Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Lion King: The Life and Death of L.A.’s Iconic P-22

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In February 2012, news reached the National Park Service, which tags and tracks the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains, that a puma was hiding in plain sight in the busiest city park in Los Angeles. “It was like discovering an urban legend, like Bigfoot or the chupacabra,” says Miguel Ordeñana of the Natural History Museum of L.A. County, the wildlife biologist credited with the discovery of the mysterious cat.

Artist Corie Mattie’s mural in Silver Lake, completed shortly before P-22’s death. (Photo by Christopher Hughes.)

No mountain lion had come close to entering Griffith Park in the ten years since the NPS started tracking their movements. Previous sightings in the Hollywood Hills—and the blurry photographs and hearsay used to back up their veracity—tended to be dismissed by wildlife experts as campfire stories.

Still, L.A. was aflutter with the idea of a feline, all silence and stealth, loping through the chaparral-choked arroyos below the Hollywood sign. In a city contorted by freeways and traffic, the presence of a mountain lion roaming freely in the heart of L.A. was oddly comforting to Angelenos who longed for a return to a wilder, freer Los Angeles.

“P-22” was the name NPS researchers gave him when they placed a GPS radio collar around his neck after his discovery. (The “P” stands for “puma”; the “22,” his place in the sequence of mountain lions studied by NPS.) In 2015, when a Pasadena radio station presumed to rename him “Pounce de Leon” or anything sounding less like a villain in the Terminator franchise, listeners revolted and the contest was canceled.

P-22’s international fame drove sales of merch. (etsy.com/shop/mikanmor; society6.com/artistathlete)

While many communities in America would react with extreme prejudice to the presence of a large wild cat on the prowl, in celebrity-mad Los Angeles, P-22 became the toast of the town. An apex predator that fled a shrinking kingdom and risked everything for a sliver of wilderness in the middle of L.A., P-22 quickly became the most famous feline the city had produced since the MGM lion. When his image was captured by National Geographic photographer Steve Winter’s trail camera in the now-iconographic portrait with the Hollywood sign in the background, P-22 seemed to blithely acknowledge that he was already a star. As Winter marveled, “He pretty much stood there for about 20 seconds and raised up his head.”

With that photo came an irresistible backstory of lonely perseverance that Hollywood usually reserves for laconic gunslingers. Male mountain lions claim 150-square-mile territories that they defend relentlessly, killing or driving off interlopers. To reach Griffith Park from his birthplace west of the 405 freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains, P-22 became the first mountain lion to successfully cross two freeways, the 405 and the 101. He would have had to belly through the rugged slopes from Bel-Air to Mulholland Drive, and then across the 101 near the Hollywood Bowl, and enter Griffith Park, where he beheld a virtual wildlife preserve stocked with plenty of mule deer and no competition. No wonder P-22 stuck around—he had everything an L.A. cat could want, save the prospect of a finding a mate.

P-22 might be the first mountain lion to trend on Twitter.

Settling near the Hollywood Hills garnered him A-list neighbors, including natives Leonardo DiCaprio and Billie Eilish, who claimed him as one of their own. Alan Ruck, star of Succession, recalled glimpsing P-22 and calling after him like a stan spotting Bieber leaving Pace. By the time he was captured by Winter’s camera in one of the most reproduced nature images ever, P-22 had taken his place among L.A.’s strange pantheon of beloved locals, from Angelyne to the late Vin Scully and Kobe Bryant.

P-22’s ten-year residence in Griffith Park led to a remarkably long life for a mountain lion; by the time he was euthanized, he was estimated to be nearly 12 years old but also 30 pounds underweight and succumbing to heart and kidney disease. In his weakened state, P-22 could no longer stalk and kill deer and so had begun prowling the streets of Hollywood Hills for easier prey, killing one Chihuahua on a leash and nearly killing another being walked by its owner, who was clawed during the attack, which likely prompted the cat’s capture.

These desperate forays beyond the wildland-urban interface would be P-22’s undoing. When veterinarians discovered he had eye and skull trauma, the likely result of being struck by a car (a fate he had so pointedly escaped during his dashes across the 405 and 101), and, considering that he had a combination of critical health issues, they decided they had no choice but to euthanize him.

The response to P-22’s death was stunning: After 48,500 Twitter users mentioned his name within hours of the announcement of his death, the regional head of the National Wildlife Federation, Beth Pratt, tweeted that “P-22 might be the first mountain lion to trend on Twitter.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s tweet eulogizing P-22. (twitter.com/gavin newsom)

There was a memorial hike in Griffith Park, a memorial mural in East L.A., and a memorial celebration of his life planned for the Greek Theatre—even calls to claw back the name of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing from the benefactress who had donated $25 million to the monumental construction over the 101 freeway and rechristen it in honor of P-22. Even choosing P-22’s final resting place begat its own news cycle, pitting those who don’t think he should be buried in Griffith Park against Native Americans who insist he should. Not to mention the outrage generated by reports that the noble cat would be stuffed and displayed in a museum. (He won’t.)

As the face of the campaign to protect Southern California’s mountain lions, P-22 had achieved considerable fame when he still roamed Griffith Park. But reports of his death launched an avalanche of coverage that ordinarily accompanies the passing of a superstar. The Los Angeles Times published a P-22 eulogy, of course, but so did the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, NPR, AP, Reuters, England’s Guardian, as well as Vanity Fair, and, that ultimate arbiter of celebrity, People.

In the end, something in P-22’s heroic pilgrimage struck a sympathetic chord across the world at a moment when entire populations have been beset by diasporas voluntary and involuntary, and the sanctity  of borders and who can and can’t cross them called into question.

“P-22 needed to find his own turf and was willing to risk everything to get it,” says Ordeñana, the wildlife biologist who first confirmed that the big cat was lurking in Griffith Park a decade ago. “That’s why his story is legendary.”

Rendering of the Annenberg wildlife crossing under construction in Agoura Hills. (Courtesy Living Habitats/National Wildlife Federation.)

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