Racially Profiled Black Gay Birder Speaks Out

Christian Cooper, in a typical pose bird watching.
Facebook/ Christian Cooper

Two days after a routine visit to Central Park to engage in his passionate hobby of birding, Christian Cooper appeared on Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s “Gay USA” and reflected on his feelings about how an encounter with a woman who wouldn’t leash her dog turned into a global news story.

“It’s stressful,” the out gay African-American man, who sits on the board of Audubon New York City, told “Gay USA” hosts Ann Northrop and Andy Humm.

“I was a bit rattled,” he added about the confrontation that blew up in the park.

On the morning of May 25, Cooper was in the park’s Ramble when he ran into Amy Cooper, an investment banker with Franklin Templeton, who had her dog off leash. When Christian pointed to a sign stating that dogs must always be leashed in that ecologically sensitive part of the park, the confrontation quickly escalated to the point where Amy called the police to make the false report that “an African-American man is threatening me and my dog.” Using his iPhone, Christian filmed Amy as she warned she would call the cops and then proceeded to do so.

He stopped filming when Amy leashed the dog, and then Christian continued on his way, never seeing if the police responded to Amy’s call. A day later, after Christian’s video clip appeared online, Amy had to surrender the dog, who was a rescue, to Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue, and she was fired by Franklin Templeton.

In a tweet, the company said, “Following our internal review of the incident in Central Park yesterday, we have made the decision to terminate the employee involved, effective immediately. We do not tolerate racism of any kind.”

In Christian’s appearance on “Gay USA,” he explained that disputes between birders and dog owners who don’t follow the park’s leash rules are common. What he didn’t expect, he said, was the “racist turn” the encounter took.
Christian, who was among the subjects featured in the 2012 HBO documentary “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” explained that as birds migrate north in the spring, Central Park beckons them as an oasis of green amidst a concrete and glass island.

“Central Park aggregates the birds,” he said. “People come from all over the world to bird-watch. The Ramble is a top herding spot.”

The Ramble, in particular, he explained, is “such a sensitive area” as a bird habitat given the array of plantings that are there — plantings that can easily be disturbed by dogs romping through them.

In Christian’s recounting of the event, he advised Amy to take her dog to another part of the park where she could “let him run off leash all you want.”
Amy responded, “It’s too dangerous.”

At that point, Christian said, “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it,” and Amy responded, “What’s that?”

Christian explained that he next did what he does whenever he encounters “such intransigence” about dogs off leash: he took out treats to lure the animal over to him. At that point, Amy said, “Don’t touch my dog,” and Christian began recording with his phone.

“I decided to videotape her intransigent behavior,” he said, explaining that birders often encourage each other to record evidence of non-compliance by dog owners in order to prevail on park officials to enforce their own rules. “This has been going on for years.”

He added, “Up until then it was conflict between a bird watcher and a dog walker with their dog off leash.”

But Amy began approaching Christian, telling him to stop filming, and he responded by asking that she not break COVID-19 social distancing rules.

It was at this point that Amy, having moved well away from Christian, said, “I’m going to call the cops. I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

And, in a brief call with 911, Amy, in ever more frantic tones, said that an African-American man was threatening her and her dog. While she was still on the line, she finally got the leash on her dog, and Christian said, “Thank you,” and stop recording.

Christian’s sister, Melody Cooper, posted the video recording, which lasted just over a minute, on Twitter early in the afternoon that same day. The Internet exploded, and as of May 27 the clip has been viewed nearly 42 million times.

“Her life went from normal to collapsed in about 60 seconds,” Christian said on “Gay USA.” “For a lapse of judgment, a serious lapse of judgment, one that turned racist.”

Cooper — who was also a board member at GLAAD many years ago in its grassroots, New York-focused days, was engaged as an activist for years trying to flip control of the New York State Senate to the Democrats, and, while at Marvel Comics two decades ago, created the first gay character in the “Star Trek” comic series — reflected on how the whole ugly incident has turned out.

“I have very mixed feelings about the consequences for her, whether it’s proportional,” he told Northrop and Humm. “I imagine she was trying to get a leg up in the confrontation… But she went to a racist place.”

But beyond the actions by and consequences for Amy Cooper, Christian Cooper looked to the bigger question at hand.

“How do we start to address the underlying issues that led her there?,” he asked.