The Life and Legacy of an LA Lion

The only mountain lion living wild in Hollywood was hit by a car last week and euthanized. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife put P-22 to sleep after determining his age and poor condition gave him little chance of recovery.

P-22 had been a much-loved resident of one of the world’s most exclusive zip codes. He was trapped and radio-collared in Griffith Park in March of 2012. For more than a decade, he prowled the park’s edges hunting deer and small mammals while people slept. Recently, his health had taken a downturn. He was underweight and suffering from mange. A veterinary investigation revealed he had liver disease and fractures to his skull.

It’s easy to read this story as another sad clash between humans and the animals trying to eek out an existence alongside us. P-22’s life had certainly been challenging. He had several health crises resulting from his fondness for urban habitat. Wildlife officials discovered a case of mange in 2014. A ghoulish picture of him that year showed the ill effects of eating rodenticide. P-22 never mated because no other mountain lion had the luck (or guile) to cross highways 101 and 405 into Griffith Park. He had recently killed a chihuahua and injured a second as his hunting prowess for wild prey declined. Things were always likely to end badly.  

But it doesn’t take much to flip the script and recognize that P-22’s life was not one of tragedy but triumph. The famous cougar lived within the nine square miles of Griffiths Park for more than ten years. He put on nearly 35 pounds in that time, even though the habitat was 30 times smaller than typical for a male lion. He generally avoided trouble until his aging bones drove him to choose family pets over fleet-footed deer. He may, it is true, have killed a koala living at the LA Zoo. But for the most part, the lion studiously avoided the humans who used his habitat. Occasionally, he would surprise a local by napping under their deck but he always left quietly under cover of night. Most of the time, he showed up only in the pictures snapped by camera traps when no one was around. By the time he died, P-22 was one of the oldest lions the Park Service had studied in the region.

P-22’s story should encourage every wildlife advocate. The lion showed a tenacity not uncommon amongst wildlife, one that should turbocharge efforts at their protection. After P-22’s death, the Governor of California made a statement: “P-22’s survival on an island of wilderness in the heart of Los Angeles captivated people around the world and revitalized efforts to protect our diverse native species and ecosystems.”

Two days after P-22 was euthanized, signatories to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to protect 30% of the earth’s land and seas by 2030. The agreement will put money into habitat protection and ensure it is done justly. Some of the money will go towards making sure there is connectivity between isolated habitats like Griffith Park and the Santa Monica mountains.

Important international agreements on climate and biodiversity need concrete goals, bold visions, and financial commitments. What they also need are individual stories that show what’s possible. P-22 is the lead character in one of those stories.

While he rests in peace, we can get to work.

Kitty Redbean via Flickr

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