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An LA Story

In the hills near Hollywood, a lone mountain lion is challenging us to prove that humans and wildlife can coexist.

photo of a lion standing on a hillside, the 'Hollywood' sign evident behindphoto by Steve WinterSteve Winter’s now iconic camera trap photo of P-22 with the Hollywood sign in the backdrop put LA on the map as more than a tourist destination and concrete wasteland devoid of wildlife.

“What the *&$#?! Holy #*&@! a mountain lion!

I wish that someday I could tell my future children and grandchildren that I had a more eloquent, calmer, and cleaner response to the discovery of Los Angeles’s biggest wildlife celebrity, but his enduring popularity four years later almost validates my reaction.

The day was February 19, 2012. I had just returned from collecting data from our camera traps in the field, tired and dehydrated but excited to see what photos would appear on my computer screen. I was hoping there would be some rarer creatures like bobcats or gray foxes. But as usual, the majority of the photos were rabbits, deer, and coyotes. I clicked through the images: Coyote. Rabbit. Deer. Rabbit. Rabbit. Massive mountain lion butt. Wait, what?!

I jumped out of my chair and said the aforementioned expletives as various emotions ran through my body – validation, pride, confusion, excitement, and worry for the animal’s safety. Most of these emotions still reappear to this day anytime he is in the news. I immediately called to inform my study partners with the Griffith Park Connectivity Study, which involved a bit of anxiety because nobody picked up the phone right away. My colleagues alerted National Park Service biologists from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area who have been studying mountain lions in the western Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Susana mountains since 2002.

Today, I tell people that coming across that first image of P-22 was like discovering the first “real” Bigfoot or Chupacabra photo. The comparison is warranted because the presence of a mountain lion in LA’s Griffith Park was, until then, an urban legend similar to mythical creatures of cryptozoology: Other biologists and I constantly received reports of unconfirmed sightings. Most biologists, myself included, thought the chances of a mountain lion reaching the park in the heart of LA were slim-to-none due to a lack of connectivity between Griffith Park and known mountain lion populations elsewhere, one of the closest being in the Western Santa Monica Mountains, the narrow band of deep green that hugs the Los Angeles coastline. Freeways on all sides hem in the eight-square-mile park, which is home to the iconic Hollywood sign. The park is cut off from the rest of the mountain range, which lies to its west, first by State Highway 101 and then again by Interstate 405.

P-22 is a rather reclusive star — biologists can track his movements via his GPS collar but he rarely gives visitors a sighting.

P-22 was discovered because a group of scientists came together and established the Griffith Park Connectivity Study to investigate whether the park was an ecological island or not. We had been studying wide-ranging mammals like deer, and medium-sized carnivores like coyotes and bobcats, that we knew lived in Griffith Park. These larger carnivores need larger habitats to hunt, find mates, and satisfy their territorial behavior. In order to have sustainable, genetically diverse populations, species that occur at lower densities need to cross to neighboring patches of habitat to find a mate they are not related to. We monitored the park’s habitat on the edge of freeways and potential corridors like equestrian tunnels and overpasses, which we suspected might provide connections across these habitat barriers.

In 2011, camera trap images of deer and coyotes crossing over a 101 freeway overpass at the Cahuenga Pass, which separates Griffith Park from the western Santa Monica Mountains, proved to us that the park wasn’t an island after all. And then, less than a year later, there was the young cougar, gracing us with a shot of his behind. Little did we know that our small, grassroots effort would yield a discovery with an impact that would reach far beyond the concrete confines of Griffith Park.

The discovery of a mountain lion in Griffith Park was a big deal because many considered the park nothing more than a tourist and hiking destination with little value to wildlife, and the city managed it accordingly. I was especially happy to provide the park with the attention it deserved as a wildlife oasis because I grew up just outside the park and had spent many happy hours exploring this pocket of wilderness.

It took the National Park Service three weeks to capture the mountain lion. For me, it felt more like two months. I had so many questions that couldn’t be answered until the NPS could examine him physically. The only information we had was that the animal was a male, based on scent marking residue that was visible under his tail in one of the first camera trap images. We didn’t know how long he’d stay in such a small park, so there was a feeling that we were on borrowed time.

After he was captured, GPS collared, and dubbed P-22 – the twenty-second puma studied by biologists from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area – genetic tests revealed that he was from the western Santa Monica Mountains and that a mountain lion named P-01 was his father. P-01 was the first mountain lion ever studied in the National Recreation Area back in 2002, and he was a large individual who occupied the entire 200 square miles of the National Recreation Area’s open space west of the I-405, which is the typical home-range size of an adult male puma.

photo of a city as seen from a dryland wooded hillsidephoto Boqiang LiaoA view of downtown LA from Griffith Park. Unlike a flash-in-the-pan child actor or a one-hit wonder, P-22’s celebrity status has endured and he has become an ambassador for habitat connectivity, urban wildlife conservation, and the complex relationship humans have with wildlife in the city.

