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Who freed Flaco? One year later, celebrity owl’s escape from Central Park Zoo remains a mystery

NEW YORK, Feb 11: This New York love story begins with a criminal act of sabotage. Under cover of darkness a year ago Friday, someone breached a waist-high fence and slipped into the Central Park Zoo. Once inside, they cut a hole through a steel mesh cage, freeing a majestic Eurasian eagle-owl named Flaco who had arrived at the zoo as a fledgling 13 years earlier. Immediately, Flaco fled the park, blinking his big orange eyes at pedestrians and police on Fifth Avenue before flying off into the night. In the year since his dramatic escape, Flaco has become one of the city’s most beloved characters. By day he lounges in Manhattan’s courtyards and parks or perches on fire escapes. He spends his nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city’s abundant rats. To the surprise of many experts, Flaco is thriving in the urban wilds. An apex predator with a nearly 6-foot (2-meter) wingspan, he has called on abilities some feared he hadn’t developed during a lifetime in captivity, gamely exploring new neighbourhoods and turning up unexpectedly at the windows of New Yorkers. “He was the underdog from the start. People did not expect him to survive,” said Jacqueline Emery, one of several birders who document the owl’s daily movements and share them online with his legions of admirers. “New Yorkers especially connect to him because of his resilience.” But as Flaco enters his second year in the spotlight, it can be easy to forget that his freedom is the result of a crime, one that has improbably remained unsolved. In the absence of official information, theories of the crime abound – a youthful prank, perhaps, or an attempted owl heist gone awry? For many invested in Flaco’s fate, the most plausible explanation is that he was freed for ideological reasons. Proponents of the animal liberation theory point to the seemingly targeted nature of the crime, as well as the limitations of the owl’s modest enclosure. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was someone who loved Flaco and wanted him free,” said Nicole Barrantes, a wildlife campaign manager with World Animal Protection, who started a petition against Flaco being returned to the zoo. “His habitat was ridiculous. It was the saddest thing ever.” A spokesperson for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has operated the zoo since 1988, did not respond to the claims that Flaco’s zoo habitat was inadequate. (AP)


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