A Party For A Mountain Lion

Los Angeles, a city known for its celebrities and beautiful people, has begun hosting a yearly party for one its most beloved and famous stars who is not like any other, he is a real survivor and hero of the four-legged kind. This year marked the fourth annual P-22 Day, a festival to honor mountain lion P-22 who crossed 2 of the busiest freeways in the U.S. and took up residence in Griffith Park. The journey he made was incredible and so is the overwhelming support he has received from LA and, from people from around the world. P-22’s story inspired the Save LA Cougars campaign which will raise money to help build, what will be, the world’s largest wildlife crossing in LA. The crossing will help save endangered mountain lion populations as well as help restore connectivity benefiting nature and all wildlife.

As a long time fan and supporter of P-22 and the Save LA Cougars campaign I decided to take a trip to see what a party for the world’s most famous mountain lion, was like.

Modern look for a modern lion. Created by Phil Yarnell for the 4th Annual P-22 Day Festival 2019. Image P-22 on Facebook

Part of the week long celebration, and Urban Wildlife Week, leading up to the festival is 5 day hike following in the footsteps of  P-22. The hike, which is lead by NWF California Regional Executive Director Beth Pratt, makes its way through the Santa Monica Mountains tracing a route that P-22 most likely took to get to Griffith Park. With some portions of the hike open to the public I decided to join on day 4 and complete 6 miles which started at TreePeople park and ended at the Hollywood Bowl overlook. The hike took us through trails, busy neighborhoods and roads ending at the point where P-22 would have made his final crossing to get to Griffith Park. While we didn’t have to play ‘frogger’ with LA’s deadly traffic we were exposed to a mere fraction of what it was like to walk in the shoes, or paws, of one very brave mountain lion. I came away with a better understanding and appreciation for just how extraordinarily difficult life is for these predators even when you have an entire city rooting for you.

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What an amazing day hiking the path that @p22mountainlion took to get to his final destination in #griffithpark a total of 6 miles with the most fantastic group of people lead by Beth Pratt. What a great way to experience a small part of what it took for a #mountainlion to navigate trails,roads, houses, people & deadly traffic to make it to his final destination. #LA needs this #wildlifecrossing to ensure there is #connectivity for mountain lions & all wildlife. Please continue to support @savelacougars & their work! Next stop today is the #p22dayfestival2019 😸 . . #savelacougars #p22day #p22hike #savelions #savehabitat #betheirvoice #pumas #california #losangeles #caturday #savebigcats #coexist #libertycanyon #builditandtheywillcome #urbanwildlifeweek #leadingbyexample

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After an invigorating hike the next stop was the P-22 Day festival. I wondered what the magic formula was that made so many people from different ages, walks of life, and backgrounds support a cause so passionately? More than just a party, the P-22 Day Festival and campaign around it, is like nothing seen before. This initiative has solid research to back it up, but it is also based on tolerance, coexistence and love for wildlife. If the rest of the world is willing to learn from what is happening in LA, there is a lot we can take away and apply to help wildlife where we live.

​It turned out to be a perfect day for a party and thousands turned out to celebrate. There were exhibitors aimed at educating people about urban wildlife, nature, mountain lions, coexistence and of course the importance of connectivity. There was also dancing, demonstrations, arts and crafts for kids and experts ready to answer your questions about wildlife. P-22 Day is an all ages event, but they really gear activities towards kids and families to enjoy together which is key to inspiring and teaching the next generation.

There were many fun activities throughout the day and a few highlights include the P-22 song On The Move Again performed by 3rd Rock Hip Hop, a group that teaches kids about environmental awareness and, for those wanting to see the world through a mountain lions eyes The Save LA Cougars Virtual Reality experience, which can be experienced at home by downloading the app for your phone or by watching via your web browser.

There were also a few surprise announcements including the giving match challenge which is inspiring people to do their part to help LA’s mountain lions. Generous donors are currently matching donations, which can be made here, by individuals up to $50K to support the wildlife crossing.

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Limited Edition Plush Toy – Save LA Cougars

For those wanting to go home with some cool P-22 merchandise, there was no short supply. Whether an adorable stuffed plushy complete with a GPS tracking collar, a new t-shirt, tote bag, or official collectors pin, 100% of the proceeds go back to support the wildlife crossing. If you couldn’t make it to the festival all merchandise can be purchased directly from the Save LA Cougars website.

If you missed P-22 Day this year not to worry, the festival will be back next year and If you are contemplating going I highly suggest you do, especially if you live in LA, are a fan of wildlife, connectivity and P-22.

Keep up to date on all things P-22 by following his facebook page and, for an update on the campaign and wildlife crossing be sure to check out a recent interview with Beth Pratt from In Focus California: SoCal.

