No One Wants to Be Caged: Flaco the Owl

Written by Katie Godowski
Photography by Katie Godowski & Jaime Marrero

Art by Calicho

On February 3rd, 2023, Flaco, a thirteen-year-old male Eurasian eagle-owl, escaped from his cage at Central Park Zoo after it was damaged by vandals. Flaco had been at the zoo for twelve years where, according to Gothamist, his cage was the size of a New York City bus stop shelter. For several days after Flaco escaped, zoo staff members made unsuccessful attempts to capture the bird. One of the ways staff tried to capture Flaco was by using a baited trap covered with loops to snare a bird’s talons. Flaco went for the trap’s rat and was caught, but ultimately was able to free himself. Staff also attempted to capture the bird by baiting him with audio recordings placed in another trap, but this attempt, too, was unsuccessful. Over the course of the year after Flaco’s escape, the birding community on X (formerly known as Twitter) buzzed with daily updates on the bird’s whereabouts, which were mostly spots in Central Park and the Upper West Side.

One year and twenty days after his escape, Flaco passed away after hitting a building on the Upper West Side. The online birding community was devastated.

Art by Calicho

Flaco came to inspire many New Yorkers, including Colombian muralist Calicho Arevalo. As an immigrant, Calicho immediately resonated with Flaco’s story —that of a non-native species born in captivity, escaping to freedom. Observing how Flaco interacted with New Yorkers, Calicho noticed the profound impact he had on people, who began to view the owl as a hero. But among the existing plethora of animal-inspired superheroes, such as Spiderman and Batman, Flaco was different, he actively engaged with the city. Flaco’s story inspired Calicho to forge a deeper connection to his own instincts. Just as Flaco relied on his instincts to survive, Calicho followed his gut and decided to pursue full-time work as an artist, putting his architecture career on hold.

Upon learning of Flaco’s passing, Calicho was overwhelmed with sadness and disbelief. He had been working late into the night when he saw the news online, and had to pause everything he was doing to verify its authenticity. Having watched Flaco thrive in the city for months, Calicho assumed the owl would survive for years to come. He was full of sorrow and frustration, wishing he could have done more for Flaco or visited him more often. That night, Calicho went to Freemans Alley and created a mural in the owl’s memory.

At the 104th Street Central Park memorial for Flaco, a bystander told a news reporter she had moved to New York around the time of Flaco’s escape. “No one wants to be caged,” she said.

For Calicho, the people I met at Flaco’s memorial, and thousands more New Yorkers, Flaco was more than just a bird. He was a symbol of freedom and perseverance through tough times. A sign encouraging anyone to soar and fly free in the big city.

Photo by Jaime Marrero

Calicho mural in Freemans Alley / Photograph by Katie Godowski

Calicho mural on Bowery / Photograph by Katie Godowski

 

Flaco Memorial in Central Park / Photograph by Katie Godowski

Flaco Memorial in Central Park / Photograph by Katie Godowski

Flaco Memorial in Central Park / Photograph by Katie Godowski

Katie Godowski is a Brooklyn-based photographer who has been a passionate photographer for the last 16 years. She loves to photograph street art, humans and whatever she stumbles upon during a photograpy walk. Her work has been featured in New York magazine, TimeoutNewYork, and B&H optics photography contest.

Insta: @katiegodowski_photography

Website: www.katiegodowski.com