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‘We all connected over Flaco’: artists turn beloved animals into symbols of their US cities
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‘We all connected over Flaco’: artists turn beloved animals into symbols of their US cities

Working near Central Park, one New Yorker regularly witnessed one of its most beloved residents: Flaco the owl, who became a celebrity after escaping the nearby zoo. The woman took the bird’s message to heart, re-evaluated her life and decided to quit her job. Now, she’s one of dozens with a Flaco tattoo.

“They’ll be walking around the rest of their lives, that name and owl on their arm,” says Duke Riley, an environmental artist who spearheaded a special sale at his tattoo parlor this month. Customers flocked to East River Tattoo in Brooklyn, where, for $150, they could walk away with ink memorializing Flaco. The line stretched around the block, Riley says.

Owl tattoo on woman’s armView image in fullscreen

A month earlier, the bird’s well-wishers had gathered in Central Park for a memorial service, featuring speeches, poetry and music inspired by him. It was the second Central Park owl memorial service in three years – in 2021, the death of a barred owl named Barry also drew mourners to the park. In between, 6,000 people met at Los Angeles’s Greek Theatre in Griffith Park to celebrate the life of P-22, the park’s beloved mountain lion, at an event that sold out in hours.

Wild animal celebrities have long existed – and been memorialized – worldwide, from Huberta the Hippo, who was taxidermied after poachers killed her in 1931, to Cecil the Lion, whose 2015 death at the hands of an American hunter prompted international tributes. But for America’s urban wildlife, the past few years seem to have inspired particular devotion.

The obvious explanation is social media. Twitter updates from David Barrett, who runs the @BirdsCentralPark account, were essential to followers of both owls. His posts updated Flaco’s and Barry’s fans about the birds’ locations, sending birdwatchers hurrying to the sites and helping to create a community of enthusiasts. And the platforms offer easy distribution of the most compelling wildlife photography – a skill traditional media outlets don’t necessarily have, Barrett says.

But there’s more to it than tech. “We urban dwellers want to have some nature in our lives,” Barrett says. “It’s something that is in short supply.”

Those behind the memorials see a particular resonance in city wildlife.

Riley says as the climate crisis continues, “people feel this helplessness on a personal level”. So when nature defies our efforts to control it, there’s something “cathartic and beautiful and poetic about that”.

cartoony painting of flaco’s face on the side of a restaurant’s outdoor portionView image in fullscreen

That was certainly the case with Flaco, a Eurasian eagle owl who spent most of his 13 years in the Central Park Zoo, before someone cut open his enclosure in February 2023. At first, the zoo tried to recapture him, fearing for his safety in the wild. But as any New Yorker knows, there are plenty of rats to eat in Central Park, and Flaco spent a year as a free bird.

He died this February in a collision with a building – though he was also suffering from rat poison and a pigeon virus. Barry, too, had a possibly lethal amount of rat poison in her body when she died in a collision with a maintenance vehicle; the poison may have affected her flying ability.

But their deaths only strengthened their bonds with the city. They may have been different species, but their experiences felt familiar. “I think there are a lot of people that relate to the owl’s experience on a human level, that are struggling to get by in this town,” Riley says. “You’re trying to scratch out a little bit of freedom in a town where people are often sitting in a cubicle all day.”

Breanne Delgado, who officiated the memorial for Flaco, agrees we all share a similar struggle. As the world was reopening to humans, it also opened for the once-captive Flaco. “It just really made me think about the parallels to this moment for us as humans, right: what is our true nature? Is it being behind a screen 10, 12 hours a day? Is it being in a fluorescent lighting office building 40 hours plus a week?” Flaco struggled at first but eventually triumphed: “He found his goldmine, the oak tree over by the compost heap,” where rats were abundant. Ultimately, he became a “symbol of liberation”.

Just as Flaco and Barry were true New Yorkers, P-22 had a classic LA story. The mountain lion arrived in Griffith Park an outsider, having traveled 20 miles from his native Santa Monica Mountains to reach the city, where he stuck it out despite the odds. “He was alone, and LA can be a very lonely place,” says Corie Mattie, who has created three murals of P-22 and is working on a fourth. Like him, she arrived in the city not knowing anyone and trying to create a life for herself.

Woman stands in front of a painting on a building wall with a picture of p-22 and the phrase “keep LA wild”View image in fullscreen

Mattie’s P-22 artwork began with a personal encounter. The mountain lion was lying in her brother’s backyard and she mistook him for her brother’s labrador: “I was like: ‘His tail is longer than I remember.’ And then he turned around and we both ran in opposite directions.” She captured footage of the incident, drew a picture of him and posted it online; it went viral. She created her first mural of P-22 while he was still alive: a black-and-white image of his face next to the words “Peace, Love & P-22”. The others feature the slogans “Long live the king” and “Keep LA wild”.

She’s not the only artist inspired by the mountain lion. Walking around the city in the weeks after his death meant seeing P-22 T-shirts and guerrilla images spray-painted along the sidewalk.

graffiti says RIP P-22 and has a stenciled painting of the mountain lion, on a metal box on a city streetView image in fullscreen

It has all fueled a sense of unity in the country’s two biggest cities. “People are feeling disconnected and they’re looking for something to bring people together,” says Delgado. “We all just connected over Flaco” – an alternative to a narrative of “doom and gloom”.

“When he was alive, P-22 showed us perseverance,” Mattie says. “When he died, he showed us what community means.”

Source: theguardian.com