Between 2002 and 2015 the National Park Service team trapped and collared at least 44 cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains and surrounding area. Many of the young males among these have tried to disperse, as male cats must do once they are between one and two years of age in order to avoid conflict with older males and establish their own territories. But to our knowledge, only one of these collared males, P-32, managed to get out, though he was eventually killed in 2015 by a vehicle while trying to cross Interstate 5. Several other cougars who tried to cross the multi-lane highways also died in the effort. Some, who turned back, were attacked and killed by older males. P-22 wasn’t among the cougars collared by NPS biologists, but he is the only one we know of who managed to get out and stay alive.

Somehow, this young cougar had managed to cross two major freeways and migrate east from the Santa Monica Mountains to Griffith Park and make this place his home, feeding on the park’s mule deer and other smaller wildlife. The fact that he could survive in a park that was only eight square miles, and was heavily visited by locals and tourists alike, turned P-22 into a celebrity of sorts. He’s a rather reclusive star though – biologists can track his movements via his GPS collar, but he rarely gives visitors a sighting.

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter’s now iconic camera trap photo of him with the Hollywood sign in the backdrop added to his legendary persona and put LA on the map as more than a tourist destination and concrete wasteland devoid of wildlife. The photograph helped people understand that the city and its surroundings were part of a complex ecosystem and a biodiversity hotspot that was experiencing rapid urban development.

Finally, connectivity issues that biologists have been preaching about for years began receiving the attention they deserve. P-22’s image has since evolved – he even has Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts – and he’s become an ambassador not just for the need for wildlife corridors, but also for many of the other ugly issues facing wildlife in urban areas.

Less than a year after his Hollywood image went viral, we began collecting some alarming footage that showed P-22 looking unwell. He seemed skinny and his fur looked very patchy. I worried that he was suffering from an acute case of mange – a mite-borne disease predators are more likely to contract and die from when exposed to rat poison. Rat poisons are frequently used by homeowners and businesses and are known to be present in urban parks and backyards. The target animals do not die immediately and become sluggish, easy meals for raccoons, coyotes, and other backyard predators. Although mule deer comprises the majority of P-22’s diet, raccoons and coyotes have also been confirmed on his menu, which likely exposed him to rat poison.

Fortunately, this footage showed up around the time NPS biologists were already preparing to recapture P-22 to replace the battery in his GPS collar, which lasts about two years. When they caught him, the biologists found that he did indeed have mange. They treated him for both mange and possible rat poison exposure, which was later confirmed via blood tests. Again, a photograph, an unflattering one this time, published in the LA Times in March 2014, helped shine a light on how rat poison can harm wildlife – yet another thing biologists and activists had been trying to get government officials to take action on for ages. Thankfully, P-22 has since recovered and government agencies in California have begun to implement bans on certain types of rat poison. Sadly, mountain lions and other local urban carnivores like coyotes, bobcats, gray foxes, and raptors, continue to die due to continued use of rat poison in public and private lands across the LA area.

This was the first of a few major incidents where P-22’s popularity helped expose our mismanagement of urban carnivores and the complex relationship we have with urban wildlife.

Another one involved a run in with the paparazzi in an upscale neighborhood on the edge of Griffith Park. In April of 2015, P-22 was discovered hiding out in the crawl space under a mansion in the Los Feliz neighborhood. Instead of monitoring him from a distance until dark and allowing him the opportunity to leave quietly on his own, wildlife managers decided to attempt to coax P-22 out by launching tennis balls and bean bags at him and poking him with a stick, while the media and fascinated spectators crowded around for a closer look. Luckily, P-22 endured the harassment with no signs of aggression and waited until the camera lights were off of him to slip back into the park unnoticed. Luckily, neither the mountain lion nor any people were injured during the incident. The media and wildlife managers received a public drubbing for their mismanagement of the situation.

The most recent LA murder-mystery involving a koala, however, shows that Angelenos are getting to be more at ease with, and even appreciative of, wildlife in their midst.

