Los Angeles mourns P-22, the city’s celebrity mountain lion

Griffith Park is roughly 4,200 acres (1,700 hectares) of wilderness smack in the middle of Los Angeles. About five times the size of New York’s Central Park, its city vistas and sandy trails are beloved by locals, hikers, birders—and, in the past decade, one very charismatic mountain lion. P-22, as he was known, left his home in the nearby Santa Monica mountains in 2012, and crossed two of LA’s gargantuan highways before finding safety among the park’s chaparral and agave. He lived the rest of his life there, prowling the same trails that carry Angelenos to the Hollywood sign, and feasting on deer and small prey. But on Saturday, his long reign in Griffith Park came to an abrupt end. Suffering from disease and severe injuries, the cat was “compassionately euthanised”.

According to the National Park Service (NPS), which studies the lions of the Santa Monica mountains, P-22 was about 12 years old. Most cougars live to be about ten, making him an elder statesman of his species. But in his twilight years, he became increasingly erratic. He ventured repeatedly into the hilly neighbourhoods below the park, crossing major streets to get there. His safaris caused a sensation. Residents acted like paparazzi, trying to get proof of his exploits. Angelenos spotted him on the winding streets of Silver Lake, Los Feliz and the Hollywood Hills. He attacked dogs, and even snatched one chihuahua from right under its owner’s nose. Such behaviour worried officials at NPS and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), who set out to capture the cat. The search didn’t take long. Thanks to his tracking collar, P-22 was soon found in someone’s backyard.

He was underweight and scratched up. His skull was fractured and his organs were failing. He may have been hit by a car. He was riddled with infections. If released back into the park P-22 could have continued to lash out. Officials fretted that if he were released into the wild, younger males would make quick work of him. Locals hoped he would be in good enough shape to be sent to an animal sanctuary, where he could live out the rest of his days. But his health was failing. And so after ten years, Griffith Park lost its famous tenant. Chuck Bonham, director of the CDFW, knew the lion’s death would plunge the city into grief. “I’ve felt the entire weight of the city of Los Angeles”, he says after announcing the news.

Los Angeles is already mourning his loss. The mountain lion was more of a neighbour than a pet, for pet implies that he was ruled, and P-22 ruled himself. Before he was captured, your correspondent, who lives near the park, often prowled the same streets he liked to frequent, looking for a glimpse of the cat. When a koala was mysteriously killed in the Griffith Park Zoo in 2016, P-22 was the prime suspect (his guilt has never been proven). The most famous photo of him shows the cougar framed by the Hollywood sign, perhaps taking in the city lights blinking far below.

In a city of celebrities, P-22 may have been the best loved. His death brought on touching tributes and obituaries fit for a king. His residency in Griffith Park changed Los Angeles, and forced the city to reckon with the effects of urban sprawl. Southern California’s highways slice and dice the region’s wilderness, splintering the habitats of all manner of creatures. P-22 was a lifelong bachelor, trapped alone in his urban oasis. His plight turned him into the face of a campaign to build the world’s largest wildlife crossing across the 101 highway, allowing lions, coyotes and other animals safe passage from the city to the mountains. The bridge is set to be completed in 2025.

People and pets are no doubt safer without a cougar on the loose. But the park’s trails feel emptier now, and a little less wild. In a city delineated with parking lots and highways, his presence made Los Angeles feel closer to nature, and more responsible for its preservation. Maybe when the wildlife crossing is complete, another mountain lion will wander into the park. And, if all works as intended, it will be able to wander right out again—safely.

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