Stardom has done little to dispel the stealth and mystery surrounding P-22, the camera-friendly mountain lion known to stalk the deep, chaparral-cloaked canyons and secluded arroyos of Griffith Park.
Since no other mountain lion had ever safely crossed the 101 freeway from the Santa Monica Mountains before, sightings of an apex predator in the Hollywood Hills, and the blurry photographs and hearsay used to back them up, were roundly dismissed, even by mainstream wildlife biologists, as the stuff of urban legend.
Before P-22, the U.S. National Park Service, which tags and tracks the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains, considered Griffith Park an urban island unto itself, rising above the city—surrounded by freeways, inhospitable to the big cats.
These days, the “Brad Pitt of cougars” has inspired the re-branding of Griffith Park as “urban wilderness” and construction of the future Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing spanning the Ventura Freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills, to help the protected cat species mate, and prevent inbreeding. While many communities in America would react to the discovery of an apex predator with extreme prejudice, in celebrity-mad Los Angeles the big cat became the toast of the town. Leo DiCaprio and Billie Eillish are reportedly big fans.
Still, P-22 continues to amaze and perplex, as evidenced most recently by his three-mile sojourn through Silver Lake on March 8. When the cat completed his unlikely detour three days later, returning to Griffith Park, wildlife biologist Miguel Ordeñana, of the LA County Museum of Natural History, breathed a sigh of relief. When it comes to the most famous mountain lion in the world, expect the unexpected, said Ordeñana, the urban carnivore specialist credited with the unexpected “discovery” of the 120-pound tan cat in 2012. Bobcats were what he had expected to capture with the remote camera he had installed above the Ford Amphitheater (across the 101 from the Hollywood Bowl) on the night of Feb. 12, 2012.”At first I thought it was a Great Dane being walked,” Ordeñana, 39, told Los Angeles. But he soon realized that not even a Great Dane, one of the largest breeds of dog in the world, can grow paws as big or a tail as long as the mysterious creature’s in the image.He recalled of the epiphany, “It was like discovering an urban legend–like Bigfoot or the Chupacabra.”
“He always uses every bit of cover, whatever darkness he can find. I’ve seen video of him drinking water at a trough on a trail, and 30 seconds later a hiker arrives and he’s gone. For him to get caught in the open is rare. He got stuck and surrounded for two days, without options,” Ordeñana said. “He usually goes back [to Griffith Park] the same night.”
One observer sitting in one of the parked cars filmed the secretive predator from up close. “[P-22] was probably moving via the darkest spots — overgrown yards, for example, waiting for the coast to clear,” Ordeñana said. Where did he spend the night? “Maybe Silver Lake or Ivanhoe reservoirs, or an overgrown vacant lot in the neighborhood.”
If the significance of P-22 can be boiled down to a maxim, says Ordeñana, it is that “he challenges us to keep pushing the boundaries of what we think we know and how we do research on urban mountain lions. It’s time to incorporate the community”
Now comes the obligatory safety message: P-22 is beautiful and famous, but like many a Hollywood celebrity, the best advice is not to crowd him. Ignore him, or at least pretend not to notice he’s there.
“He’s very intelligent, highly adaptable, and he seems to be mild mannered, for a mountain lion. He doesn’t panic or take aggressive postures. But this is not a raccoon or coyote accustomed to being around people. The important thing is not to make him feel cornered.”
P-22 is the focus of an exhibit at the Natural History Museum that regales visitors with the story of the cat that crossed two major freeways to get from the Santa Monica Mountains to Griffith Park. For opening the eyes of Los Angeles to the plight of mountain lions, the charismatic cat is a scientific hero.
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