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The death of Flaco, a little over a year after the Eurasian eagle owl was let loose in an act of vandalism from New York’s Central Park Zoo, has evoked an extraordinary outpouring of emotion.

Some decried the vandal who released the bird into a treacherous wilds of Manhattan, where he was threatened by predators, reflective windows, cars, disease-infected pigeons and rat poison. But many others railed against the cruelty of confining the bird to a cage for people to gawk at.

Anthropomorphism was, not surprisingly, widespread. Flaco, for many, was a symbol of freedom in a world where we’re all entrapped in Weber’s iron cages: “Free for one year, in my opinion, is better than imprisoned for your first 14 years or 40 years.”

Many cried out over the poignant fact that “as a nonnative species, he was destined never to find a mate”—and often hooted “into the post-midnight darkness for hours to … declare his interest in breeding.”

For many commentators, his story was a metaphor about living things’ innate yearning for freedom and humanity’s broken relationship with nature.

As one comment put it, “I think we owe nothing but gratitude to the person/persons who did this act of kindness and gave all New Yorkers and Flaco a priceless gift.”

In writing about Flaco, many made it clear that the owl’s plight was also humanity’s plight, part of a much larger existential longing: “People crave connections to nature beyond zoos, cages, regimented environments.”

Another observer wrote at length,

“This city is full of birds, most of whom live and die without our ever noticing. Including other owls, some of them quite large. He was alone and that made him special. Charismatic, romantic and tragic. He never got to live out his proper life cycle. That course was blocked to him from the moment of his hatching.

“Imagine being able to traverse the world through the air, looking down on us earthbound creatures, little specks on the ground below.

“He was already more than halfway through his likely life span as a wild bird when he found himself able to make choices. His instincts, which had always been there, frustrated, unfulfilled, compelled him. He learned to fly. He learned to hunt. He learned to navigate an environment alien to most of his ancestors (though some eagle owls do live in parks within European cities, just as their cousins do here.)

“His alternative was to return to the zoo, wait for someone to feed him. We still speculate on how volitive the actions of our fellow creatures are. But I’d say it’s pretty clear that in this, he did make a choice. No. Thank you. I’m free.

“Not an ideal life. Is spending your entire existence in a small enclosure, alone, being gawked at, a life?”

Let me add yet another long quote that offers a contrasting perspective:

“Flaco needed to survive, and he needed to be in an environment his genes were honed for over thousands of years. He also needed the company of his own species. His so-called freedom was sad and confusing. What he experienced was not freedom. This was not a fairy tale or some Disney story. We want to put a happy spin on what happened to Flaco, but it wasn’t a happy story. He was well cared for by knowledgeable people. The whole episode was just unfortunate for this bird. That is what we should learn from Flaco.

“This was no fairy tale. This poor kid was probably confused and lonely. But as well intentioned and knowledgeable as his caretakers were, a small display cage is definitely NOT the way to properly care for a bird like Flaco. If a bird has to be in captivity, the very least they need is a flight cage. He should have been transferred to a proper bird sanctuary in a more native environment. He was sad and lonely in captivity, too. Safe doesn’t equal happy.”

The human capacity for compassion is not infinite. Roughly 230,000 birds die in New York City each year, almost all unmourned. Nationwide, some 200 million birds die each year after crashing into windows. Currently, as one writer noted, the forest service in Washington State plans kill tens of thousands of barred owls over the next few years in order to protect the native spotted owl. That commentator likens this extermination campaign to an earlier effort to curb the population of starlings, “which were imported by whimsical people wishing to populate the area with all the birds in Shakespeare.”

Many of the comments about Flaco involved the ethics of placing animals in zoos. Proponents argue that zoos play a crucial role in conserving endangered species and serve as valuable educational resources, providing the public, especially children, with the opportunity to learn about animals, their habitats and the importance of conservation efforts. This can foster a sense of connection to and responsibility for the natural world.

Critics, in response, argue that keeping animals in captivity is inherently unethical, depriving them of their natural freedom and the ability to engage in instinctual behaviors over a large territory. This can lead to physical and psychological distress for the animals. Also, many zoo enclosures, like Flaco’s cage, offer limited space and fail to meet the animals’ needs. This can result in visible signs of distress and abnormal behaviors in animals, such as pacing and self-harm. Still other critics argue that conservation efforts should focus on protecting natural habitats and ecosystems and that observing animals in artificial environments can convey misleading information about their natural behaviors, habitats and the challenges they face in the wild.

