A Lion Among Men: How One Emboldened and Endangered Mountain Lion Took Los Angeles By Storm

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Steve Winter

Her killer walked right in.

It was March 3, 2016, a cool spring morning, when Killarney, the oldest of the Los Angeles Zoo’s 11 koalas, was discovered missing. A search party quickly fanned out, hoping for the best. The 14-year-old koala was known for wandering her enclosure at night, so maybe she’d simply found a way through the fencing. But just 400 yards from the zoo’s Australia section, zookeepers found her still warm corpse. Half of her face was missing.

A review of security footage answered the most pressing question: The perpetrator was caught on camera, slinking through the zoo the night of the murder. He was one of the city’s most celebrated residents, covered regularly in the Los Angeles Times and once in National Geographic. Killarney’s killer was none other than P-22, the “Lion of Hollywood.” L.A. is mostly associated with palm tree–lined boulevards and TMZ celebrity tours, but Tinseltown is also surrounded by 10,000- foot mountains teeming with wildlife — deer, bobcats, bighorn sheep, California condors, and, yes, mountain lions. The state has roughly 6,000 big cats overall, but P-22 is by far its most famous, largely because he lives in inescapable proximity to some 4 million Angelenos. His home, the city’s 4,500-acre Griffith Park, is one of the largest urban parks in America, full of oak trees and shrubland. But his seven-square-mile range is the smallest ever recorded for an adult lion. As such, P-22 has become a case study in human coexistence with apex predators.

“He’s the perfect microcosm for issues facing mountain lions today,” says National Park Service biologist Jeff Sikich, who has tracked P-22 for the past five years. Habitat loss, wildlife corridors, rodenticide — they all play out in dramatic fashion in his life, making P-22 perhaps the most important lion in America.

P-22 — P for puma, 22 for his National Park Service ID number — was born in 2009. His father was P-1, a legendarily dominant male that ruled nearly all of the Santa Monica Mountains, over 244 square miles. In 2012, at a little under two years old, P-22 fled home rather than risk challenging his father. No one could have imagined where he’d go.

Griffith Park, which attracts millions of visitors annually, is home to the Hollywood sign and the L.A. Zoo. It’s within sight of the Universal and Warner Bros. studio lots, as well as the trendy neighborhood of Los Feliz. Though its canyons form the eastern tip of the Santa Monica Mountains, highways — and L.A.’s incessant, deadly traffic — isolate it from the rest of the range. To settle in Griffith Park, P-22 would have had to cross eight lanes of the 405 freeway, then negotiate the 101, an often deadly misadventure for wildlife. His journey was so improbable — miraculous even — that few doubted a big cat could ever survive it.

But in early 2012, biologist Miguel Ordeñana, who was conducting a study to determine if Griffith Park’s deer, coyotes, and bobcats interacted with outside populations, was reviewing photos from camera traps he’d set around the park. He’d heard rumors of lions prowling the park, but dismissed them. The park was simply too small. Too urban. Then he came across a stunning image: the muscled haunches of a massive creature, thick tail curling out of the frame, the tip of an ear cocked, listening.

“I jumped out of my seat,” Ordeñana says. “It was like finding Bigfoot.”

There was a lion in Griffith Park.

Though his range was tiny — adult males typically require 200 square miles — and surrounded by development, there were plenty of deer for him and no competition. Shortly after Ordeñana’s sighting, P-22 was darted by NPS employees and outfitted with a tracking collar. Yet his greatest contribution wouldn’t come at the hands of a scientist. It came from photographer Steve Winter, who had built a career documenting wildlife pushed to extremes by habitat loss. He immediately recognized in P-22 the chance to bring renewed attention to the cause by capturing a single, almost incendiary image. “I knew it was possible that a picture could bring mountain lions and people together,” Winter says. “I just never would’ve thought it would happen in the way it did.”

Winter spent nearly a year trying to get the perfect photo: P-22 walking through the night, the Hollywood sign lit up in the background. When he finally snagged it, with a motion-sensor camera, the image was splashed across two pages of National Geographic’s December 2013 issue.