Pumas of The Chilean Forests

For the most part mountain lions remain misunderstood by the majority of the public and, in most places in North America these cats are still very highly persecuted. Naturally shy with complex social lives, mountain lions (sometimes called cougars or pumas depending on geographic location) are animals that would really prefer to avoid humans if at all possible. In a world dominated by a singular powerful species they are doing their best to try to coexist and navigate through a web of set rules that they cannot possibly hope to master. Survival for these wild cats has become that much harder with mounting pressure in the forms climate change, habitat loss/fragmentation, prey loss, human-wildlife conflict, hunting, animal agriculture, and even media sensationalism – all which threaten their existence. Thankfully more and more research, which also confirms their invaluable role as ecosystem engineers, in North America is helping to shed light on why we need them and why we need to protect them. But what about the species lesser known relatives in South America?

Proyecto Carnívoros Australes is one group currently conducting studies in central Chile in an area that is relatively new to puma research, a region that is also designated one of the world’s top biodiversity’s hotspots. I recently interviewed project leader Christian Osorio, a PhD student of Dr. Marcella Kelly’s Wildlife Habitat and Population Analysis Lab*in Virginia, to find out more about his groups important work and what they hope to accomplish for the species in central Chile.

Why did you decided to focus on Pumas in central Chile?

Pumas are the most successful terrestrial mammals in the whole world with a range extending more than 100º latitude from Alaska to the Straits of Magellan. They live in a huge variety of habitats such as forests, deserts, shrub-lands, timber plantations and elevations from the coastline up to 4,500 meters above sea level. Nevertheless, puma research and conservation in Chile primarily focuses in the southernmost part like Torres del Paine National Park and surrounding areas and recently in the northernmost areas of the High Andean Plateau.

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Camera-trap on high-elevation Andean grasslands within a private Natural Reserve, central Chile. Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)

The anthropogenic pressures in central Chile, specifically in the Maule Region from sea level to the high Andes, is increasingly strong and landscapes are heavily fragmented with extensive intensive timber plantations. Livestock breeding is a primary industry in this region which means that livestock-carnivore conflict is increasing and, I have known of several retaliatory shooting events against pumas which are often not reported. Natural reserves and protected areas are key to providing habitat as well as a safe-space for wildlife, but it’s the private productive lands that compromise areas far larger than the protected areas in Chile. Proyecto Carnívoros Australes focuses on conducting science-based conservation and management in both protected and unprotected areas with a strong emphasis on human-wildlife conflict mitigation.1

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Puma (Puma concolor). Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)

How did Proyecto Carnívoros Australes come about?

I created Proyecto Carnívoros Australes during my doctoral research when I noticed there was a great need for carnivore research and conservation in central Chile, within the Chilean Winter Rainfall and Valdivian Forests Biodiversity Hotspot (CWR&VF). While working in the CWR&VF I had noticed that the threatened wildlife inhabiting the area required a long-term conservation effort far beyond a Ph.D. dissertation so, I decided to conduct long-term research and management in the area after I graduated. It was then that I also realized that it would require further funding and, after meeting with some colleagues I founded Proyecto Carnívoros Australes which we expect to turn into a lawful non-profit soon.

What is the Chilean Winter Rainfall and Valdivian Forests Biodiversity Hotspot and why is it important to conduct research there?

The CWR&VF is considered one of the worlds 25 biodiversity hotspots and this designation provides guidelines for global prioritization of conservation efforts. ‘Hotspots’ are areas that are biologically rich which means they have high variety of species, habitats and genetics, but they also tend to have high habitat loss and degradation rates. Thus, the CWR&VF comprises areas in which conservation and management are urgent.2,3

How does your study differ from research being done in southern Chile?

There are many differences between my study and others being conducted in southern Chile by Panthera, Fundacion Patagonia and others, all of which are very important and valuable by the way! I think with our research the most important difference is the situation and the surrounding context – besides natural reserves our study sites are located in productive areas with high human pressure, habitat fragmentation and very strong human-wildlife conflict, which differs slightly from the human-wildlife conflict in surrounding natural reserves. To my understanding the most interesting part of our project is that we are working in the natural protected reserves, to include all the wildlife there, and we are putting about half or maybe even more of our effort and energy into science-based conservation and management in the productive, non-protected areas.

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Project leader Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop) setting camera trap on a private Natural Reserve, Andes Mountains of central Chile. Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)

What are the threats pumas face in Chile?

