Apr 28, 2024

The Life and Death of Flaco the Owl and the Philosophy of Mid Life

By Maureen Elyse Gilbert

This essay was originally published on Marueen’s blog, “Notes from a Midlife Crisis,” and has been lightly edited from the original.

“A ship in a harbour is safe but that's not what ships are built for." John Shedd

Photo by Sonder Quest on Unsplash
Photo by Sonder Quest on Unsplash

Flaco the owl is dead.

For those of you who don’t understand the significance of this news, Flaco was a Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped from the Bronx Zoo in New York City when a vandal cut the mesh of his enclosure. He escaped on Feb 2, 2023 and lived as a free bird in the skies above the city for over a year until he died after striking a building on Friday, Feb 23 on the Upper West Side. 

He was almost 14. In the wild, owls have an average life expectancy of 20 years; in captivity, they can live to be 40. That statistic, which I read in the New York Times article on Flaco, was what inspired this post.

Would it have been better for Flaco to have lived to the ripe old age of 40 in a cage, or did he have a marvelous year of freedom that made his untimely death worth the brevity? Did his terrifying freedom cause him to long for the safety of his enclosure, or did he come alive to the sights and sounds of the wide-open sky and the thrill of having to hunt for his own food?

We obviously can’t know. 

As we contemplate the question, we are effectively asking ourselves the same thing. And I land on the “year of freedom” side of the debate. 

I have had many “Flaco moments.” I once turned down an offer to convert my part-time work as a computer technician for the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, DC, into a permanent position. It was a steady job, with a neat, well laid-out path of GS level raises and career progressions; and it felt like death. I looked around at the old men (because it was all old men at the time) and thought, “Oh my god, if I take this job I’m going to slowly die here.” 

Of course, in retrospect the men were probably in their early 40’s and there is nothing that said I had to make a lifelong career of government work (or that they did, either!). Yet, choices have consequences. It is easy to get comfortable in our “enclosures.” Career switching gets harder and harder the longer we stay. We get accustomed to a certain pay level and trapped by our mortgages or social standings. How many of us, even if a vandal opened our cage, would make the courageous choice to fly away?

When I had my own “Flaco moment,” I took flight. Yet it would be wrong to tell the story with the hindsight of it having worked out. 

As the plane began its final descent into Hong Kong, the gravity of what I had done sank into the pit of my stomach. I was 22, with a backpack and a briefcase as my sole possessions, and I was about to land in a city of seven million strangers. I had dog-eared my copy of Lonely Planet with cheap accommodation options but still hadn’t decided which one to seek shelter in after my long flight. Perhaps if I just hide in the bathroom, I thought, no one will notice me and I could fly back home to Philadelphia. I was scared, and I realized perhaps a little too late that I didn’t have a very solid plan for how to eke out a living, let alone find a job, in a teeming and very expensive city. 

We tell our stories backwards, but we have to live them forward. That’s the problem with life. I could have just as easily died in one of the rat-infested fire traps I crashed in. It happens. For a year, Flaco was hailed as an underdog hero and a symbol of freedom… and now he’s dead. Would those same champions defend his right to freedom if they knew his free life would last less than a year? Would they celebrate his adventure if they truly appreciated how easily a “hero’s journey” can turn into a “cautionary tale?”

As I shared in a previous post, I promise you, I didn’t sit down one day and say, “I know! Wouldn’t it be cool to make a series of life decisions such that I wake up in my early 50’s, single, unemployed and a stranger in a strange land?” My father would say, “That’s what happens when you make bad choices.” In other words, what should I expect when I’ve constantly eschewed the normal career and life trajectory that would (in theory) lead to stability and success? He’s definitely in the camp of “Flaco should have stayed in the zoo, where he would still be alive and well.”

But I’m not sure he would be right. Did I really make bad choices? Is it always fair to judge the merit of the choice by the outcome?

I could have worked for the government all these years and still could have ended up single and unemployed — and yet, I wouldn’t have lived in Hong Kong. I wouldn’t have eaten seafood caught off a junk in the South China Sea. I never would have hiked the Dragon’s Back or watched the sun rise from The Peak.

LT Dreamstime ID 205249690
LT Dreamstime ID 205249690

I was raised to think it's my job to make good decisions.I was raised to think success is the result of having made the right choices.Land the right job; invest in the right ETF; pick the right partner; don’t go running off to foreign countries without a job… I can’t imagine I’m alone in these subconscious beliefs.

However, underneath those assumptions about our choices is an unspoken fear and risk-avoidance strategy. In other words, instead of asking, "Is this the job that's going to stretch and push me and allow me the most growth, even if I get fired," we're really subconsciously seeking a steady paycheck and a solid retirement.Instead of asking, "Does this person make my heart skip a beat when they walk in the room," we're trying to assess if they will be honest and faithful.The reality is that we can never know.

We make choices based on hoped-for outcomes instead of what the experience itself will afford us, regardless of the end result. Isn't the real work the “inside job” of asking yourself, “Even if I get fired, or declare bankruptcy, or get dumped, will I be ok?” Those are more questions I’m asking myself.

At the heart of my midlife inquiry is a search for meaning. It’s a deep questioning of what makes a life “good enough.” How does one balance the needs for freedom and for stability? Can you have connection and community without deep roots somewhere? Will my future self, the old lady in the mirror, be happy with the choices I made, or will she have regrets?

I am sad that Flaco is dead. The residents of New York City are perhaps the saddest. How many of them would get a glimpse of him flying above the traffic and, for a brief moment, wonder what their lives might be like if they too got out of their mesh enclosures?

We will never know what the last year of Flaco’s life was like. Was he happy (if owls can feel such emotions), or did he regret his decision to leave the enclosure? 

The reality is that we can never know.

But I do know this: The wingspan of Eurasian eagle owls is two meters. 

Two meters!

Clearly, these birds were built to fly.

Dreamstime ID 31015467
Dreamstime ID 31015467

Maureen is a serial entrepreneur and self-identified "knowmad" who has lived in eight countries. She is an author, speaker, business mentor, and mom to two amazing humans!

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