Flaco the Owl Died With Rat Poison and Deadly Virus in His System

Julie Larsen Maher via Central Park Zoo
Julie Larsen Maher via Central Park Zoo

Flaco, the late Eurasian eagle-owl who flew free around Manhattan for a year after his unlikely escape from the Central Park Zoo, had significant amounts of rat poison and a pigeon virus in his system at the time of his death last month, according to a post-mortem necropsy report.

The owl was found with fatal injuries in an Upper West Side courtyard, having apparently flown into a building. Veterinary pathologists at the Bronx Zoo indeed found “acute trauma” on the animal’s body, according to a statement released Monday by the Central Park Zoo, but they also discovered he had “two significant underlying conditions” that may have indirectly caused his death.

“He had a severe pigeon herpesvirus from eating feral pigeons that had become part of his diet, and exposure to four different anticoagulant rodenticides that are commonly used for rat control in New York City,” the zoo said. “These factors would have been debilitating and ultimately fatal, even without a traumatic injury, and may have predisposed him to flying into or falling from the building.”

After picking up the herpesvirus from eating pigeons, Flaco’s infection spread to many of his organs, causing “severe tissue damage and inflammation” to his spleen, liver, gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, and brain.

Toxicology testing also revealed that the bird had trace amounts of DDE—a byproduct of the pesticide DDT—in his system upon his death, but not in significant enough levels to have contributed to his death. “Extensive testing” failed to reveal any other contributing factors, the zoo said.

“Flaco’s severe illness and death are ultimately attributed to a combination of factors—infectious disease, toxin exposures, and traumatic injuries—that underscore the hazards faced by wild birds, especially in an urban setting,” it said.

Flaco would have turned 14 this month, according to The New York Times. Hatched in North Carolina in 2010, he was brought to New York City as a fledgling less than two months old. He wouldn’t become a beloved city character until early last February, however, when a perpetrator slipped into the zoo under cover of darkness and cut a hole in the side of his mesh enclosure.

Flaco broke free and quickly became a favorite of Manhattan birders, who delighted in tracking his movements around the borough. Two weeks later, zoo officials announced they were suspending efforts to recapture the owl.

His death came just three weeks after the one-year anniversary of his liberation. Initial necropsy findings released by the zoo a day after his Feb. 23 death revealed that Flaco had been in good condition at the time, with “good muscling and adequate fat stores.” The results were consistent with death due to acute traumatic injury, however, with signs of substantial hemorrhage under his sternum and near his liver. No evidence of head trauma, beyond a small amount of bleeding behind his left eye, was detected.

In a statement announcing Flaco’s death, the Central Park Zoo pointed the finger at the unidentified vandal who shredded his exhibit, saying they “jeopardized the safety of the bird and [are] ultimately responsible for his death.” The zoo said it remained hopeful that New York City police could make an arrest in the case, which remains open.

An online petition launched in the days after his death called for authorities to double down on the investigation and hold those responsible to account.

“Despite demonstrating remarkable adaptability and becoming a symbol of resilience, Flaco’s life was ultimately cut short,” the petition reads, adding later, “Our wildlife deserves better.” As of Monday, it had accumulated more than 48,000 signatures.

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