Printed for personal use only

Ghost Cat

The city’s most mythic predators are as elusive as they are fierce. With the inevitable turf battles over their shrinking kingdom, the question is whether mountain lions can survive one another

Photograph by Andrew Zuckerman

It’s impossible to say when he got there. Surveillance cameras were set up, but he evaded them all, and late-night drivers didn’t make any reports. His precise route is also unknown. Residents didn’t phone authorities, though surely he’d been skulking around—or through—their properties. Here’s what is known about the mountain lion: He was born in the Santa Monica Mountains, somewhere west of the 405 and east of Camarillo, in between the 101 and Pacific Coast Highway. One of a half dozen or so cougars living in the range, he’d left the comfort of his mother and struck out on his own, only to discover the paw tracks, the whiffs of urine, the piles of scat strategically deposited by other males, each as definitive as a sign that read Not Welcome. Male mountain lions are devout polygamists. They’re also predisposed to kill any lion that stands between them and the nearest female. At 250 square miles, the Santa Monicas provide barely enough space for two males to peacefully coexist, and the four that were already there had the battle wounds to prove it. If the cougar wanted to survive, let alone find a mate, he had only two choices: vanquish the competition, or find new turf. But fleeing wouldn’t be that simple.

Mountain lions don’t beeline between destinations. During the day, they hunker down and rest. At night, with their round ears sticking up like tiny satellite dishes, the males embark on recon missions—checking perimeters, looking for traces of other lions, committing the landscape to memory. They push boundaries bit by bit, returning to safety before sunrise. Occasionally, though, a scouting expedition runs long, and a big cat finds himself exposed at daybreak, spotted in a backyard or a shopping district too far from the foothills.

The aforementioned lion’s first challenge was crossing the 405, from west to east, probably on one of two bridges at Mulholland Drive or a few miles down Sepulveda, where the road squiggles under the freeway just north of the Getty. From there he would have found ample cover in the chaparral and scrub oaks of Bel-Air and the canyons that drop off either side of Mulholland. It must have felt like feline purgatory, a trip through his own habitat made nightmarish by faux-Tuscan architecture and screeching Ducatis and the bass thump of Kanye whoomping from leased Infinitis.

Once he reached the 101, somewhere between the east end of Mulholland and the Hollywood Bowl, he made another dash. It’s unlikely the lion traversed the freeway’s nine lanes; even in the middle of the night he would have been noticed or run down. More likely he used the overpass connecting Cahuenga Boulevard and Lakeridge Place, where a group of Griffith Park biologists had rigged a motion-sensor camera to assess how wildlife travels from one patch of habitat to the next. If the cat followed this route, he must have crossed the bridge right after a passing car triggered the shutter, sending the camera into its minute-long reset mode. On the other side of the overpass was a small, steep slope of 20 feet or so and, behind it, direct access to Griffith Park. Undeveloped, rich with prey, and absent of competition, the area had everything he could need. With one exception: potential mates.

No other major U.S. city has the volume of wildlife that L.A. does. There are flocks of wild parrots in our trees, rattlers on our hiking trails, red-tailed hawks above our freeways, skunks and raccoons and possums in our yards. Bobcats lurk in the brush. In Malibu and the Palisades, mule deer graze on designer lawns. Coyotes are ubiquitous, competing with great horned owls to snag sunbathing house cats and yapping min-pins. Black bears make so many trash can raids in heavily populated areas like Monrovia that U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents refer to them as “pigs in fur coats.”

Maybe if the bears weren’t such indiscreet scavengers, they’d be regarded with the same awe that we reserve for big cats, which are all the more remarkable for merely existing in this jumbled metropolis. Weighing as much as 200 pounds, mountain lions are powerful enough to take down a man. They can hit speeds of 40 miles per hour and leap ten vertical feet from a near standstill. Not even a bear has the quickness or stealth or ferocity to rival a mountain lion, which roams vast tracts of L.A. wilderness without being seen. Whether you call it a mountain lion, puma, or cougar, the Puma concolor—also known as panther and catamount, depending on which part of the country you’re from or what books you’ve read—has the distinction of being the apex predator in the region, feeding on anything it chooses, which, for the most part, are deer.

