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

A year ago someone cut open Flaco the owl鈥檚 Central Park Zoo enclosure and like so many New Yorkers he鈥檚 made a way for himself in the big city. Birders take delight in documenting his adventures. (Feb. 1) (AP Video: Ted Shaffrey)

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NEW YORK (AP) 鈥 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 on Fifth Avenue before flying off into the night.

In the year since his dramatic escape, Flaco has become one of the city鈥檚 most beloved characters. By day he lounges in Manhattan鈥檚 courtyards and parks or perches on fire escapes. He spends his nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city鈥檚 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鈥檛 developed during a lifetime in captivity, gamely exploring new neighborhoods and turning up unexpectedly at the windows of New Yorkers.

This photo provided by David Lei shows Flaco the owl resting on a fire escape, Jan. 3, 2024, in New York. (Courtesy David Lei via AP)

This photo provided by David Lei shows Flaco the owl, Jan. 3, 2024, in New York. In the year since his dramatic escape, Flaco has become one of the city鈥檚 most beloved characters. By day he lounges in Manhattan鈥檚 courtyards, parks and fire escapes. He spends his nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city鈥檚 abundant rats. (Courtesy David Lei via AP)

鈥淗e was the underdog from the start. People did not expect him to survive,鈥 said Jacqueline Emery, one of several birders who document the owl鈥檚 daily movements and share them online with his legions of admirers. 鈥淣ew Yorkers especially connect to him because of his resilience.鈥

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.

The break-in happened steps from the shared headquarters of the New York City Parks Department and the Central Park Zoo, in the vicinity of at least one surveillance camera.

But if they have collected any evidence on a potential suspect, police and zoo authorities have declined to share it. Since the zoo suspended efforts to re-capture Flaco in February 2023, there has been no public information about the crime.

Privately, the zoo has sought to soften descriptions of Flaco鈥檚 former living conditions, in a minivan-sized structure decorated with a painted mountain vista, barely twice the width of Flaco鈥檚 extended wings.

In internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request, zoo officials urged the Parks Department not to publicly describe Flaco as 鈥渞aised in captivity.鈥 Likewise, the term 鈥渆scape鈥 should be avoided.

鈥淭hat puts the blame on the animal rather than the perpetrator,鈥 the zoo鈥檚 then-communications director, Max Pulsinelli, wrote in one email. 鈥淭his was a crime.鈥

In the absence of official information, theories of the crime abound 鈥 a youthful prank, perhaps, or an attempted owl heist gone awry? For many invested in Flaco鈥檚 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鈥檚 modest enclosure.

鈥淚 wouldn鈥檛 be surprised if it was someone who loved Flaco and wanted him free,鈥 said Nicole Barrantes, a wildlife campaign manager with 老澳门六合彩 Animal Protection, who started a petition against Flaco being returned to the zoo. 鈥淗is habitat was ridiculous. It was the saddest thing ever.鈥

Break-ins and vandalism have long been tactics some activists have used to free animals. Such actions are often made public by the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, an anonymous online database.

The group鈥檚 spokesperson, Jerry Vlasak, said no one had come forward to claim responsibility for Flaco鈥檚 escape. 鈥淲e never received a communique,鈥 he said. 鈥淏ut we鈥檙e certainly glad it happened.鈥

A spokesperson for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has operated the zoo since 1988, did not respond to the claims that Flaco鈥檚 zoo habitat was inadequate.

鈥淭his was a criminal act that jeopardized the safety of the bird,鈥 the zoo said in a statement, adding that they are continuing to monitor reports of Flaco鈥檚 activity and wellbeing and are 鈥減repared to resume recovery efforts if he shows any sign of difficulty or distress.鈥

This photo provided by Jacqueline Emery shows Flaco the owl in Central Park with a caged rat, Feb. 9. 2023, in New York.  (Courtesy Jacqueline Emery via AP)

This photo provided by Jacqueline Emery shows Flaco the owl with a caged rat, Feb. 9. 2023, in New York. One year since his dramatic escape from the Central Park Zoo, To the surprise of many experts, Flaco is thriving in the urban wilds. An apex predator with a nearly 6-foot (2meter) wingspan, he has called on abilities some feared he鈥檇 lost after a lifetime in captivity. (Courtesy Jacqueline Emery via AP)

Even with his proficient hunting skills, Flaco faces many threats in the city, including a grave risk of consuming rodenticide through a poisoned rat. In 2021, another beloved Central Park owl, Barry, was fatally struck by a truck after that may have impaired her flying.