Pumas major threats in Chile are similar to the threats faced by them in the rest of the species distribution range – habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching of their wild prey, and retaliatory hunting due to actual or perceived livestock predation. Nevertheless, most of these threats are very complex and vary significantly from place to place. The human dimensions of conservation becomes key to understanding human-wildlife conflict and managing it properly. We understand that effective wildlife conservation goes far beyond biology, thus the work by our team-member Dr. Solange Vargas on human-dimensions will be key to the success of our conservation efforts.

Do you hope your research helps to foster better public attitudes towards pumas?

Our work with Dr. Vargas specifically aims in the direction of transforming conflict and generating a positive attitude by the community towards pumas and wildlife in general. We hope that appropriate management of conflicts decreases livestock predation rates leading to a more positive perception about wildlife while promoting coexistence. For that reason, we want to work on direct management and also education with adults, youth and children. We already generated a project to work on that and we hope we will have a positive response to move ahead in that direction in the next few years.

Is it a priority to encourage local ranchers to coexist better with pumas?

Yes, that is my hope especially as livestock ranchers are often affected by puma predation, which can be successfully prevented. That is our most important objective regarding conflict management. We want to help them to protect their livestock successfully from predators, with non-lethal management strategies which have been recently proven to be successful in Chile. Thus, we will be able to protect human activities and wildlife at the same time promoting coexistence.

How is your study is being conducted?

Our project has two main areas the first is puma ecology and research and, second is human-wildlife conflict management and mitigation. For the puma ecology part we aim to estimate puma density in different sites (productive-unprotected and protected areas) and assess habitat use/preference, which will be done mostly relying on camera-trap data. We need lots of camera-traps, currently we have around 60%-70% of the units we need, and we hope we will have the remainder by the end of this year.

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Kodkod or guigna (Leopardus guigna). Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)

For the human-wildlife management part, besides perception assessment mainly using focus-groups and predation report data provided by the government, we aim to set non-lethal predator deterrents (FoxLight) devices. These lighting devices help to prevent livestock predation by carnivores without harming them avoiding retaliatory killing against pumas.

Have you considered partnering with a larger organization or wildlife conservation photographer to help tell the story of pumas in central Chile?

I am actually a wildlife photographer myself and I keep teaching a wildlife photography class at VT, but have kept my camera in the bag for a while for this project. I am open to collaborating with any person or organization willing to do it, but big NGOs like Panthera are prioritizing their work on other areas, which is good and necessary. I have received significant support from the Wild Felid Research and Management Association, of which I am an active member of, through some grants I have been awarded as a graduate student. I am currently working with independent film-makers in Chile in order to create a documentary film about the project, which hopefully will be available this year or early next year. Personally, I think it is important to focus on priority areas in which large wildlife conservation agencies are not currently working, like central Chile. There is a great need and there are great people willing to work on and support this conservation effort

What has the local support for your project been like?

This project is being conducted in direct cooperation with the local and national wildlife authorities, whose technical and logistical support has been essential to our work. Two wildlife biologists in addition to myself, two wildlife veterinarians, an archaeologist and two professional film-makers are currently are on our staff. One private natural reserve within the study area has provided significant financial and operational support, like horses, vehicles and guides, and, the private owners of the timber plantations within the study area have shown a really good attitude toward our project by allowing us access to their lands and providing valuable operational support.

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Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)

You recently shared a study about non-lethal deterrents. Can you briefly explain how it will help pumas?

The study, published by Dr. Omar Ohrens et al, is a keystone of conflict management in Chile. I had the joy to work with Dr. Ohrens years ago in the first years of his research at the Chilean Andean Plateau. His study provides scientific evidence that the use of non-lethal lighting devices successfully prevents livestock predation events by pumas, which is very important because it goes beyond the functionality of the device itself. It proves that these devices are actually used by people and that they can be introduced into the traditional livestock-ranchers culture, which is the most critical issue with any management tool we could provide. It doesn’t matter how effective a management strategy is if the people in the community do not accept and apply it, it will be useless. Dr. Ohrens and his team demonstrated the factibility of this management approach and provided methodological guidelines to apply it and assess its success. Studying different scenarios of human-wildlife conflict and the available management tools, in the context in which Dr. Ohrens conducted his study, is the most similar to the situation in my study area. In comparison, the livestock breeding style in southernmost Chile in which the use of guard dogs has proven to be a successful deterrent, is somewhat different.

Tell me about the Proyecto Carnívoros Australes GoFundMe campaign

Crowdfunding support is very important because even though we are constantly applying most available grants only allow us to purchase equipment, they do not allow us to fund operational expenses like gasoline or food and if they do it is only allowed in limited amounts. Thus, we often spend our personal funds to buy batteries, food, load gasoline into the vehicle (which we borrow from a generous person) or to change oil. This means the funds received through our GoFundMe campaign are vital to help fund these and other operational expenses. We plan to keep the GoFundMe campaign open through the duration of the project.