On the morning of March 3, 2016, officials at the LA Zoo, which is located at one corner of Griffith Park, noticed that one of their elderly koalas, named Killarney, was missing. They eventually found her remains a few hundred meters away from her open-air exhibit. The incident occurred just a month after zoo officials found video footage of P-22 sneaking into the zoo at night. And camera trap images from around the zoo perimeter revealed that he had been in the zoo the night of Killarney’s death on March 2. Immediately, questions regarding whether he should be moved to a more expansive park began to re-surface. Fortunately, most city leaders and LA community members rallied behind P-22, insisting that Griffith Park and the area around it was the home of native wildlife, including P-22, first and foremost. One misguided LA city councilmember suggested that P-22 should be moved. He was quickly shamed.

Further, biologists agreed that moving a male mountain lion to a new area, however large, would be risky due to the territorial nature of male mountain lions. The move would likely result in the death of P-22 or the other male already occupying the area. The zoo authorities, too, made a public statement saying that they didn’t want the mountain lion relocated or euthanized. “There’s a lot of native wildlife in this area. This is their home. So we’ll learn to adapt to P-22 just like he’s learned to adapt to us,” Zoo Director John Lewis said in a statement.

It was very refreshing to see the conversation move from if P-22 actually killed the koala to the more important issue of whether native wildlife or humans are at fault when a captive animal (i.e., pet, livestock, zoo animal) is injured or killed by local wild predators. The majority agreed that it is indeed our responsibility to protect our captive animals and pets and that the zoo should have done a better job of protecting the koala.

The incident was a positive sign that Angelenos are refusing to pit themselves against wildlife, despite the negative and irresponsible portrayal of carnivores by some of the media. Indeed, P-22’s exploits are helping connect new audiences with urban nature and reminding people that nature and wildlife habitat don’t end where the concrete begins.

The National Park Service definitely had connections in mind when it recommended in February that the boundaries of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area be expanded to link the fragmented landscape that separates the mountain ranges and other patches of natural areas around LA. The Rim of the Valley Corridor proposal – the product of a five-year study – recommends a 170,000-acre addition to the Recreation Area that would include Griffith Park, a large section of the Los Angeles River – from the San Fernando Valley to downtown LA, parts of the Verdugo Mountains-San Rafael Hills, the San Gabriel Mountains foothills, the Simi Hills, the Santa Susana Mountains, and the Conejo Mountain area, which taken together would create interlocking green areas around Los Angeles.

graphic map depicting corridors for wildlife access The NPS’s Rim of the Valley Corridor proposal seeks to link the fragmented landscapes that separate the mountain ranges and other patches of natural areas around LA.

The proposal, which would help create functioning wildlife corridors and thousands of acres of scenic open space and trails, would require congressional legislation. It would also reduce the lethal infighting, and help this badly inbred cougar population trapped in the Santa Monica Mountains move out and meet up with other isolated mountain lion populations along the loop.

Another project, aptly named the #SaveLACougars campaign, hopes to build a 200-foot-long and 165-foot-wide vegetated wildlife bridge over Highway 101, an eight-lane freeway in LA’s northern suburbs. The corridor, which is expected to be completed by 2021, would allow the Santa Monica cougars the chance to escape north into larger public lands and mate with genetically unrelated individuals. Although P-22 would not benefit from the wildlife bridge, he has been an invaluable ambassador for the campaign.

Given that city-dwellers are beginning to acknowledge the various benefits of urban biodiversity and access to nature, it’s not surprising that a majority of LA residents have voiced their support for at least one version of the Rim of the Valley corridor that includes parks even smaller and more overlooked than Griffith Park. But to really create communities that are unanimously more welcoming of their wild neighbors, we need a paradigm shift. Nature awareness and comfort around nature is the crucial first step towards making that shift, and that can only come when there are more active outreach programs that connect urban communities with nature.

Take my case, for example. Although I had the privilege of growing up across the street from Griffith Park, like most Angelenos, my family and I knew very little about the urban animals and plants that call LA home. Later, after receiving some nature education, I began to thoroughly enjoy going on hikes and even urban nature explorations. Now, I can’t get out there enough!

In terms of outreach, it definitely helps when you have wildlife ambassadors as charismatic as P-22. His captivating stories that are filled with lessons about human wildlife coexistence have definitely inspired Angelenos to take action and become better stewards of their local environment.

If and when the Rim of the Valley proposal is approved and implemented, this lone mountain lion probably won’t be around to take advantage of the wildlife corridors and move beyond the confines of Griffith Park. Most likely, P-22 will never be able to find a mate or ever see another of his kind again. Perhaps the best way to assure his misadventures don’t go in vain is to continue to support a trajectory in which urban areas become societies and physical landscapes with more connections than boundaries.

Miguel Ordeñana is a wildlife biologist and citizen science coordinator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

   

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