It's now been a week since Andrew Dudley, a.k.a. Jungle Bird, interrupted Webb Simpson's coronation as 2012 U.S. Open champion with a funny hat and an even funnier noise, only to be frantically pulled off camera by USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. While I imagine it's already faded from the thoughts of most who saw it, after reading that Dudley fancied himself to be a "deforestation activist," I began to think about a number of questions beyond the original "WTF?" What was it about the clip that made me keep watching, 20 maybe 30 times and made me smile every time? And I wondered if this sort of oddball stunt even merited the term "activism."
This Thursday, I reached Dudley in San Francisco to ask him what exactly he was doing, and to see what he thought of all the attention he'd received in the aftermath.
According to Dudley, the intrusion was totally unplanned, apparently just a result of a unique combination of opportunity, a few beers, and that rare gene that causes some people to be totally unafraid to cross accepted social boundaries. As for what he was doing at the golf tournament in the first place, Dudley said he wouldn't call himself a golf fan, but harbors no ill will towards the sport or culture.
"I've got great respect for the game of course, it's a fantastic game... A friend called me up and offered some tickets, I said 'why not.'"
When the tournament ended, crews hastily set up rope lines around the area where the trophy presentation would take place. Dudley, who says he had his trademark hat concealed in his pocket, saw the opportunity to quickly duck into the area cordoned off for media at the side of the 18th green. If you haven't seen what happened next, or, like me, you'd just like to watch it a couple more times for giggles, here's the clip:
"I did my three bird calls, at which point they grabbed me. That would usually be the point when I'd shout 'stop deforestation!'"
The intended call can be heard at the opening of this CNN interview. (In the same interview, Dudley apologized to Simpson for possibly detracting from his championship moment.) However, since Dudley was pulled off camera so quickly -- he says he was pulled into one of the sand traps at the side of the green -- the intent of the action was a mystery for live viewers.
Was he on drugs? Was he a drunk golf hooligan, challenged by his friends to do something memorable after traveling thousands of miles only to see their favorite golfer, Lee Westwood, fall short in a major tournament once again? Was he an Occupier pointing out the privileged and out-of-touch culture surrounding the sport of golf? I guess in my mind I sort of hoped it was some wacky combination of all of the above. Only later, after online media went into sleuth mode did I, or anyone else, find out that the whole point of the crazy thing we'd seen was to 'STOP DEFORESTAAAATION!'
My initial reaction was to be somewhat disappointed. This wasn't one of the loony stories I'd been envisioning as I repeatedly cracked up over the video. But after speaking to Dudley, I can't help but agree that his bird calls (modeled after no species in particular, although an expert has since told him they most resemble a peacock) have some value beyond the sheer oddity of the moment.
In only a couple of seconds on camera, Jungle Bird had made himself a primary topic of Monday water cooler conversations. He'd gone viral in a way that's nearly impossible to replicate with any sort of scripted call to action. When asked about the success of the action, Dudley himself pointed to the thousands and thousands of views racked up by various YouTube clips of the scene as well as increased engagement with his Facebook page.
"Obviously the point is to get people's attention, to get people talking... Yeah, I think it's been a success. People are talking about the issue, everywhere in San Francisco people are stopping me for pictures."
Does this mean that Dudley's bird act puts him in the same category as activists who work tirelessly campaigning, raising money, and lobbying companies and governments to value our planet's natural resources? No, of course not. The reaction to the ceremony intrusion has been much more about Dudley and the weirdness of his act than it has been about a substantive engagement with the issue of deforestation. For his part, Dudley says he's never worked with any major activist organization on deforestation, although he's been in contact with Greenpeace in the wake of the U.S. Open.
Reflecting on Jungle Bird leads to some of the same questions that often come up about the Occupy movement. At times, the issue takes a backseat to the "look at me!" actions of the protesters -- dismissed as obnoxious or pointless when it's hard to see any immediate impact. But nobody can doubt that Occupy is responsible for the now-pervasive 99 vs. 1 percent rhetoric in our national discourse.
Sure, this is on a much less significant scale. But it's still something. Now that he has their attention, Dudley isn't asking for anything drastic. "People can do lots of little things, for example buying [recycled] paper." By making himself a meme, Jungle Bird may cause the word "deforestation" to pop into a few people's heads while they're shopping, voting, or deciding what organization to volunteer with in college. I've certainly spent a few thousand more seconds thinking about the concept and implications of deforestation in the last week than I normally would.
At the very least, he made a lot of people laugh and smile for a cost of next to nothing, and life is a little more interesting when people do crazy things in the name of a good cause.
For Dudley himself, it boils down to something simple: "Basically, I've got six kids, and for their sake, I'm very concerned about the way the planet's being treated."
Not crazy at all really. More of that please.