Since Jeff Sikich began studying the big cats of L.A. in 2002, he and his colleagues have captured 31 cougars—many of them on multiple occasions—in the Santa Monica and Santa Susana mountains, the Simi Hills, and the southern Los Padres National Forest, which begins above Ojai. A Chicago transplant living in Topanga, he spends 70 percent of his time tracking and trapping wildlife. In February 2012, after the puma triggered one of 18 wildlife cameras in or near Griffith Park, biologists called the National Park Service’s Thousand Oaks office, where Sikich types up reports in a small cubicle. “They were pretty surprised by the image,” he said as we hiked into the park from a neighborhood near Lake Hollywood, the city’s arteries congealing with morning traffic down below. Even local scientists, it seemed, didn’t expect a lion in the city’s major municipal park. “They knew about our study and called us to handle it.”

Sikich, a wildlife biologist, is one of a handful of NPS staffers who track the lives of mountain lions, as well as  bobcats, reptiles, and amphibians, in the region. A slim, egoless 38-year-old with a shock of shaggy gray hair, he has a gappy smile and a face so boyish, it looks like he could never grow a beard. His tone is uniformly matter-of-fact, whether he’s providing the gory details of how the lion feeds on its prey or explaining the purpose of the study. Because relocating cougars could place them in direct competition with other males, he and his colleagues don’t move the animals. Their job is to capture, collar, observe, and assess in order to make recommendations that will ultimately contribute to the animals’ survival in the region.

“Most of this area is closed to the public, and there aren’t any real trails, so it’s a great spot for a capture,” he told me, his hard Midwestern a’s poking through a patient drawl. Clad in green cargo pants, a matching zip-up fleece, and a pair of work gloves to protect him from sharp brush and poison oak, he hiked briskly while describing the first time he captured the Griffith Park puma, back in March 2012. We stopped at a large boulder beside the rusted remains of an abandoned car, the nearest home no more than 500 yards away. Sikich motioned toward a faint game trail, where the canyon bottom narrowed like a leg on a pair of skinny jeans. “These pinch points serve as funnels,” he said. “As a trapper, that’s what I’m looking for.”

 


This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

P14 heads for safety before being captured. After he was killed by another male in 2011, tests revealed he had been exposed to rat poison several times.Photograph courtesy National Park Service

Sikich sometimes sets up cages with deer carcasses inside to catch cougars or uses trained dogs to run them up trees, where they are tranquilized. But in this instance he relied on a version of the foothold snare traps that hunters employ. It’s not one of those spring-loaded traps you hear horror stories about. Rather, the device is a simple loop of cable, about the size of a dinner plate, that contracts to the diameter of a cougar’s wrist; a transmitter sends Sikich a photo when the trap is triggered. He had anchored the snare with a massive rock, covering the cable with leaves and twigs and posting warning signs to keep humans away.

To coax the lion from wherever he was lurking in the park’s 4,200 acres, Sikich concocted a potion of scents such as beaver castor oil, catnip oil, and skunk essence. “You pour a pea-size amount of liquid on old bones or rocks,” he told me. “Hopefully the puma’s nearby when the wind picks up and the scent makes him curious enough to pop onto the trail.” For extra drawing power he rigged a timer-activated digital audio player in a nearby tree to pipe in the sounds of deer in distress or female mountain lions in heat once the sun dropped. At 3 a.m., nine days after Sikich set his trap, he got the photo.

By 4:45 that morning, Sikich had arrived with a few colleagues. Creeping quietly in order to keep the animal calm, he clutched a yard-long aluminum blow pipe loaded with a dart containing a cocktail of ketamine and medetomidine. Once Sikich was within 20 feet of the cougar, he drew the tube to his lips and aimed for the lion’s haunches. It would be ten minutes before the cat—the 22nd captured for this study, and now called P22—was out cold, enabling Sikich and his crew to take measurements and hair samples, draw blood, tag both ears, and place a thick leather radio collar around his neck. Next came a shot of atipamezole to reverse the anesthetic. A short while later the animal rose clumsily to its feet and staggered into the chaparral as Sikich and his team looked on from their hiding place.