Why, we might well ask, does the death of a single bird evoke so much emotion?

Empathy is surely part of the answer. Even for zoo animals with whom individuals might not have a direct personal relationship, people can still feel a sense of connection, particularly if they have observed the animal over time or learned about its story. Then there’s anthropomorphism, attributing to animals human traits and emotions.

Then, too, Flaco’s death prompts reflections on mortality and awareness of the fragility of life. Like children, animals are often seen as innocent and undeserving of suffering or premature death, which can make their demise seem particularly tragic and unjust.

But something else is going on, I would submit: the loss of a framework for understanding death, the lack of social rituals for mourning and the tendency to treat death as an individual and not as a collective loss. We inhabit a society that has few collective ways to mourn and process death. This lack of acknowledgment can exacerbate the feeling of loss, as individuals may feel their grief is not fully recognized, shared or understood by society.

Flaco’s death inevitably brings to mind Hegel’s metaphor in the preface to his Philosophy of Right. He wrote, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Hegel’s metaphor suggests that wisdom (represented by Minerva’s owl, a symbol of wisdom in Greek mythology) only takes flight at dusk, implying that philosophical understanding or reflection comes after events have occurred, not before.

It’s a commentary on the nature of philosophy’s ability to comprehend and interpret the world, indicating that understanding and theorizing about history or reality comes only after those events have already unfolded. All philosophical and historical analysis and understanding takes place retrospectively.

There is a phrase commonly attributed to Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, who is widely considered the father of existentialism: “we live life forward but understand it backward.” While the phrase can’t be found verbatim in Kierkegaard’s writings, it does encapsulate his stance: that our understanding of life’s events and our own actions gains clarity only when we look back upon them, even though we must act in the moment without the benefit of such clarity. This concept is part of his broader philosophical project, which sought to confront the complexities of existential freedom, ethical living and the pursuit of authentic existence. Thus, we must make a leap of faith to live fully despite uncertainty.

Yes, we see life “through a glass, darkly.” The phrase, from the first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 12, reads, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

In this context, “a glass” refers to a mirror, and “darkly” suggests in an obscure or unclear manner. Mirrors in ancient times were made of polished metal and did not provide as clear a reflection as modern mirrors. Thus, the phrase metaphorically means that our current understanding and perception of spiritual truths and the divine are imperfect and incomplete.

The apostle Paul is expressing the idea that in our mortal lives, our knowledge and understanding of divine matters are limited and unclear, like looking into a dimly lit, imperfect mirror. However, he expresses hope that in the future—implying the afterlife or the coming of God’s kingdom—believers will see things clearly and fully understand God’s truths, as if seeing face-to-face.

Thus, our current understanding of life, the universe or complex situations is limited, and a clearer, more complete understanding will be revealed in time or in the afterlife.

One commentator made this point with words that I consider especially touching: “My mom has always said that birds live sad, hard lives and that maybe it is the price they pay for being able to fly.”

Let me conclude with yet another metaphor. The phrase “I know why the caged bird sings” famously comes from Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography. In the context of Angelou’s work, the “caged bird” represents individuals who face oppression and confinement—whether physical, emotional or societal—yet still manage to express themselves, maintain hope and assert their identity. The song of the caged bird, despite its imprisonment, symbolizes resilience, a longing for freedom and the innate urge to voice one’s existence and resistance against oppression.

This metaphor can be traced back even further to a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, titled “Sympathy,” which Angelou acknowledges as an inspiration. Dunbar’s poem, written in 1899, also uses the caged bird as a symbol for the African American experience of slavery and segregation, expressing the pain of captivity and the bird’s unstoppable desire to sing.

The singing of the caged bird, therefore, is an act of resistance and survival. It is a testament to the strength of the spirit in the face of hardship. The bird sings because it retains hope and desires freedom; its song is both a declaration of its existence and a call to be recognized as a being with desires, dreams and a right to freedom. This metaphor extends beyond any single group’s experience to encompass universal themes of struggle, resilience and the longing for liberation.

So, fly, majestic owl, fly high, strong and free. Take flight at dusk in bird Valhalla and watch over us great and small.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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