If you are the most famous mountain lion in LA , and arguably all of North America, have safely crossed two of the busiest freeways in the U.S., been immortalized in a now iconic photo in front of the Hollywood sign by Steve Winter, have become the spokes cat for your species and focus of a national campaign to help wildlife you would think that you had nothing left on your list to accomplish. If however you happen to be P-22, it’s only logical that you end up gracing the cover of a book.
When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors – People and Wildlife Working It Out in California by Beth Pratt-Bergstrom the California Director for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), is a book complete with stories of how humans and wildlife are attempting to co-exist in a man-made world that continues to leave less and less room for wildlife. It is a must read if you want to know what is going on with wildlife conservation in California where the book is focused, but you don’t necessarily have to live in California to appreciate the message it delivers.
The enormous pressure wildlife faces from humans and human development means they either learn to adapt to survive or, as we have seen with many creatures, vanish. We are bombarded almost on a daily basis with these negative and depressing stories which for many including myself, can be very overwhelming. Instead of focusing on those aspects which we often feel helpless to change When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors does the exact opposite by highlighting the inspirational – what is being done to help wildlife and what can work if we decide to take action. Today it is not only the scientist and researcher making a difference it is people like you and me, the everyday citizen who will ultimately play a key role in helping wildlife prosper and survive.
Being one of my most anticipated reads of this year I reached out to Beth to talk more about her book, wildlife in California, the handsome cover boy P-22 and the campaign to get the worlds largest wildlife crossing built.
Lets start off with where you at with the Save LA Cougars Campaign which for readers who don’t know is the national campaign to raise funds to build a safe and desperately needed wildlife crossing at LA’s 101 freeway
It is going forward, the crossing is going to get built and there is a lot going on. Right now we are at the planning and compliance stage, which is funded through early 2017. We need to raise 10 million by middle of 2017, then balance by mid 2019 to have the crossing built by 2021.
We are having P-22 Day and Urban Wildlife Week October 16 through to the 22 to raise awareness for the crossing fundraiser and to announce leadership gifts – big online fundraising. Before hand I will be hiking the same route P-22 took (40-miles) from the Santa Monica Mountains to where he has been living in Griffith Park. This event will be a big milestone in the Save LA Cougars campaign.
Interestingly there has been a study released that has confirmed what we have been saying – there is empirical evidence that if we don’t do something now and help mountain lions in California, in 50 years it certain they will go extinct. So it’s like ‘we told you so’ it’s both good and bad, we have to get the crossing built we have no time to lose. The best worst case scenario is mountain Lions go extinct in 50 years if we don’t, this is based on facts from modeling but it doesn’t take into account other mountain lion fatalities from vehicles and rodenticides poisoning. In the case of rodenticides people are seeing what mountain lions and other animals have suffered and want to make change. In California there is something here, a value and call to action, and I hope other people in other places can do the same.
When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors is positive in its message and very accessible – meaning anyone can read it. How important were these aspects when you were writing the book?
The goal was to make it about the positive as all of us are exposed to so much of the negative, I get battered down with the bad news, so I wanted it to focus on what was working and how you get people inspired. For instance, I was inspired by Born Free and being taken whale watching by my dad – It is the good news that inspires people. This also helps getting people who aren’t already converted as it is easy to get burnt out.
It was also important to make it accessible – not academic. We want people to learn about science, but we do this by tricking them into learning about it. It is difficult for science based organizations like NWF and researchers to be non-scientific like when I first mentioned to National Park Service wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich about ‘P22 dating’ he said please they (mountain lions) don’t date…but they eventually got it..that it makes it easier for to the average person to relate to the predicament P-22 is in, which is the lonely bachelor looking for love.