This past August local blogs were aflutter with images of a mountain lion that had been spotted in Malibu by an early-morning motorcyclist. The cat, a female named P23, was photographed on Mulholland sitting atop a deer she had killed; had the rider come around the bend a minute earlier, he’d likely have witnessed the attack. As cougar sightings go, it was a rarity. In 15 years of fieldwork on three continents, Sikich has had only three chance encounters. Others spend their entire careers without a run-in, and most reported sightings turn out to be of bobcats, coyotes, or more often, dogs. On one occasion Sikich responded to a sighting by a landscaper in Malibu; the cat had been standing meditatively until Sikich arrived and realized it was a plastic statue.

Rarer still are attacks on humans, but not rare enough for people like Scott Fike. He was mountain biking Mount Lowe, a popular hiking area in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, when a female cougar began stalking him. Rangers instruct cyclists who encounter cougars to make themselves as large and loud as possible, even to raise the bike above their heads to intimidate the animal. Yelling did Fike no good; the cat charged the 27-year-old freelance illustrator, who scrambled off his bike, using the frame to block the cougar as she attempted to claw and bite him. Fike ran for the nearest tree, and the cat pounced. As the two went tumbling down the steep slope, Fike was bitten on the head. “I could see that I wasn’t going to win this, so I went into survival mode,” he recently told me. “I picked up a rock and grabbed her neck and slammed the rock into her head.” The blow was enough to wound the cat and cause it to run off. Fike sustained only minor injuries. The female was killed by Fish and Wildlife agents within the week.

That was in 1995. The next and most recent attacks in Southern California didn’t occur until 2004. As with Fike, Anne Hjelle was riding her mountain bike. The 30-year-old was pedaling through Orange County’s Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park when a 115-pound male lunged from the brush. It knocked her off her bike, then sank its incisors into her head and neck, ripping part of her face off. Hjelle’s riding partner threw her bike at the animal and pulled her friend’s leg, trying to liberate her; in a tug-of-war the cat dragged both women 30 feet before another pair of riders came along and scared it away. Hundreds of stitches and several reconstructive surgeries later, Hjelle told the press, “As the lion clamped down, I was trying to say good-bye [to my friend] because I knew I couldn’t get any air any longer and I was watching the fear in her eyes.”

The day Hjelle was mauled, authorities found the body of another mountain biker, 35-year-old Mark Jeffrey Reynolds, partially obscured in the foliage at Whiting Ranch. Authorities discovered the lion hiding nearby and killed it. Reynolds was missing 11 pounds of innards—nutrient-rich vital organs such as the heart, liver, and lungs that carnivores eat first.

Winston Vickers, a veterinarian with the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis who studies lions in Orange County, suspects the reason for such attacks could simply be a case of mistaken identity: Cougars see motion better than they see detail, and they’re likely confusing a passing human for a fleeing deer. “These people are moving quickly and erratically or appear small in stature,” Vickers told me. Still, he and every other wildlife expert I spoke with maintain that lion-on-human attacks will follow historical precedent and remain low. “A lion’s natural behaviors are going to dominate because that’s what they’re taught,” he said. “Mothers aren’t teaching their kittens to attack humans. It’s a onetime event—the first and last time they’re going to do it.”

Between 1890 and 2012, only 16 confirmed puma attacks have occurred in California, with six fatalities. The first three deaths happened more than 100 years ago, and two were caused by rabies, not the attacks themselves. More than seven decades passed without a killing. Some believe this is because our penchant for outdoor recreation lagged through much of the 20th century; even though wildlands were gaining official protection, the boom in outdoor sports such as mountain biking and trail running didn’t take hold until well into the 1970s. It’s also possible that with so much mountain lion hunting taking place at the time, there were just fewer of the predators. The other three California killings happened after 1985. Only two verified attacks have been reported in the state since that day in Whiting Ranch, and Fike is the sole person on record to have scuffled with a lion in L.A. County. By comparison, between 2005 and 2012, 251 Americans died from attacks by domesticated dogs.

Despite the statistics, I couldn’t help wondering whether we were going to be stalked as Sikich parked his truck on a winding road on the northwest side of Griffith Park, not far from the trains of Travel Town. A few weeks earlier he’d retrapped P22 and outfitted him with a GPS collar. In the cab of the truck he showed me a map that was speckled with colored dots, each signifying a GPS point for P22. Most of the marks were spread throughout the park. “But here,” Sikich said, noting a few clusters, “we have multiple GPS points in concentrated areas, taken over the course of several consecutive days. That’s a pretty good indicator that he made a kill and was sitting on it.”

