent a while on the sidewalk close to the Sherry-Netherland Lodge on fifth Avenue, about 380 yards from the zoo, earlier than flying south, based on the NYPD’s 19th Precinct. Onlookers then positioned him perched on a tree close to the posh division retailer Bergdorf Goodman earlier than he flew again to Central Park. Since then, Flaco has spent most of his time in and across the park, hopping from one tree to a different in forested areas, such because the Hallett Sanctuary at its south finish and close to the Loch, a slim waterway in its northern area.

It didn’t take lengthy for Flaco to turn out to be a neighborhood attraction. He’s an unmistakably lovely animal, with pumpkin-orange eyes and feathery ear tufts. He’s most famous, nevertheless, for his immense dimension: The Eurasian Eagle-Owl is taken into account the world’s second largest owl after Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. The wingspan of a male like Flaco can attain as much as six ft—a foot and and a half greater than the Nice Horned Owl, a frequent inhabitant of Central Park. As such, Flaco has attracted photographers and admirers from across the metropolis in addition to a throng of followers following alongside on social media.

Flaco has eluded any try to be captured to this point. Zoo employees have baited cages and performed audio recordings of Eurasian Eagle-Owl calls to lure him into traps—however he has proven no curiosity. At first, staffers had been involved that Flaco, who they’ve cared for nearly his complete life, wouldn’t have the ability to hunt for himself. Within the species’s native habitat in Europe and Asia, Eurasian Eagle-Owls reside removed from human settlements, amid patches of woodland or inaccessible cliffs. Now he’s in the midst of a serious metropolitan space.

However these fears had been swiftly put to relaxation. On February 12 the zoo, in a written replace on their web site, shared that they noticed Flaco “efficiently searching, catching, and consuming prey.” From his pellets—regurgitated stays of undigested prey similar to bones and fur—zookeepers concluded that he had began feeding on Central Park’s considerable rats. 

This improvement fueled a vocal contingent on social media that started urging the zoo to let Flaco stay unfastened within the park. A petition, titled “Free Flaco, the Central Park Zoo Owl,” desires zookeepers to cease all restoration efforts. If they do recapture him, the petitioners say he must be moved to a sanctuary with extra room. “If Flaco is captured, he’ll return to a TINY, unhappy trying excuse for an owl habitat. He deserves higher,” petitioner Nicole Barrantes wrote. The petition has been signed by greater than 1,500 folks as of March 6.

However ecologists discover that stance short-sighted. Regardless of Flaco’s latest successes searching on his personal, his new meals supply is potenitally poisonous. To handle its rampant rat downside, New York Metropolis businesses utilized roughly 62,500 kilos of rat poison in 2021 alone, based on the latest information from the New York City Department of Health. When predators similar to owls and hawks eat rats, they accumulate the rodenticide of their system. Feeding on rats with excessive poison ranges can lead to demise and a lack of coordination. Even a small quantity of rodenticide is sufficient to stop a chook’s blood from clotting, placing the animals at excessive threat of bleeding to demise if they’re wounded. Rodenticides have turn out to be a menace to birds in lots of elements of the nation, particularly in city settings like New York.

“Each meal he takes is a little bit of a threat,” says ornithologist Scott Weidensaul, who research Snowy Owls with the scientific group Project SNOWstorm. “Why threat his life on the market with this sport of Russian Roulette with probably poisoned rodents?”

These fears are justified. When a distinct Central Park owl celeb was killed in 2021, specialists suspected rodenticides performed a job. Barry, a feminine Barred Owl who lived within the park for a few yr, died after a collision with a park administration van. A necropsy by New York State’s Division of Environmental Conservation later discovered a potentially lethal stage of rodenticide inside Barry’s system, presumably affecting her potential to avert the car. Luckily, the Central Park Conservancy has suspended the usage of all rodenticide from February by way of August—the interval when birds of prey nest within the park—however the threat of consuming contaminated rats from outdoors the park stays. 

Poisonous rats are not the one hazard Flaco may encounter. He’s now residing and flying in a bustling city setting with many automobiles and buildings he can collide with—vastly completely different environment from the eagle-owl’s native habitat. Window collisions are one of many metropolis’s high causes of chook mortality, yearly killing 90,000 to 230,000 birds, together with raptors like owls, based on NYC Audubon.

In the meantime, a car collision is how one other fugitive Eurasian Eagle-Owl is assumed to have died. In October 2021, after two weeks residing on her personal in woodlands close to the Minnesota Zoo, Gladys was discovered on the aspect of the highway. She died from accidents presumably sustained in a highway accident.

The danger of Flaco assembly his destiny from these urban-specific dangers are getting greater as birders spot him flying farther from the zoo, although nonetheless throughout the park. As of March 6, Flaco was final seen within the northern a part of Central Park, resting over a waterfall at The Loch. A number of days prior, native birders noticed him hanging round in a development website at Harlem Meer, a lake in Central Park’s northeast nook. “If Flaco begins leaving the park and exploring extra into the town, there are dangers in all places,” says Dustin Partridge, NYC Audubon director of conservation and science.

A less-discussed concern is how Flaco’s freedom impacts Central Park’s native birds and wildlife. Flaco is now competing with different birds for meals and habitat, says avian ecologist Katherine Gura from Teton Raptor Center. And Weidensaul, for his half, is frightened that Flaco may prey on native birds, together with smaller owls just like the Nice Horned Owl and Japanese Screech-Owl. 

There’s additionally the uncommon chance of crossbreeding. Beth Watne, the chief director of wildlife rehab heart Montana Wild Wings, says Flaco may probably attempt to mate with a Nice Horned Owl, North America’s closest relative of Eurasian Eagle-Owls. Offspring of such a pairing may wrestle to hunt and survive within the wild. “You need to do every little thing you may to stop that sort of crossbreeding in nature,” she says. 

None of those arguments are more likely to sway Flaco’s most passionate proponents, although. Bioethicist Lisa Moses from Harvard Medical Faculty says she will perceive why persons are cheering on the owl, eager to see him reside free versus being restricted to an enclosure—and he or she even feels herself pulled on this path. However she additionally thinks the discourse on Flaco’s destiny ought to take into account the chook’s particular person welfare, together with the environmental hazards he now faces. “Is it higher for him to have a brief life, and a life the place he’s residing the best way he chooses to reside, or a lengthy, protected life in captivity?” she asks. “Everybody has to determine for themselves what they assume is an even bigger determinant of high quality of life.” 

Zoo staffers would like Flaco be secure in his enclosure. Nevertheless, for now they’ve given up on catching him after the collection of failed makes an attempt, the final on February 16. “We’re going to proceed monitoring Flaco and his actions and to be ready to renew restoration efforts if he reveals any signal of issue or misery,” the zoo wrote in an announcement on February 17. Zoo employees didn’t reply to questions on an up to date timeline. The New York Metropolis Division of Parks and Recreation, the steward of the town’s public parks together with Central Park, additionally didn’t reply to questions on Flaco’s future.

Whereas Weidensaul agrees that Flaco must be returned house, he, too, understands the choice perspective—that Flaco may reside a fuller life flying throughout Central Park reasonably than being cooped up together with his meals supplied. If Flaco had escaped from a zoo in Spain, close to his native habitat, Weidensaul says he would be extra supportive of letting him stay free. However as it’s, he says, New York isn’t any place for a Eurasian Eagle-Owl. “The very best factor for him, long-term, though it won’t be as full or enriching as life might be for him, is to be again in captivity.”