Besides being an awesome cover boy, mountain Lion P-22 plays a major role in the book
The book is actually the reason why I work on the Save LA Cougars Campaign – it was a very different book initially, then when P-22 came on the scene it changed the whole book. I thought that this was the story it was about urban interface. P-22 shouldn’t be where he is but I had this great epiphany – who am I to judge if this is the only way the cat can live? We need to share our human spaces with wildlife, if we don’t share our spaces they aren’t going to be here. The study of wildlife in urban environments say they are stressed…but so are people! it doesn’t mean that wildlife can’t live there. This is a big shift and it’s catching ground a lot, LA is leading the way. I use it as a challenge – if LA can do it what’s anyone’s excuse.
P-22 is a modern lion in many ways including fitting perfectly into a socially savvy media obsessed culture
He is the reason that the film The Cat that changed America is being made. The headline is a modern story that people can relate to on social media, it is about having a day-to-day relationship with wildlife and he has shown that wild predators can live rather peacefully with us. People can relate to P-22, it has set this model and the world has been watching. In my mind he is the cat that changed the world, people are asking ‘what’s going on in LA with a mountain lion…and they are OK with this?’.
He is figuring out how to adapt to human interface – not every mountain lion could be this successful in Griffith Park, but P-22 is a modern cat and has worked it out. He also shows us they are individuals and have personalities like people and that is a game changer, he is the right cat for the right time to be an ambassador for his species. You have P-22 who has adapted to LA, and LA who has adapted, and for the two to coincide is remarkable.
There is a clear message in the book that mountain lions aren’t the big scary threat that media so often makes them out to be
I am all for anthropomorphism, they are not exactly like us but they are like us, however there is a balance – we want people to be familiar with their typical behavior but also know when to be scared. We want people to learn about them and to know that mountain lions aren’t waiting ready to jump out of the woods at any moment at people. If you become familiar with these animals and build a relationship that is a good thing. I think that’s where science has done a disservice in the traditional mode in teaching us that they are just as numbers, but you don’t want to go to far into familiarity and have people feeding them and petting them or thinking they are pets – they are not pets.
So it’s a fine balance and we want the public to establish a relationship with them but doing this by maintaining a distance recognizing that and respecting that they are wild animals as well. We tend to go to far down either extreme when we over-estimate or underestimate the risk – they are cute or they are vicious murderers – no they are not in fact, they rather not eat us. It’s a fine balance that we need to strike if wildlife is going to have a future – it can’t be hands off and it can’t be that we are in utter terror all the time.
Predators like mountain lions were demonized by the first settlers why do you think that mentality still exists even when we know more about them today?
I try to sympathize with people who didn’t know anything about them. I live in mountain lion country, every wild animal that lives in California is in my yard, bears, bobcats, mountain lions, foxes, etc…but I live in a secure house, have a fenced yard and I don’t have a farm. So I sympathize to a point and I get why it was dark and scary at the time of the first settlers, although if they had listened to Native Americans it would have been different.
If you don’t know about mountain lion behavior and see a snarling cat near you although he is probably not a danger, you are going to think he is. I think it (fear) is innate in some people, however most are fascinated and in awe with wildlife – seeing wildlife is remarkable for most people. I don’t know why at this point the fear still exits giving the relative comfort we live in and the given the risks we should be frightened of everyday… we actually should be shuttering in our feet everyday about cars more than mountain lions. It is a very emotional thing, wolves are also a great example of how these myths have persisted. They have been demonized for no reason and this hatred has persisted even though when you look at rate of attacks on humans which is almost nothing and livestock depredation rates disease and domestic dogs take out more.
We are creating new myths and P-22 is part of that story telling, that is what matters now. We have science to back it up, but how we actually feel about predators like P-22 matters more than the science so he is forging new grounds for mountain lions.
Your book is part of a more modern way of writing about wildlife
There is a whole new genre about animals in general it is really challenging preconceptions about what an animal is – books pointing to science telling us what many of already know. I am a person of science so you do want the rigorous science but I am glad it’s coming out. Look at Black Fish, that was science based and looked what happened the Sea world model collapsed and people look at killer whales differently. Challenging the preconceived notion that animals just eat and mate and have no emotional lives beyond that – it’s basically what animal lovers already knew but it’s great to have the science behind it.
