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NYTimes
New York Times
24 Feb 2024
Michiko Kakutani


NextImg:The Ballad of Flaco, the Outlaw Who Learned to Fly

The Ballad of Flaco, the Outlaw Who Learned to Fly

Video
CreditCredit...Videos by Jenifer P. Borum (first two) and David Barrett

The Times’s longtime literary critic says that like all great outlaw-heroes, the escaped Eurasian eagle-owl tapped into our desire to see an underdog claim his freedom.


“The Ballad of Flaco” began with a tear in the fence of a small Central Park Zoo enclosure the size of a bathroom, and then, after nearly 13 years in captivity, in the memorable words of the late-night host Seth Meyers, “Flaco shawshanked out of that cage.”

As Flaco embraced his new freedom, New Yorkers marveled at the ability of this bird — whose entire existence had been scripted since he hatched at an avian breeding center in 2010 — to achieve that very American feat of writing a second act to his life.

Flaco’s jailbreak and new life on the lam cast him in the role of outlaw — a beloved figure in American movies from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to “The Fugitive” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”

In fact, Flaco’s story weirdly embodies many of the elements that the scholar Richard E. Meyer identified in narratives about “the American outlaw-hero”: a “good-natured, kindhearted” but redoubtable protagonist who represents the untamed “individualistic values of a lost frontier”; a plotline featuring a “miraculous escape” from “a jail which is supposedly escape-proof”; and other daring exploits in which the outgunned hero defies expectations and outwits authorities, often with the help of loyal supporters.

ImageFlaco the owl perched on a baseball field fence at sunset.
Credit...Anke Frohlich

American folk songs celebrated Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd as swashbuckling heroes who stood up to an unjust system. Country music stars like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard made life behind bars a metaphor for the costs of being held captive by love or circumstance. In the 1990s, artists like Snoop Dogg and Nas began demonstrating the power and remarkable elasticity of the prison rap song, and more recently, “First Day Out” tracks — released upon a rapper’s release from prison — have gained recognition as anthems of freedom or defiance.


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