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Flaco Gave Us A Willingness To See The World

Flaco, a brown and black Eurasian eagle owl who escaped the Central Park Zoo, roosts in a tree in New York's Central Park with a squirrel nearby.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

They teach us about butterflies at too young an age. As children, we learn that these little chubby worms climb a tree and wrap themselves up. Inside their cozy home made of silk, they digest themselves and become goo. Then the goo multiplies, the cells split. And a few weeks later, out comes an entirely different creature, one so beautiful that even adults point at them.

Imagine if no one had told you until you were an adult that grubby little caterpillars were turning into caterpillar soup and emerging as beautiful butterflies. It's incredible! It's magical! It's enchanting!

It is easy to become jaded with the world, to see our environment as a series of hurdles we must hurl ourselves over. But there is so much beauty around us. "Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only who could have the courage to see it," Marilynne Robinson wrote in her novel Gilead.

Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his cage at the Central Park Zoo a year and a week ago, gave me some of that courage. It was as if the light turned on inside a chamber of hope I didn't know existed within me.

I was ecstatic. I wrote a silly blog as if it were a children's book, with Flaco as the hero. As he lived, day after day, in Central Park hunting rats and posing for photos, my stomach filled with hope. Look at him. He was so big. He was so fluffy. He was such a beautiful owl.

Yesterday, Flaco was found dead on West 89th Street in Manhattan. The Wild Bird Fund found him after he collided with a building, a death that greets a quarter of a million birds in New York City every year. The fund told the New York Times that Flaco's collision may also have been caused by some illness: avian flu, or even rat poison, similar to Barry the barred owl in 2021. The world is a perilous, dangerous place, but it is ours. Flaco was ours too.

Humans love a story of defiance, of deciding the life you want in the world and choosing that over what others want for you. The zookeepers wanted Flaco back inside the zoo where he was safe. This was as reasonable as it was ridiculous. Flaco was on Rumspringa. Flaco was free!

But more than that, I loved Flaco because he looked so curious. "He always looked like he was studying us," Ray Ratto said in our Birdfector Slack channel. And he really did. I relished every photo someone took of Flaco visiting near their apartment. What did he see inside those windows? What did he see inside us?

Nan Knighton/Twitter

Maybe nothing. Maybe he was just looking around and enjoying taking naps in new places.

Manhattan Bird Alert/Twitter

But to see such a beautiful owl on a fire escape is jarring. He was too beautiful to be perched on an iron fire escape, his giant eyes too knowing to belong amongst all our street trash. He belonged in an alluring, verdant world, and he blessed us by spending so much time amongst our concrete and bricks. Even though I never saw Flaco in person getting these glimpses of him was just the jolt I needed some days, to remember that beauty exists in the world, to be reawakened to the small things around me: the moon looking very large, the buds on the trees beginning to emerge, the joy of pointing at a bug. I am devastated that there will no longer be photos of Flaco being silly in the world, that his story has ended so abruptly. I will miss him.

Flaco's beauty was something we shared. We texted photos of him, we joined together to appreciate him. As Barry wrote last year, "[Flaco] was a social event. You'd meet the same people again and again, and chat about what you'd been up to since the last time you were both in his presence. Friendships and romances were forged at the foot of Flaco's trees." Flaco created a gravitational pull that brought us together and taught us to see him. That doesn't just go away because he's died.

The shadow cast from loving something is made of longing. The tug of pain I feel that this big goofy bird is gone is evidence that he was here at all. His beauty becomes enough, and I let him go knowing that he has reminded me of the strange charm of this world. I will keep the lesson he taught me close, because I don't want to forget that there is so much to love in this world, if only you can be brave enough to look for it.

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