Saturday, July 13, 2024

Memorial for mountain lion P-22, ‘the king of Griffith Park,’ draws thousands

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Thousands of people flocked to the Greek Theatre on Saturday to celebrate the life and legacy of P-22, the mountain lion who prowled Griffith Park for more than a decade.

In an event that lasted more than three hours and was streamed online to thousands of viewers, more than four dozen speakers — including scientists, advocates, politicians and celebrities — honored the puma’s far-reaching impact on environmental advocacy and wildlife research.

“You will be remembered as the king of Griffith Park,” said the DJ and music producer Diplo, who held a stuffed P-22 under his arm onstage. “The world has lost a magnificent creature, and the humans of Los Angeles have lost their chance to catch a glimpse of you in the wild.”

The mountain lion surprised the world in 2012 when he appeared in Griffith Park, long considered too small to be home to an apex predator. To reach Los Feliz from his likely birthplace in the Santa Monica Mountains, the cougar would have made an improbable journey through the Hollywood Hills, crossing the 405 and 101 freeways.

P-22’s solitary presence in the heart of Los Angeles became the foundation for an international campaign to build the world’s largest wildlife bridge across the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills. And his nighttime forays into Los Feliz and Silver Lake, caught on iPhones and Ring doorbell cameras, helped teach Californians that Los Angeles is far wilder than it appears.

“He made us more human, made us connect more to that wild place in ourselves,” said Beth Pratt, a regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation and the organizer of the event. “We are part of nature, and he reminded us of that.”

Two women, a man with a microphone, and a child wearing cat ears dance on stage with a cutout of a mountain lion behind them

Warren Dickson, right, with 3rd Rock Hip Hop, performs.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The event was mostly festive and celebratory, with guests as varied as a muralist, a puppeteer and three groups of elementary school students. Actor Rainn Wilson, who appeared in one of the first fundraising campaigns for the wildlife bridge, led the crowd in an original song that included the lyrics “P-22, P-22, you left behind a lot of friends and cougar poo.”

P-22 had been acting erratically for more than a month before his death Dec. 17, including attacking three Chihuahuas and killing one. After he was struck by a car in Los Feliz, he was caught by wildlife biologists for an exam. They discovered serious health problems, including a skull fracture, a torn diaphragm and heart, kidney and liver disease.

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he made the “gut-wrenching decision” to euthanize P-22. The crowd was silent as he described holding the cat’s paw during his last days.

“P-22 was beautifully abstract, the essence of the wildness of wild things,” Bonham said. “He was also something very real. I didn’t realize that last aspect until I held his paw in my hand, and the weight overwhelmed me. … I’ve thought about him a lot since then, trying to soothe my soul.”

Many people are visible in front of a digital display that says

Thousands attended the celebration.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Jeff Sikich, a biologist with the National Park Service, captured P-22 seven times over 11 years to replace his tracking collar and perform health exams. He monitored the cougar’s movements daily for more than a decade as part of a federal study of pumas in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Sikich said he had studied hundreds of large carnivores and “never could have imagined that one of these animals could bring so many people together in celebration of coexistence.”

“P-22’s legacy will live on in his contributions to wildlife conservation and our heightened awareness of how to live in harmony with nature,” Sikich said.

Representatives of the Gabrielino Tongva and Chumash tribes compared the loss of native lands to the encroachment of humans on puma territory.

Most pumas in the Los Angeles area live in the Santa Monica Mountains, which are bisected by the 101 Freeway. That almost impenetrable barrier has cut off the cats from a wider gene pool to the north, leading to inbreeding and genetic abnormalities.

Scientific modeling has drawn a dire conclusion: Without interventions such as the wildlife bridge, pumas in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains could be extinct within 50 years.

“The pumas of the Santa Monica Mountains are walking on a knife edge, and their path could lead to extinction or to coexistence,” said David Szymanski, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The National Wildlife Foundation aims to raise $500 million for wildlife crossings in the next five years. The executive director of the Wallis Annenberg Foundation, which contributed millions to the Agoura Hills bridge, has pledged $10 million to the effort.

The Agoura Hills bridge, which broke ground on Earth Day last year, was largely funded by private donations from around the world, including from the foundation of actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Three men pose with a cutout of a mountain lion

From left, Joey Salehi, Jared North and Scotch Crisostomo pose with a cutout of P-22.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

P-22 fans arrived at Saturday’s celebration as early as 9:30 a.m. for the noon event, queuing on the sidewalks of Vermont Avenue to get the best spots in the 5,900-seat theater.

Inside, vendors sold shirts and pins, fans took photos with a cougar cutout, and a Los Feliz resident handed out free copies of a magazine she’d printed at home called “Catamount!”

Kathy Mellon, who wore a blue-and-white sweater showing P-22’s face, drove from Irvine for the event.

“It’s a short drive for P-22, when you think about how far he had to go,” Mellon said.

She has become known among friends and coworkers as a P-22 expert. Her friends, she said, have learned to expect a stuffed puma as a baby gift.

“I hope it brings a little closure,” said Rebecca Damsen of Ohio, who said she and her children had followed P-22’s exploits for years from halfway across the country. Damsen wore a faux fur stole and stuffed ears and a tail, originally from a “Lion King” costume.

A man poses with a photo of a mountain lion prowling past the Hollywood sign, and the same image is on his shirt

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter holds his famous photo of P-22.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The crowd also heard the origin story of P-22’s most iconic moment: a photograph that ran in National Geographic, showing the cat prowling past the Hollywood sign. It took six camera traps and 15 months to get the image, photographer Steve Winter said.

Wearing a shirt bearing the iconic image, Winter snapped photos of the crowd as he left the stage.

Elected officials — including Los Angeles City Councilmember Nithya Raman, state Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) — also honored their mountain lion constituent.

On Friday, Schiff launched an effort to memorialize P-22 on a postage stamp. He thanked the puma for “gracing us with your presence, your pranks and your magnificence.”

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