P-22, the solitary male mountain lion who became a local legend after taking up residence in Los Angeles‘ Griffith Park a decade ago, was euthanized on Saturday due to severe injuries and health problems. The cat, 12 or 13 years old — elderly for a mountain lion — was mourned by Angelenos as a symbol of wildlife conservation amid urban sprawl.
“He was a celebrity in the land of celebrities,” Steve Winter, the photojournalist whose pictures of P-22 for National Geographic made him world famous, tells Rolling Stone. “And he was a friggin’ cougar.”
That P-22 ever made it to Griffith Park — a rugged nine square miles of land squeezed between the Hollywood Hills, Burbank, Glendale, and Los Feliz — was incredible, since he had to cross two major, deadly freeways in his odyssey from his birthplace in the western Santa Monica Mountains to settle in the area. And though experts said it was far too small a home range for an adult lion (in fact the smallest on record for a male of the species), he spent a full decade there, often prowling the bordering neighborhoods, with frequent appearances in footage captured by home security cameras.
“P-22’s journey to and life in Griffith Park was a miracle,” wrote Beth Pratt, the California director of the National Wildlife Federation, in a eulogy for the beloved animal. “It’s my hope that future mountain lions will be able to walk in the steps of P-22 without risking their lives on California’s highways and streets.” The puma, tracked by GPS collar and sometimes taken in for medical evaluation and treatment, had been captured in a Los Feliz backyard after showing “signs of distress” that included attacks on dogs. Assessed by a team at the San Diego Zoo, he was found to be underweight, with serious organ disease as well as a skull fracture and an eye injury. Doctors concluded that he had recently been hit by a car, and decided he was not well enough to be rereleased or kept in a sanctuary.
“I know this morning that you feel you’ve lost your king, but he’s never, ever going to be forgotten,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in a press conference on Saturday. “We put him in this predicament because of our built environment.”
Winter recalls how, after learning that American cougars’ behavior had changed drastically in recent decades, he convinced wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich to help him try to document P-22 in his natural environment, ideally with the lights of L.A. itself for dramatic contrast. “Everything he said was ‘No,’” Winter says. He told Sikich that “to really illustrate urban wildlife, it would be great to get a cougar under the Hollywood Sign. I thought that was it for him — he thought I was crazy.”
Nevertheless, Winter prevailed, and with Sikich’s guidance he began setting up remote, motion-sensing camera traps along select Griffith trails. By the fall of 2013, after months of frustrating effort, he had a picture of P-22 with the glittering megalopolis in the background. The L.A. Times ran that image along with a story, but it was Winter’s holy grail — P-22 underneath the Hollywood Sign — that changed everything. His setup had caught the cat in the right spot once already, though he was unsatisfied with the result, and used Big Gulp cups from 7-Eleven on his camera to better focus the light on the elusive feline while preserving darkness all around. “Twenty-eight days later, he walked by, and that was it,” Winter says. “It was the cat under the Hollywood Sign that made people freak out. It gave people hope.”
Winter’s employer, National Geographic, stopped the presses on their completed December 2013 issue in order to run a glamorous spread of P-22 stalking Griffith Park’s canyons. The Hollywood Sign shot marked the big cat as an awe-inspiring ambassador for Southern California’s endangered lions. Researchers warn that without doing more to preserve or create connections between habitats in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains, they face extinction in these regions within 50 years.
This past April, on Earth Day, crews broke ground on what will be the world’s largest wildlife crossing — a project partly inspired by P-22’s story. The Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, a bridge covered with natural vegetation, will span 10 lanes of the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills, one of the major traffic arteries that P-22 braved and other pumas have died upon. Wildlife biologists hope the project will help facilitate breeding and improve genetic diversity among the species.
Pratt, a vocal proponent of the crossing, thinks it should be the first of many, arguing that “we must build more, and we must continue to invest in proactive efforts to protect and conserve wildlife and the habitats they depend on — even in urban areas.”
“The most fitting memorial to P-22 is how we carry his story forward,” Winter agrees. “He was hit by a car as many cougars are every year, unfortunately.” In the case of P-22, who seemingly did not venture near the freeways again after reaching Griffith, he “never thought this would happen.” Still, he’s optimistic about the conservation efforts this lion helped the state to realize. “Hopefully, California’s mountain lions will bounce back and thrive,” he says. “We owe it to P-22 and all California’s wildlife to build crossings and connect habitat.”
The loss is heartbreaking no matter what the future holds. Winter says that the day after the cat was euthanized, Sikich told him, “I woke up this morning, and for the first time in 10 years, I didn’t go to the laptop and find where P-22 was.”
Angelenos revered P-22 as a majestic mascot and source of pride, but they also identified with his struggle: he overcame incredible odds to survive to old age, even while venturing into densely populated blocks, and successfully hunted in restricted boundaries, all while being cut off from the possibility of finding a mate. Anyone trying to make it in L.A. could relate.
“He had to have a very distinct personality,” Winter says. “When he was with his mother, he did his mom’s route, where he went through his home range every 10 days. That’s what cats do.” When Sikich tracked him into Griffith Park, however, he “had to figure out how [P-99 was] going to exist.” In persevering as the city’s top predator, he taught us an invaluable lesson about sharing this planet. “Now, with Covid,” Winter adds, “we have to realize that the health of humans, animals, and ecosystems are inextricably linked.”
Only days ago, the National Park Service confirmed that another mountain lion, P-99, had given birth to four female kittens in the western Santa Monica Mountains, probably in July. Like P-22, they were examined and tagged, and each will become part of ongoing study as to how pumas have adapted to urban encroachment. But none are likely to follow in his footsteps. For his many admirers, P-22 will remain one of a kind.
“No one’s ever going to forget about him,” Winter says. “Someone said there needs to be a giant statue of P-22 in Griffith Park.” And while it may have technically been his photo that galvanized the cougar cause, Winter gives the cat all the credit. “Thanks to P-22,” he says, “for walking in front of my camera when the lighting was perfect.”