A cellphone video has gone viral and is sparking widespread outrage after capturing a white dog owner calling 911 and claiming an African American birdwatcher who told her to keep her pet leashed was "threatening myself and my dog" in New York City's Central Park.
The confrontation occurred on Memorial Day in a wooded area of the urban oasis known as the Ramble, a popular destination for wildlife fans looking to spot rare birds. By Tuesday morning the dog owner had returned her pet to the rescue shelter she adopted it from, was fired from her job at the Franklin Templeton investment firm, and issued an apology for her behavior in an interview with CNN.
"Following our internal review of the incident in Central Park yesterday, we have made the decision to terminate the employee involved, effective immediately," Franklin Templeton said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. "We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton."
After viewing the viral video of the incident, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio described it in a Twitter post on Tuesday morning as "racism, plain and simple."
"She called the police BECAUSE he was a Black man," de Blasio tweeted. "Even though she was the one breaking the rules. She decided he was the criminal and we know why. This kind of hatred has no place in our city."
Chris Cooper, 57, a member of the New York City Audubon Society board of directors, told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Tuesday that he was walking through the Ramble looking for "incredibly gorgeous" rare birds when he said he noticed a dog off its leash tearing through the vegetation despite signs telling dog owners to keep their canines on a leash while in the area.
"I said to the young woman, 'Dogs in the Ramble have to be on a leash at all times,'" Cooper said, adding that he told the woman she was standing right next to a sign displaying the leash laws.
But the incident quickly escalated to an ugly confrontation amid the beauty of nature.
He said the owner initially refused to leash her cocker spaniel, telling him the animal needed exercise.
Cooper said he was trying to lure the dog out of a planted bed with some treats he had on him when the pet owner allegedly became furious.
"She didn't like that at all. She immediately grabbed the dog as you can see from the video and started hauling it around by its collar."
Cooper started to record her on his cellphone.
In the video, posted on Cooper's Facebook page, the woman, whose identity has not been independently confirmed by ABC News, is heard telling Cooper, "Please take your phone off."
When Cooper refused, the woman allegedly became irate and threatening.
"Then I'm taking a picture and calling the cops," she says in the footage. "I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life."
Responding, Cooper tells the woman, "Please tell them whatever you'd like."
The woman then calls 911 and in an increasingly frantic voice says, "There is an African American man … I am in Central Park … he is recording me and threatening myself and my dog. I am being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately."
The New York Police Department confirmed to ABC News that they sent officers to the scene of a reported assault, but says there were no arrests or summons issued for what they described as a "verbal dispute."
Cooper's video of the encounter has been viewed tens of thousands of times on Facebook and has spawned more than 130,000 retweets on Twitter with the hashtag BirdWatchingWhileBlack becoming a trending topic. Many posters called the woman out as a racist and applauded Franklin Templeton for firing her.
In an interview Tuesday morning with CNN, the woman issued a public apology.
"It was unacceptable and I humbly and fully apologize to everyone who's seen that video, everyone that's been offended … everyone who thinks of me in a lower light. And I understand why they do," she said.
"I'm not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way," she added. "I think I was just scared. When you're alone in the Ramble, you don't know what's happening. It's not excusable, it's not defensible."
Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue, Inc., also issued a statement on its Facebook page confirming that the woman in the video adopted her cocker spaniel from its shelter and returned the dog Monday evening.
"The owner has voluntarily surrendered the dog in question to our rescue while this matter is being addressed," the organization said. "Our mission remains the health and safety of our rescued dogs. The dog is now in our rescue's care and he is safe and in good health."
Rebeccah Sanders, the National Audubon Society's senior vice president of state programs, condemned the woman's behavior.
"Black Americans often face terrible daily dangers in outdoor spaces, where they are subjected to unwarranted suspicion, confrontation, and violence," Sanders, who is white, said in a statement. "The outdoors -- and the joy of birds -- should be safe and welcoming for all people. That's the reality Audubon and our partners are working hard to achieve. We unequivocally condemn racist sentiments, behavior, and systems that undermine the humanity, rights, and freedom of Black people."
She said she and other officials of the Audubon Society were grateful that Cooper was not harmed in the incident.
"He takes great delight in sharing New York City's birds with others and serves as a board member of the New York City Audubon Society, where he promotes conservation of New York City's outdoor spaces and inclusion of all people," Sanders said.
The episode marks the latest in a string of encounters in which white people have called 911 to report black people seemingly going about their normal lives. Many of the incidents have been recorded on cellphone videos -- and have exploded on social media and gone viral.
Most of the callers have garnered nicknames pertaining to the routine activity of African Americans they found suspicious enough to call authorities, including barbecuing in a park, playing golf, entering an apartment building where they live and even napping in the common area of a college dorm.
This report was featured in the Wednesday, May 27 episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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