Christian Cooper's 'Better Living Through Birding'

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday August 1, 2023
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Author Christian Cooper (photo: National Geographic)
Author Christian Cooper (photo: National Geographic)

One of the more memorable entries in the "When Karens Attack" rage reel features a May 2020 Manhattan incident when a young white dogwalker named Amy Cooper, (no relation) in Central Park's Ramble area verbally accosted a Black man after he requested that she leash her dog (which is required in that area). She then called police-emergency and manufactured a false scenario that he'd threatened her and her dog's life.

That man was Christian Cooper, a hardcore native New Yorker bird enthusiast, and his life would never be the same after that racially charged encounter, which, incidentally, occurred on the same day as the arrest and murder of George Floyd.

Cooper's smart cell phone surveillance documented the incident that sealed the doom for the now-infamous racist dog walker who was charged with filing a false police report. It was a moment when Cooper's "choices would be informed by a lifetime of being Black, queer, and even a nerd."

Thrust into the media spotlight, Cooper's name became known nationwide. His engrossing memoir, "Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World," chronicles his life as the first openly gay writer and editor at Marvel Studios and his experiences introducing the first gay male superhero to the franchise in the early 1990s, as well as a character in the "Starfleet Academy: Star Trek" series.

Author Christian Cooper (photo: National Geographic)  

The book also delves into his early history as a boy born on Long Island in 1963 to parents who were both teachers and veterans of the civil rights movement.
"I had to grow comfortable in my own Black skin in a white world, in my own rainbow-queer body in an era when sexuality was only seen in black and white."

Cooper writes eloquently and passionately of his early discovery of bird-watching and how it became a lifelong interest. Other stories are not so pleasant, like one of his first college roommates at Harvard who hung a Confederate flag in the dorm suite he shared with three young men. But Cooper was and continues to be resilient, reflecting that the college moment became a learning opportunity for his roommates and he eventually came out to all of them as queer.

His history in LGBTQ activism is long and impressive and extends back decades to when he was co-chair on the board of directors for GLAAD in the 1980s.

Across the decades of Cooper's life, birding became a consistent source of solace and internal peace. He openly shares moments of a failed marriage, rocky relationships, a long-overdue reconciliation with his father, and crushing family deaths. Throughout it all, Cooper admits, "the Ramble is now my companion, and though it doesn't have more than twenty warblers for me today, it finds other ways to move me."

Additionally, Cooper has since channeled his accidental fame into creative causes for good including a comic book, "It's a Bird," a National Geographic television program which he hosts, and the creation of Black Birders Week, a week-long series of online bird-watching events.

Back in 2020, however, while the Central Park incident itself continued to reverberate through the nation's conscience, Cooper notes in the memoir's closing chapters of his surprising refusal to assist in the Manhattan District Attorney's investigation. He candidly discloses that he didn't want the ordeal to cause Amy Cooper any further misery.

He decided to instead remain dedicated to the larger issue of systemic racism and still stands staunchly committed to addressing and working to alleviate the "deep-seated racial bias against us black and brown folk that permeates the United States."

'Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World' by Christian Cooper; Random House, $28.

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