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Christian Cooper Could Charm the Birds From the Trees

Froma Harrop on

The mere mention of some people's names brings a smile to my face. Christian Cooper's brings several.

"My name is Christian Cooper, and I am a birder," is how he opens his National Geographic series "Extraordinary Birder."

I've done some "lite" birdwatching in my time but still didn't expect Cooper's ornithological tours to be so addictive. He's a great explainer who brings warmth and humor to deeply scientific subjects. And he has that gorgeous National Geographic photography to back him up.

But it was a very different and ugly circumstance in 2020 that first delivered fame to this former Marvel Comics editor. Cooper was birding in a wild corner of New York's Central Park when he came upon a woman whose dog was not on its leash, as the law requires.

When he asked her to leash the dog, she threatened to call the police on him. You see, Cooper is Black, and the woman, Amy Cooper (no relation), is white.

"I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life," Cooper said she told him. He said go ahead, and videoed her lifting her dog by the collar.

 

The New York City police arrived and quickly figured out what Amy was up to -- trying to use a racial stereotype to exact revenge on someone who called her out for breaking a park rule. They called animal rescue, which briefly took the dog away.

When the real story got out, Amy started getting death threats. Christian urged people on social media to stop harassing her. Amy had issued an apology, which he accepted. While recognizing the racism behind her action, he generously attributed it to "spectacularly poor judgement." She was clearly not entirely well in the head.

Who among us would have been able to exhibit such self-control? That, Christian's warm charm and his obvious expertise on birds led to his National Geographic series. The second episode, about the birds in New York City, featured a brief shot of the field in Central Park where the conflict took place and made a reference to it so indirect that most in the audience probably wouldn't have caught it.

"My dad was a biology teacher and gave me my first pair of binoculars when I was 10 years old," Cooper says at the opening of his series. That's how he became a lifelong birder -- and undoubtedly developed his teaching skills.

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