 


This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

On the Cat Walk: Jeff Sikich and his team of National Park Service wildlife biologists and ecologists have been tracking cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area since 2002, using collars equipped with radio transmitters and GPS devices. P1, the first cat to receive a collar in the study, was a dominant male who was caught five times before his transmitter eventually stopped working. The lower portion of the map shows his movements throughout the Santa Monica Mountains during a single month in 2007, with the 101 freeway as a barrier. Given that cougars live eight years on average, researchers assume P1 has died since then (the team doesn’t release maps tracking live cats). The top of the map shows the movements of P3 in late 2003. The first of four lions in the study to be captured north of the 101, P3 spent much of his time in Simi Valley and portions of the Santa Susana Mountains, where he crossed the 118 freeway 14 times—one of which is depicted here. What killed him was rat poison. Because cougars are unlikely to eat a large enough quantity of small animals to receive a toxic dose, researchers suspect P3 died from eating a coyote that had done so, or a deer that ate the poison directly. A single male mountain lion's range can be as many as 250 miles. This map illustrates the territory covered by cats P1 through P12. For more information on the mountain lion study go to urbancarnivores.com.

We descended a steep slope dense with chaparral. A few hundred yards on Sikich stopped where deer blood spattered some low branches and the dirt had been stirred up. P22 would have attacked from the side or behind and killed the animal by repeatedly bearing down on its neck to cut off air. We followed about 20 feet of drag marks to where the lion ate his prey. Deer hair was scattered about, along with stomach lining, which pumas forgo. After its first course, a lion stashes its meal in the brush and feeds for the next week. (Sometimes a coyote will smell the carrion and move in for a meal, only to become one itself.) As Sikich walked farther down the hill, we caught the distinct odor of rotting flesh and soon came upon the remains. With a gloved hand he picked up the deer’s sun-bleached skull and inspected the jaw and teeth to determine its size. The stench was overpowering. “Yeah,” he said, unfazed. “It’s always kinda smelly.”

In rock paintings the Chumash Indians portrayed mountain lions as sok-so-uh, a malevolent spirit. Settlers referred to them as the “ghost cat,” a predator so disinterested in or scared of humans that seeing one by accident was almost unheard of. By Theodore Roosevelt’s reckoning, cougars were “the least dangerous to man of all the big cats.” Legendary trapper James “Grizzly” Adams put it more bluntly: The puma, he said, is a “cowardly brute, which dare not stand face-to-face and fight with a man.” Harmlessness, however, didn’t persuade settlers to leave the animals alone. The evasiveness and scarcity of mountain lions have only made them loom larger in our consciousness. As wildlife researcher R. Bruce Gill writes in the book Cougar: Ecology and Conservation: “With that first encounter, a philosophical relationship was inaugurated that would vacillate between reverence and warfare.”

Much of the bloodletting has involved livestock. Jesuit missionaries living in California during the 16th century awarded Native Americans a bull for each cougar they killed. By 1869, the year the transcontinental railroad was completed, the western United States had seen an uptick in ranch animals, and with it a surge of livestock killings by pumas and wolves. The latter were hunted almost to extinction, but cougars, solitary and covert as they are, fared better—relatively speaking. By the end of World War I, roughly half of the West’s lion population had been slaughtered. “The campaign of killing invoked the imagery of the Wild West, replete with stories of valiant lawmen bringing outlaws to justice,” David Baron writes in his 2004 book, The Beast in the Garden. “The men, and at least one woman, who hunted down the criminals were hailed as heroes, and the most proficient among them became legendary.” Mountain lions disappeared altogether throughout the East and Midwest during the 19th century. California, like several other states, offered bounties for them, paying out for the killings of 12,452 cats between 1907 and 1963, when the state legislature finally ended the program and made hunting them illegal.

In 1969, to the dismay of wildlife advocates, pumas were reclassified as game animals in the state; they could again be hunted with a permit. But in 1972, then-governor Ronald Reagan signed legislation that called for a five-year moratorium on cougar hunting, which was extended through 1986. Four years later California voters approved Proposition 117, which called for an all-out ban. The measure was challenged in 1996 when the NRA and other pro-hunting groups put Prop. 197 on the ballot, which sought a “mountain lion management plan,” without specifically mentioning sport hunting. Voters didn’t approve.