Los Angeles immediately fell in love. The L.A. Times began writing regular columns on P-22. His story inspired a documentary, The Cat That Changed America, and a virtual-reality app that showed conservation efforts underway in the Santa Monica Mountains from the vantage point of a lion. P-22 Facebook pages and Twitter feeds emerged. Nonprofit programs, like Save LA Cougars, began reaping a windfall thanks to P-22’s sudden celebrity.

“People all over the world who don’t normally give to environmental causes are donating,” says Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California director of the National Wildlife Federation. “He’s trapped and lonely, can’t even get a date. He’s the long awaited visceral story that connects with the public.” 

In 2015, he crept beneath a house in Los Feliz and lounged, imperious and carefree, as curious onlookers and law enforcement descended. News trucks lined the streets, offering regular updates, but he eventually slipped back into the park without incident.

Then he ate Killarney. Even in California, this would normally inspire a backlash. Every year, the state issues around 200 depredation permits to kill lions for committing crimes much less egregious than massacring an endangered koala. P-22’s fate seemed sealed. Anywhere else it would have been. But in P-22, L.A. saw a romantic if unlikely folk hero — more Butch Cassidy than Hannibal Lecter. When a city councilman suggested relocating P-22, he was eviscerated in social media. P-22 was now an L.A. mascot. Ultimately, Killarney’s death was simply swept under the rug, and the zoo vowed to upgrade its fences.

P-22’s fame has saved others, too. Last year, a large male named P-45 began killing alpacas on Malibu’s hobby farms. A depredation permit was granted but never acted on, thanks to protests from P-22 supporters.

This was no fluke. He’s routinely served as surrogate for the state’s wildlife, swinging the needle on public opinion in favor of any cause to which he lends his star power. In 2014, when he contracted mange — a skin disease that causes hair loss and lesions — outrage turned to action as blood tests showed his illness was precipitated by eating raccoons and other animals exposed to rat poison. The same year, legislation was passed that limited, and in some cases banned, rodenticides in the state.

Then there’s the proposed Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing, an ambitious $55 million project that would connect the Simi Hills with the Santa Monica Mountains. If completed, the heavily landscaped crossing would be the largest such project in the world, spanning a section of the 101 to funnel animals safely over the freeway. Not surprisingly, it’s received a tremendous boost in both publicity and funding from P-22 fans.

“It won’t even benefit him,” Pratt- Bergstrom says. “He’s just a martyr for the cause.”

Of course, as notorious as P-22 is, few Angelenos have ever seen him in person. Millions of hikers walk past him and never know it. Even the person whose job it is to track him, Sikich, the NPS biologist, rarely gets a glimpse. “He sees us every day,” Sikich says, “and we hardly ever see him.” For five years, Sikich has known P-22’s exact location — his radio collar sends pings to satellites eight times a day — and he does regular tracking to see what the lion has killed. His diet is a clear indicator of his health. A dead deer usually suggests a healthy lion.

Though security cameras have caught P-22 walking the streets, only 6 percent of his pings place him in yards or roadways. He keeps to deep cover, hunting at night and sleeping all day. Even without males to fight or females to woo, his daily routine remains typical for a lion.

Though wild animals are unpredictable, P-22 clearly poses a minimal risk. Since 1986, there have been only 14 lion attacks in California, three of which were fatal. It was always fear that drove the predator pogroms of the past, but P-22 suggests there’s less to be afraid of than we might think. It’s much more likely that he will turn up dead on a highway than turn his aggression toward a person. In fact, it’s a small miracle that he hasn’t been killed already — cars are the second-leading cause of death for adult mountain lions.

Without corridors allowing predators and prey to move freely, California’s urban lions are often forced to compete, and  fight to the death, for space. This includes mates and offspring of male lions — endless in-fighting that could lead to their extinction in Southern California within 50 years.

But Sikich is optimistic. People in California, a state that hunted its grizzlies and gray wolves into extinction, are beginning to understand that lions are its last large carnivore, its final chance to get things right. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that P-22 came to Hollywood.

“People come here to make their dreams possible,” says city councilman David Ryu. “It’s the mystique of L.A.”

However it ends for P-22, it’s clear his legacy, and the belief that we can coexist with predators, will live on.

“His journey, his celebrity, it’s not empty,” says Pratt-Bergstrom. “He’s getting people to rethink how they view wildlife. That’s huge — bigger even than him.” 

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