鈥淎ll the hazards are still there,鈥 cautioned Suzanne Shoemaker, the director of the Owl Moon Raptor Center in Maryland. 鈥淗e鈥檚 shown some good instincts to be able to make it this far. He鈥檚 also lucky.鈥

Flaco spent his initial months of freedom mostly in Central Park, which is loaded with wildlife, but has lately preferred more urban sections of Manhattan. There has been some speculation that he has been looking for a mate, though he most certainly won鈥檛 find one. Eurasian eagle owls aren鈥檛 native to North America.

Stories of zoo animals breaking loose in the middle of the country鈥檚 densest city have long captured the public imagination, while often ushering in calls for reforms.

Following a series of bird thefts and in the 1970s, administrators ordered immediate security upgrades and the redesign of some pens at the zoo, which the city鈥檚 parks commissioner at the time described as 鈥淩ikers Island for animals鈥 because of poor living conditions.

A few years later, when a group of vandals made off with a boa constrictor and a parrot named 鈥淧eanuts,鈥 officials accused the perpetrators of stealing the animals for 鈥渧oodoo rites.鈥

This photo provided by David Lei shows Flaco the owl atop a water tower, Dec. 25. 2023, in New York.  (Courtesy David Lei via AP)

This photo provided by David Lei shows Flaco the owl, Dec. 25. 2023, in New York. While some have suggested Flaco was targeted for either financial or spiritual purposes, such speculation would seem undermined by the fact that he emerged from his damaged cage and into the bustling cityscape unscathed. (Courtesy David Lei via AP)

Since those days the zoo has been substantially redesigned.

Wildlife groups have long warned that owls can be in certain religious ceremonies 鈥 particularly birds like Flaco, who boasts prominent ear tufts. The Eurasian eagle-owl is also commonly used in falconry, selling for as much as $3,000.

But while some have suggested Flaco was targeted for either financial or spiritual purposes, such speculation would seem undermined by the fact that he emerged from his damaged cage and into the bustling cityscape unscathed.

This photo provided by David Lei shows Flaco the owl perched in a tree, June 19, 2023, in New York. (Courtesy David Lei via AP)

This photo provided by David Lei shows Flaco the owl, June 19, 2023, in New York. One year since his dramatic escape from the Central Park Zoo, Flaco, New York City鈥檚 beloved celebrity owl, is settling into a routine: lounging by day in Manhattan鈥檚 stately courtyards, he spends his nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city鈥檚 abundanant rats. (Courtesy David Lei via AP)

On a recent night on Manhattan鈥檚 Upper West Side, one of the Flaco鈥檚 most dedicated observers, David Barrett, struck an ambivalent tone when asked how New Yorkers should think about the crime that made him an avian celebrity.

鈥淭o me, the folk hero is Flaco,鈥 said Barrett, who runs the X account Manhattan Bird Alert, documenting the bird鈥檚 whereabouts in real time. 鈥淚t鈥檚 an amazing thing: He lives his whole life in captivity and in a matter of days he taught himself to fly and to hunt rats.鈥

Tuning his ears skyward, Barrett listened for the signature hoot that had echoed across Broadway on so many recent nights.

鈥淚t鈥檚 not our business to try to solve crimes,鈥 he added. 鈥淲e鈥檙e just glad he鈥檚 here.鈥

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Associated Press video journalist Ted Shaffrey contributed to this report.

Offenhartz is a general assignment reporter in the New York City bureau of 老澳门六合彩.