The book also features a lot of other wildlife in California as well as ways people are helping
P-22 is definitely the lead story but I could have done 10 volumes because there are so many great stories. The take away is the wildlife crossing is a grand sweeping and visionary, it will be the largest in the world when built – other stories illustrate what stuff you can do in your backyard and business, it’s not just all about grand projects – we collectively make a difference for wildlife doing some easy things. For example the Facebook Foxes, they made a home on campus for the foxes and it is one of my favorite stories. They don’t pet or feed them but they just accepted them as part of the campus and the foxes have adapted are comfortable, it’s a success story.
Another favorite story is the Marine Core who raise baby desert tortoise and train 30,000 Marines a year on tortoise conservation when they come through boot camp. So many simple stories like city of Martinez who let the beavers stay…regular citizens doing things, it shows it’s simple things we can do collectively to make a huge difference for wildlife. We are restoring habitat in our own backyards that has been lost and the conservation impact on that can be high if we all do it.
Like Leo Politi Elementary the school that transformed a concrete pad into a wildlife friendly habitat, it’s a great story – save wildlife and ourselves. It’s like if mountain lions disappear and the Eco-system is out of whack and what’s next – we have collapse. The school built a community and it benefited kids, test scores went up and their health improved and even their parents got involved – it built a community. It connected wildlife and people they are the perfect illustration of how all of it works together.
The message is people in California want wildlife in their cities, but other cities are doing things to like Chicago who passed an ordinance to looking at non-lethal solution for urban coyotes, Austin Texas where the NWF has a community wildlife certification program, Baltimore is a certified wildlife city doing a lot with city gardening. I think there are a lot of signs of hope and it seems to be catching on, lets hope it becomes a real movement.
What is up next now that your book is out and P-22 Day is scheduled?
My job is a mix of programs, research, fundraising and continuing working on projects for cougars, foxes, pika, fissures and frogs to push more initiatives forward and help to fundraise. My sweet spot is engaging people and getting out in the field, I want to be out there to get people involved, but the biggest project is getting the crossing built but we are going to get there.
Will I write another book? I’d love to, as I have many more stories, it will just be under different circumstances when I have more time!
What are your personal experiences with mountain lions?
I have seen them four times, most out while hiking, but I have been very lucky and seen one collard and up close. My favorite sighting was one with parents who moved 2 miles down the road from me. My mom has a bird bath and one night they called me up to say they saw a mountain lion take a drink from the bird bath and I said no they don’t do that in full view people, this happens for 2 nights. On the third night I go back and sure enough there the cat was! It was remarkable but sad as the drought at the time was so bad that he had to go to a house in daylight to drink. He wanted nothing to do with us, he just wanted water.
Finally, what are your thoughts on mountain lions outside of California?
I see signs of hope that other places are recognizing the importance and benefits of predators like mountain lions and wolves but there is still a long way to go, but I am seeing signs of hope. Wildlife is also making tentative first steps (like the cat that is profiled in Heart of A Lion) my hope is that other places come to the realization that it is possible to live among predators, we can achieve balance and they need to be an integral part of the landscape for Eco-system health.
Values are shifting and we will get there for practical reason like the study that shows if you bring mountain lions back you can help prevent Lyme disease. I am hopeful even though it is sometimes hard, but I do think people no matter where you live, have an awe and connection to wildlife that will prevail at some point.
I really do think views are changing we already see that in some places and, I think this will be a non-issue in 50 to 100 years in most places.
When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors is a positive, inspirational and educational read. It is filled with solid factual information and many fun and interesting stories, including what African lion poop has to do with bears in Yosemite. Whether you are a dedicated city-dweller or an avid outdoors person who loves nature and wildlife, you are guaranteed to enjoy this book. It is part of my Recommended Reading List and can be purchased at online retailers like Amazon.
If you are looking for ways to support the wildlife crossing you can make a donation to the Save LA Cougars campaign. If you live in LA be sure not to miss P-22 Day Festival and Urban Wildlife week October 16-22.