While the trophy hunting of pumas is illegal in California, it’s still relatively easy to get a permit to kill one. If a mountain lion so much as eats one of your chickens—or for that matter, a deer on your property—it can be deemed a nuisance so that Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game) can issue a permit to dispatch the predator. Laws governing the permits have remained largely unchanged for a century. In 2005—the last year for which the agency has reliable statistics—222 such permits were distributed in the state. Lion advocates put the actual kills at close to 100, a sizable figure given that there are no more than 6,000 mountain lions in the state. And even that number is contested; some put it closer to 3,000.

Not to say that cats are killed only by permit holders, of course. Rat poison—passed up the food chain from prey—has been linked to several deaths. There’s occasional poaching as well. In 2011, a hiker near Point Mugu discovered the butchered remains of P15, an older male. He’d been shot and killed before his head and front paws were hacked off. His GPS collar was never found. Offering an $18,000 reward, Fish and Wildlife agents spent a year on the case, to no avail. But local poachers have nothing on L.A. drivers. Six lions have been fatally struck by cars in Sikich’s study area in the past decade—two on Las Virgenes Road near PCH, another on the 118 near the Simi Hills, one on I-5 near the Santa Susanas, and two on the 405 near the Getty.

That’s where Seth Riley found a dead uncollared puma one weekday morning in 2009. Like P22, the cat was a young male who’d probably been scouting for new turf. Riley, a 47-year-old wildlife ecologist with a scraggly beard and a work-worn look about him, happened to be passing through the area when he saw the body on the side of the road. Fearing the worst, he pulled over and surveyed the wreckage. “It was a bummer,” Riley told me. What made the death that much more dispiriting was the coincidence of it: Riley isn’t just any wildlife ecologist. As Jeff Sikich’s boss, he leads the NPS mountain lion study; that morning he was on his way to UCLA, where a colleague was taking her oral exams on the subject of urban carnivores.

The closest most Angelenos will come to seeing a live mountain lion is if they visit the Wildlife WayStation. Rambling over 160 arid acres off of Little Tujunga Canyon Road in the foothills above Lake View Terrace, the nonprofit is run by Martine Colette, a 71-year-old native of France who’s been in L.A. since the ’60s. Stroll the grounds (you need permission) and you’ll pass chain-link pens filled with hundreds of exotic rescues and castoffs—alligators and bears, hyenas and chimps. Compared with the African lion and tigers in the big-cats section, the WayStation’s four cougars appear almost cuddly. Cougars are how Colette got here: About 50 years ago she adopted a young mountain lion that had been kept as a caged pet by someone she met in Pan Pacific Park. She was living in Benedict Canyon, where she enclosed her yard and gave the animal an all-access pass to the house. Colette speaks with an of-course-I’m-right certainty made all the more charming by her fading French accent. “I began collecting animals because there were people with no solutions,” she told me, sitting in her home office at the WayStation compound, which she shares with a vocal house cat, two dogs, and occasionally a bobcat and chimp. Within a few years she needed more space and found her way to the foothills. “At that time there were no tract homes. It was a very horsey community, very rural. We had no banks, no grocery stores.”

 


This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

Jeff Sikich, who studies mountain lions for the National Park Service, with a cage used to catch the cats. Photograph by Ryan Young

Driving downhill from the WayStation, it’s hard to imagine that the flat, sprawling valley below was once an undeveloped swath of land that served as a wildlife corridor between mountain ranges. But today,  despite the homes and people, it’s an area that still has enough deer roaming local gardens to entice lions away from the cover of the hills. Even though lions prefer deer, the abundance of pets in these neighborhoods can prove too much to resist. One summer night in 2008, Bob Brown, a resident of La Cañada Flintridge, watched as a mountain lion dragged his 65-pound terrier mix down the mountainside below his home. “It’s helpless,” he told the local news. “You see a situation, and you know there’s nothing you can do.” In 2011, a puma scaled several fences in Glendale and snatched a Chihuahua belonging to Marco Iezza. “He didn’t even get a chance to bark,” Iezza had said. “All we heard was a whimper.” Last spring two men working in the backyard of a home near the Glendale-La Crescenta border were peering over a fence when, as one of the men told me, “a mountain lion jumped right between us.” The home owner, who asked not to be identified, recalled leaping out of the way as the puma dashed across the yard and hid behind a tangle of ivy along a chain-link fence.

