The Ramble. Photo by gigi_nyc.
By Michael McDowell
On May 25, a video taken by Chris Cooper went viral. Chris Cooper, who is Black, was out birding in the Ramble, in Central Park. Amy Cooper, who is White, was walking her dog, off-leash, an activity which is not permitted in the Ramble.
After Chris asked Amy to leash her dog, Amy threatened to call the police, and then did so, repeatedly telling them a Black man was threatening her. Amy Cooper has since lost her job, and briefly, also her dog.
The most important takeaway from the conflict was that calling police on a Black man on trumped-up grounds has dangerous — sometimes deadly — consequences. But a subplot of that interaction also resonated with Upper West Siders: birdwatchers and dog owners have been in a passive-aggressive turf war for years, a battle which has escalated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This event was really quite disturbing on many levels, and having had run-ins myself with dog walkers breaking the law in Central Park, I’m firmly in Chris’s corner concerning the incident,” said Ken Chaya, a well-known New York City birder and urban naturalist.
“It was only a matter of time before the situation between birders and dog walkers turned ugly, and now it has,” he added.
While Central Park is greenspace for all New Yorkers to relish, it is a particularly important destination for migratory birds.
“Central Park sits right on the Atlantic Flyway, one of the busiest migration routes in North America. Millions of birds stream through our neighborhood twice every year,” Chaya explained.
“These tiny birds, they’re hungry, they’re tired, the sun is coming up”—most birds migrate at night—“and they look down and what do they see? A huge grey metropolis. What are they going to do? They need food, they need rest, and they see this little green strip. I call Central Park the landing strip, and that’s where the birds go,” he said.
During migration, Central Park is like nowhere else in the world. There’s even a movie, “The Central Park Effect.” It features Chris Cooper.
“I can see about 280 species in Central Park each year,” Chaya continued. “When I tell birders from Florida I get 30 species of warbler in one city park, they can’t believe it. Name a city park where you see 30 species of warblers?” he asked. “You can’t do it!”
A woodland, the Ramble is particularly attractive to birds and the birders who follow them. Dogs are permitted, but must always be leashed, as they disrupt wildlife—especially birds—and thus, birders.
“We’re not telling dog owners they can’t walk their dogs in the Park, we’re just asking them to keep their dogs on the leash in the woodlands,” he said.
Exchanges between birders and scofflaws walking their dogs sans leash in the Ramble (and elsewhere) are predictably unproductive.
“Whenever one New Yorker tells another New Yorker what they should be doing, you’re really setting yourself up for an uncomfortable situation or an exercise in futility,” Chaya said.
Tensions have escalated during the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the closure of dog runs citywide, meaning neighbors who typically meet human friends and dog friends at dog runs are navigating unfamiliar terrain. Often, that’s Central Park, where off-leash walks are permitted before 9 a.m, and after 9 p.m. Similar guidelines apply in Riverside Park.
“The incident itself, before it turned racial, was something that was very typical on the Upper West Side,” said Amanda Gagnon, founder and head trainer at Amanda Gagnon Dog Training, on 85th Street and Columbus Avenue.
“People see their dogs as an extension of themselves. When you’re being criticized for something that you and your dog are doing, you take it personally, and your tendency is to get very offended,” Gagnon said. “Dog owners are very passionate, dog walkers are very passionate, and people who use the park for other things are very passionate, and so we bicker.”
Gagnon supports off-leash walks, in designated spaces.
“Dogs who have the opportunity to be off-leash and afforded certain freedoms on a regular basis tend to be better behaved and less frustrated. People sometimes forget that dogs aren’t inanimate objects, they are sentient beings. They need to be able to have freedom. Freedom comes with risk, and freedom comes with responsibility.”
Humans and dogs aren’t so different, after all.
“What we know about learning theory is that punitive aversive punishment isn’t very effective, except in creating anxiety and more aggressive behaviors,” Gagnon said. “We try to stay away from using aversive techniques. Instead, we use a reward system, but it has to be something that the animal considers rewarding. That’s easy when it comes to dogs, but it gets really complicated when it comes to people. If we could find a way to give people the things they want, for kind and caring behavior, we might have world peace.”
Dog-derived insights have led Elaine Boxer, of the Bull Moose Dog Run Community Association (BMDRCA), toward community activism.
“When this is all over I have to decide whether to give my energy to racial equality or fixing capital projects in New York City,” Boxer told the Rag.
The dog run group resuscitated the renovation of Bull Moose, located in Theodore Roosevelt Park adjacent the Museum of Natural History, which had been delayed for nearly a decade. Although work is on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Boxer told the Rag she believes the renovation of the dog run will be completed in July.
“Shepherding the dog run project gave me practice and perspective in how to engage productively with government as a citizen, and when all of this news started to hit [about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests], I actually thought, this isn’t some abstraction,” she said.
“Policing is local, and as we’re watching all of this national news, the best thing that each of us can do is communicate locally, and what I don’t want to see is cops kneeling on people’s necks. What I want to see is a comprehensive plan to ensure that this doesn’t happen here.”
“The 20th Precinct is my local channel. My experience communicating with government on the dog run taught me that if you look for those channels, they are there. They may not be perfect, but if you don’t use those channels, you can kind of be faulted for not being part of the solution.”
As the coronavirus ebbs—for now—and restrictions are lifted, warm weather will draw more and more visitors to Central Park. What of the Ramble?
“This is our ecosystem, we’re part of it. Our parks, our greenspaces, our water, these are vitally important, and we have to learn how to share those things better,” said Ken Chaya.
“I have asked dog walkers to put their dog on a leash, and they’ve responded appropriately, and I salute them.”