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Fugitive flamingo thriving in Texas 17 years after escaping Kansas zoo

Flamingos, none of which is the infamous fugitive Flamingo No. 492, on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in January 2021. (Petros Karadjias/AP)
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It was a blustery evening in central Kansas in 2005 when the flamingos saw a chance to make their jailbreak.

The Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita was in the process of clipping the wings of a flock of the exotic birds to keep them from flying away. But when strong gusts of wind blew through, two birds waiting for their turn discovered they could get enough lift to escape captivity once and for all.

“It is a black eye, to be honest,” Scott Newland, then the zoo’s curator of birds, told the Wichita Eagle in 2013. “It was basically an error. We are not fond of this story.”

Seventeen years later, one of the fugitive flamingos — nicknamed Pink Floyd for his (or her?) pink and white hues — appears to have turned up in a bay near Port Lavaca on Texas’s Gulf Coast, calmly meandering along the shore as seagulls putter around nearby.

A video captured by a bystander is not shot from close enough for officials from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to read the number on the bird’s leg tag. But Julie Hagen, a social media specialist for the agency, said Flamingo No. 492 is the only bird of its kind known to live on the Texas coast.

The sighting this month, in an area without native flamingos, isn’t as surprising as it may sound. Pink Floyd has been spotted annually in Texas since 2018, Hagen said, and has also been seen in neighboring Louisiana. The other liberated bird was spotted once in Minnesota and has not been seen since.

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The zoo has no intention of trying to recapture Flamingo No. 492. Jennica King, a spokeswoman for the facility, said its staff has accepted that the bird appears destined to live out the rest of its days in Texas.

Plus, attempting to extricate the flamingo from its current habitat could do more harm than good.

“It would only disturb wildlife where it’s been found and possibly could do more damage to the bird than just leaving him alone,” Christan Baumer, then a spokeswoman for the zoo, told the Associated Press in 2007.

Pink Floyd was among a few dozen wild flamingos to arrive at the zoo from Africa in 2003. So while it made sense that the bird was accustomed to flying, zoo officials were impressed by the distance it traveled when it first appeared near Corpus Christi, Tex., three years later.

“The 600-mile journey it took to get to [Aransas County, Tex.] is kind of surprising,” Joe Barkowski, then the zoo’s curator of birds, told the AP at the time. “We’re not seeing migrations of that distance a lot.”

At one point, Pink Floyd was hanging around with a bright pink Caribbean flamingo whose leg tag identified it as part of a flock from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The zoo is not sure whether this bird and Pink Floyd are just friends or something more.

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Pink Floyd has proved to be somewhat of a mysterious creature in other ways, too. The flamingo’s escape came before zoo employees could test its blood to determine its sex, though it is suspected to be male.

Its exact age is also unclear. Pink Floyd is believed to have been between 3 and 5 years old when it fled, King said, so it would be roughly 20 now. Flamingos can survive for 40 to 60 years.

Despite the zoo’s current live-and-let-live attitude, it did initially try to get Pink Floyd back. After the pair of flamingos first escaped, employees saw them wandering near a flood drainage area on the zoo’s property. But they couldn’t get closer than 50 feet before the birds would take off.

“Flamingos are very smart and very capable, and he just didn’t want to be retrieved,” King said of Pink Floyd.

At least one other flamingo has made a daring escape from captivity. That bird, also nicknamed Pink Floyd, escaped from a zoo in Salt Lake City in 1988 and lived in the Great Salt Lake. It was last seen in 2005, a Utah Fox affiliate reported last year.

Sedgwick County Zoo officials aren’t sure how their Pink Floyd ended up in Texas. Maybe the storm blew the bird that way, King said, or maybe it instinctively knew how to reach a warm climate close to water.

Whatever the case, zoo employees have come a long way from their initial embarrassment about Pink Floyd’s unsanctioned flight.

“Now we’re able to look back on it with some humor,” King said, “and say, ‘Good for him. He’s living his best life down in Texas.’ ”