The Fish and Wildlife agent who responded to the scene was Martin Wall, a barrel-bellied 56-year-old with a broomy mustache and a warm smile. Wall sneaked up on the animal, a 125-pound male, from behind the ivy and shot him with a blow dart. The lion jumped at least two more fences before hiding under a home. Wall poked his head into the crawl space and darted the cat once more. “He appeared to only have one way out,” Wall told me one afternoon in Glendale this past spring. “So I pulled my head out of the hole real quick.” For good measure Wall waited for the lion to relax and gave him a “little hand injection.” Before a phalanx of news trucks and helicopters, agents lifted the animal onto a canvas stretcher and lugged him into the back of a truck. From there the cat was to be ear tagged—being outside of Sikich and Riley’s study area, he wasn’t going to get a radio collar—and released deep in the Angeles National Forest.

Wall has captured several dozen cougars during his 21 years with the department. (He’s also handled close to a hundred bears,  including one nicknamed Meatball, who after a year of overturning trash cans in the area was hauled to a sanctuary.) No matter how many calls he gets, Wall remains somewhat baffled by residents who live near cougar habitat and lure deer into their yards or leave pets and livestock on display, as if at a buffet table. “People will say, ‘We love the deer. I planted those plants so deer would come. But you’re going to have to take that lion back where it belongs.’ If a person would put their pygmy goats out of sight and out of mind at night,” he said, “they’d be less likely to be preyed upon by a mountain lion.”

Wall has never killed a puma, but plenty of wildlife agents have. In spring 2012, workers in a building beside Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade discovered a young male puma trapped in the courtyard. Fish and Wildlife agents and police cornered the animal, hitting it with a tranquilizer dart. But before the sedative could kick in, the cat made a move toward a wall that led to a sidewalk. It was shot dead. In Sunland last year Fish and Wildlife responded to a call about a lion in someone’s garage; lacking a tranquilizer kit, they killed the animal. Earlier this year in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco, Fish and Wildlife workers shot two 14-pound puma kittens, even though the mother was nowhere to be seen and the animals posed no threat. The fiasco led to the recent passage of Senate Bill 132, which mandates that Fish and Wildlife agents use nonlethal capture methods in all but the most threatening scenarios. It also fueled dismay over the agency, whose commission president, Dan Richards, had recently created a scandal by posting a photo on the Internet of himself with a mountain lion he had killed legally in Idaho. “Do you really think a California Commissioner is actually obligated to follow California laws across these United States? Really?” Richards asked in a letter to state assemblyman Ben Hueso, who’d led the charge for his ouster. “There is ZERO chance I would consider resigning my position.” Richards remained on the commission until his term ended a year later but was stripped of his presidency.

////

With its voter-approved ban on cougar hunting, California stands apart from every other state in the nation. But the story of cougars here is in many ways the story of wildlife everywhere, a tale of encroaching civilization and diminishing options. If P22 decides to go in search of a mate, his only choice is to head east, to the Verdugos, where at least three lions already live, or the San Gabriels, where the count could be as high as several dozen. The most imminent challenge, however, would be finding safe passage through Burbank and Glendale.

“The region has a web of freeways and patches of development that create these little habitat islands,” says Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation. “Cougars are basically stuck in these small areas where the chances of their survival are lessened by a number of factors.”

It’s a phenomenon called fragmentation, and it’s the most significant long-term threat to big cats in the area. Despite the ban on hunting, “California’s lion numbers have decreased since 1990, possibly by as much as a third,” says Dunbar, who notes that lions in overfragmented Southern California have especially slim odds of living out their average life span of eight years.

 


This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

This video of a mountain lion was captured by cameras set up by Glendora photographer Robert Martinez in the San Gabriel Mountains.

