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Ghost Cat: On the Trail of L.A.’s Mountain Lions
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