The most important big cat in America: P-22, the Hollywood Puma

Reader Tom called my attention to a piece on P-22, the name given by the Los Angeles park service to a locally resident puma (mountain lion or cougar; Puma concolor). Although there are 6000 individuals in California, this one is special, for his domain is Griffith Park, a 7 mi² area of Los Angeles that’s much smaller than the normal range of such a cat—about 200 mi². P-22 has done okay in that limited area, eating deer and even snacking on a koala at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Normally, that kind of depredation would mandate killing the cat, but he’s endeared himself to the citizens of L.A., and hasn’t hurt anyone. The article, in Men’s Journal, is a nice piece on the cat, and is supplemented with a longer and more general piece by Dana Goodyear in a February 2017 New Yorker, “Lions of Los Angeles,

Tom’s email stopped me in my tracks because it had the following image, which at first I thought was Photoshopped. But no, it was real, and the product of one photographer’s diligence. As the New Yorker reports:

It was on Mt. Lee that Steve Winter, a big-cat photographer for National Geographic, set up a flash-equipped camera trap. After waiting for more than a year, he got a shot of P-22, bathed in light, in front of the Hollywood Sign: a magnificent holdover from the Ice Age posed with the unmistakable emblem of the American megalopolis.

What a fantastic photo!

The presence of this cat in urban L.A. is somewhat of a miracle. As the Journal notes:

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.”

The public loves him, seeing him as somewhat of an outlaw. Since deaths from puma atttacks are rare (only three fatal ones in the entire state over the last 31 years), people aren’t scared. He has a satellite radio collar, which shows that he stays away from houses and roads.  And when P-22 got mange that was supposedly contracted from eating raccoons and other animals that had ingested rat poison, the state passed a law limiting or banning rodenticides in California. On October 22, Los Angeles will even celebrate P-22 Day. He’s regularly covered by the Los Angeles Times, and there’s a documentary about him: “The Cat that Changed America.” He has his own Facebook page, which the New Yorker describes:

P-22 changed [Beth] Pratt-Bergstrom’s mind [she’s California director of the National Wildlife Federation]. Now, with a fresh P-22 tattoo on her shoulder, she uses his plight to advocate for connectivity (the conservation principle that calls for linking areas of habitat), especially in cities, where habitat may exist but the boundaries to it are often fatal. Her initial plan to reserve the domain name L.A. Cougars was modified after a Google search returned NSFW results; now she uses Save L.A. Cougars. In P-22’s name, she also maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; one Valentine’s Day, she set up a Tinder account for him. On his Facebook page, which has more than six thousand likes, she includes a friendly bio: “Hi! I’m LA’s loneliest bachelor. I like to hang out under the Hollywood sign to try and pick up cougars. Likes: Deer, catnip, Los Feliz weekends. Dislikes: Traffic, coyotes, P-45.”

From Instagram:


Another photo of P-22:

Courtesy Miguel Ordeñana

The New Yorker piece describes several other urban cats, and notes that only one other “megacity” in the world harbors large felid predators. Read it to find out where.

I love this story and wish P-22 well, despite the lack of a female puma to consort with. So often we think that when wildlife clashes with the urban habitat, the wildlife has to go. Perhaps P-22 can show us a way to coexist with a predator that was in California long before humans arrived.

Here’s a bonus trailcam video of a tagged puma and her kittens in Wyoming, courtesy of reader Rick Longworth. Be sure to watch it on full screen.

h/t: Tom

16 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Now that is … pleasantly interesting – yes – pleasantly interesting. Meaning, not mind-blowing-excitement-I-have-to-Tw€€t-this interesting.

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    That is a great story. Only in California would this cat still be alive, I think.

    • Rita
      Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      When I lived in Pueblo, CO, near a prairie area, I heard a LOUD noise, I thought my furnace blew up. When I checked in the basement all was fine, but I could smell gunpowder. Couple days later, I walked around the side of my house and saw LARGE tracks on the ground. After searching online, I’m sure it was from a mountain lion. Some IDIOT had followed the animal into the residential area and took a shot at it! But, the animal escaped.

  3. darrelle
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Beautiful.

  4. Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I hope that none of the other Californian pumas are not killed by the wildfires…

  5. Posted October 10, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I hope very much that P22 stays away from people, and especially from human habitats. I know it would be safer for him if he were moved to a more remote location.

  6. busterggi
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Considering that most people freak over wild animals larger than squirrels this is amazing.

  7. W.Benson
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    The New Yorker article is wrong. The city of São Paulo, and I assume other large cities in Brazil and elsewhere in South America, have puma populations and pumas are often treed in woodlots or cornered in laundry rooms. São Paulo has an urban population of about 39 million people, about 2 1/2 times more than LA.

  8. Posted October 10, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    A pair was spotted by security cameras of a rail transit station in the suburbs of Vancouver – not a mega city but a substantial metropolis nonetheless — one that is on the edge of vast wilderness.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/cougars-skytrain-1.4081072

  9. Posted October 10, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    A pair was spotted by security cameras of a rail transit station in the suburbs of Vancouver – not a mega city but a substantial metropolis nonetheless — one that is on the edge of vast wilderness.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/cougars-skytrain-1.4081072

  10. Mark R.
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Stay safe P-22!

  11. Posted October 10, 2017 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    OK, this gives the game away, but there’s some amazing footage of the cats in that other city here: https://youtu.be/qbScW81yYKU

    /@

  12. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    the Hollywood Sign: a magnificent holdover from the Ice Age

    I had to read that twice to parse it correctly.
    Other Californian large cat news is that @plutokiller (the guy responsible in no small part for the demotion of Pluto from being considered a planet) has a bobcat which includes his house (and it’s water fountain) in it’s territory. https://twitter.com/plutokiller/status/917558581418852352/photo/1
    Bears too.

  13. Les Kaufman
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    What a fantastic picture of the Hollywood cat! Don’t remember having seen it, but not surprised that it was Steve Winter who nailed it. Some years ago we had pumas wandering around on the tennis courts of the Bodega Marine Lab- maybe that still happens. During one of our sabbaticals, my wife Jackie and then young son Justin would commute across puma country between our house and the lab, where I’d be working all day. One day they encountered a large cat, and were terrified beyond belief. I’m pretty sure it was actually a pussy cat, but hey.

  14. Posted October 10, 2017 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Great story. I hope that someday the collars will be less bulky.

  15. Posted October 11, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Sad news about another local, P-41 was confirmed dead last week 😦

    http://mountainlion.org/newsstory.asp?news_id=1779


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