One major consequence of fragmentation is lion-on-lion killings. While it’s normal for pumas to do away with their own, the chances for violence increase as habitat shrinks. There’s so much intraspecies murder among the pumas in the Santa Monica Mountains that tracing the different birth lines is like trying to follow the Tudors. Consider P1, the first lion collared for the study. The region’s dominant male, he mated with P2 to make P5, P6, P7, and P8, then killed P2 and one of the sons she’d had with him, P5. Then P1 mated with his daughter, P6, before killing her sister, P7, in a fight by an old Planet of the Apes filming location in Malibu Creek State Park, an encounter that was witnessed by two rock climbers. P14, a male that had nothing to do with P1’s messy family tree, was killed by an uncollared cat. The same cougar may have killed P1’s only other son, P8. And forget about counting the nonfatal fights. Often after capturing a puma, Sikich and Riley find battle wounds, especially on the males, which they can swab for DNA to determine who was involved.

When P1 mated with his daughter, he was compounding another consequence of fragmentation: inbreeding. To illustrate the point, Sikich drove me to the Liberty Canyon exit of the 101, not far from Agoura Hills. At the bottom of the off-ramp he steered toward the north side of the freeway, pointing to a hill that leads into the Cheseboro Canyon recreation area. Beyond the park lie the Simi Hills and the 118 freeway, on the other side of which sit the Santa Susanas. Driving an underpass to the south side of the freeway, we parked and hiked partway up a hill overlooking the 101. It was about 3 p.m., and cars were whooshing along by the hundreds; an hour from now westbound lanes would be jammed as far back as Reseda Boulevard. “This freeway is a major barrier,” he said. “The lions we capture on this side of the 101 look genetically different from the animals we capture just north of it. You could stand on the edge of the freeway and throw a rock over it, and you’re talking about an entirely different genetic makeup.”

As with any species, a healthy cougar population requires genetic diversity; without it the animals can eventually suffer from heart damage and, worse, low sperm counts. That was the case with Florida’s cougars—or panthers, as they’re known there. By the 1990s, inbreeding had brought them to the brink of extinction. Then scientists introduced eight female cougars from Texas, and the cats began producing healthy, genetically diverse offspring; about 150 of them live today under protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Sikich, Riley, and their NPS colleagues hope that Caltrans will build a wildlife tunnel next to the Liberty Canyon underpass, a project that would be paid for with $10 million in federal money and contributions from other agencies, such as California’s Wildlife Conservation Board. With a designated safe crossing, cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains would be more likely to head north to the Simi Hills, where they could use the equestrian tunnel at the 118 and Rocky Peak for access to the Santa Susanas and, farther north, the Los Padres National Forest, which stretches to the Bay Area. At the same time lions from points north could venture south and crossbreed, maintaining a healthy population right here in L.A.

For people like Sikich and Riley, who are merely studying the cats and not able to intervene on their behalf, a wildlife corridor represents the one proactive step they could take. But a corridor, if approved, could be years in the making, what with the inevitable environmental impact reports, opposition, and litigation. (Discussions about the concept have already been going on for almost two decades.)

In a way, the NPS researchers are as hemmed in by the freeways as the cats they’re studying. One day Riley had taken me about ten miles west of where the corridor would go. We had hiked a fire road above Hidden Valley, near Thousand Oaks but just out of sight of the freeway. Riley was holding an H-shaped antenna overhead, fiddling with the knobs on a leather-encased VHF receiver that looked like a prop from a Wes Anderson film. He was trying to hear the blips being emitted from the radio collars on the adult female P19 and her kittens, P23 (female) and P24 (male). A faint sound came from Riley’s mint green headphones as he pointed to the cats’ approximate whereabouts a few hundred yards away in the brush, but completely invisible. Checking the coordinates on his GPS, he scribbled them in a flimsy notebook, pocketed it, and led me back down the rutted old road in silence. It seemed like such a frustrating task, recording the gradual demise of a species to which you’ve devoted a good chunk of your career but have rarely gotten to observe without trapping. Hiking back to the truck, I asked Riley how he could invest so much time and energy in studying lions, only to give them clinical names, using nothing but letters and numbers. “It’d be too much to name them after your firstborn or something,” he said. “We get attached to these animals, or just the idea of them. Then they get killed by a car on the 405.”                                         

Mike Kessler’s article “Grass Roots appeared in the August 2013 issue.



This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine