(Bloomberg) -- Almost 200 New Yorkers gathered on Sunday, March 3, for a memorial of Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl. It was held at what organizers described as the bird’s favorite tree in Central Park. The base of the oak was covered with flowers, cards, drawings, photos and stuffed animals.

The farewell featured songs, poems and speeches from local admirers who followed the owl’s exploits in the park. Born to captive owls, and after living in captivity for almost 13 years since hatching, Flaco escaped from his Central Park Zoo cage on Feb. 2, 2023, when a vandal broke in and tore through his protective stainless-steel mesh netting. 

“He was an absolute underdog,” said Jacqueline Emery, an avid birder who spotted the owl often in Central Park. “Flaco was totally underestimated. He captured our hearts with his resilience, curiosity to explore and spirit of adventure.”

Despite all odds and predictions, Flaco survived in the wild for more than a year—386 days total. Among the event’s speakers was David Lei, who saw the owl learn how to hunt day to day and witnessed him chasing rats on the ground around the Heckscher Ballfields. He noted that Flaco learned to roost and hunt in the same locations as other Central Park owls, including the great horned owl Geraldine.

Native and adopted New Yorkers saw themselves in Flaco and his journey. Keiko Komiya, who’s lived here for seven years since moving from Japan, photographed Flaco three years ago while visiting the Central Park Zoo. After the owl’s escape, she made every effort to locate and film him in the park every day.

“I understand that it’s tough to adapt to a new environment,” Komiya said. “He adapted. He did his best. I spent many hours with Flaco. It was unusual, but it was a wonderful time.”

Michiko Kakutani, writing for the New York Times, likened his escape from the zoo to that of a “jailbreak” with a “new life on the lam casting him in the role of outlaw.” Late-night talk-show host Seth Meyers compared Flaco’s escape to that of Andy Dufresne, who escaped prison in The Shawshank Redemption.

Given that Flaco had never flown, hunted or had any experience in the wild, the Central Park Zoo tried to recapture him, but New Yorkers responded by circulating a petition for Flaco to remain free. After two weeks the zoo abandoned its efforts to return the owl to his cage.

“The story of Flaco is a story of freedom,” said David Barrett, who runs the popular Manhattan Bird Alert account. “He became a symbol of overcoming great odds, difficulty, triumphing, being the underdog and succeeding. If he had wanted to go back to the life he had in captivity, even when he was hungry, in that initial week after his escape, he could have done it. He didn’t do that.”

Breanne Delgado, one of the event’s organizers, called Flaco “a symbol of hope.”   

Eurasian eagle-owls typically live upwards of 60 years in captivity but only a third that long in their native habitat. Flaco survived in New York for 13 months. Komiya acknowledged “there are different views about whether or not he should have been freed” but added, “I found his life to be inspiring. I loved Flaco.” 

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