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Camera at burned timber plantation, coast of central Chile. Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)

Do you think there is a potential in the future for puma friendly tourism in central Chile similar to that in southern Chile?

I am not sure yet, I need to have robust data on puma abundances, population densities and trends before answering this question confidently. However, I think it might be doable if the pumas are doing good in the mountain ranges of central Chile and specifically in a couple of private reserves we are partnering with.

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“The coastal ranges of our study area in central Chile were affected by huge (human caused) mega fires in the summer of 2017, which destroyed native forests and timber plantations. In the photo, burned land is being restored with native forest by Universidad de Chile.” Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)

Anything else people should know about pumas in central Chile and your work?

There are two things – the first being that pumas share the habitat with smaller carnivores in the study area such as the Andean fox (Lycalopex culpaeus) and at least two small wild felids, the kodkod or guigna (Leopardus guigna) and the Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo). The second important part of our work is regarding the major human-caused wildfires that occurred in the summer of 2017 in central Chile. The fires burnt a large area of native forests besides the timber plantation and we are still trying to understand if carnivore populations were impacted by this event and whether it may further impact conflict with humans.

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Andean Fox (Lycalopex culpaeus). Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)

For more on this project and how you can support their work to help pumas and wildlife in central Chile please follow Proyecto Carnívoros Australes on Twitter and on Facebook. Their GoFundMe campaign is ongoing and will continue to accept donations during the project.

References

*.Marcella Kelly Wildlife Habitat and Population Analysis Lab

F1.Guarda, N., Gálvez, N., Leichtle, J., Osorio, C., & Bonacic, C. (2017). Puma Puma concolor density estimation in the Mediterranean Andes of Chile. Oryx, 51(2), 263-267. doi:10.1017/S0030605315001301

F2.Myers, N., R. A. Mittermeier, C. G. Mittermeier, G. A. Da Fonseca and J. Kent. (2000). Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403(6772):853–858

F3.Zachos, F. E., & Habel, J. C. (Eds.). (2011). Biodiversity hotspots: distribution and protection of conservation priority areas. Springer Science & Business Media.

The Watcher

Wonderful video of a peaceful encounter between Photographer Jay Staton and a highly endangered Florida panther. While negative and scary headlines sell, don’t believe all the media hype surrounding these animals who are curious and shy by nature. Given space and respect they will choose to stay clear of humans. There are many reasons to share this, including the fact that the species is in desperate need of honest and positive publicity, which this footage provides.

Florida panthers face multiple pressures – from vehicles, human development and major habitat loss which means time is running out to save them. Jay is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to replace custom camera traps, that were destroyed during hurricane Irma, so he can continue to document these amazing animals and tell their story. Please consider sharing with friends and family in Florida and others who wish to see the Florida panther have a much deserved chance of survival.

“I was kneeling at a pool of water filming walking catfish in a ditch in Fakahatchee. I positioned my GoPro camera under water pointing up so I could get the fish swimming above the camera. I walked to the other side of the pool to scare the catfish to swim over my camera. I walked back around to my camera to change its direction. But before I walked back to the other side, I noticed a panther also in the ditch less than 20 feet from me. I grabbed the GoPro camera from the water and pointed it in the direction of the panther. It was set on wide angle so the panther looks further away than 20 feet. I slowly got out of the ditch and walked to my car, some 30 feet away, to retrieve my video camera. When I got back the panther was no longer where I had seen him, but instead he was sitting right where I was kneeling at the water’s edge filming catfish. I set up the tripod and pushed record on my video camera. I walked back to my car calmly, 30 feet away (you can hear my footsteps in the video) to get my picture camera. The video footage shows the panther watched me walk back to my car. I slowly returned to my video camera and took 5 or 6 pictures of the panther. I had a 300mm lens on my full frame camera and the panther was too close to get all of it in frame, so I took parts of the panther to stitch the images together later in Photoshop. The panther decided at that point to leave. I was still trying to take a couple pictures, so I didn’t pan the video camera to follow him quick enough.”  – Via Jay Staton on YouTube:

Changing Hearts and Minds

Los Angeles’ famous feline resident and star of the documentary The Cat That Changed America has managed to captivate people on both a local and international level like no mountain lion before. Driven by instinct and perhaps fate, P-22 navigated deadly traffic and took up residence in Griffith Park where he remains surrounded by highways, urban sprawl and people. Essentially his ‘trapped’ existence has become a stark reminder of why there is an urgent need to ensure proper habitat connectivity for wildlife.

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P-22 makes a rare daylight appearance in Griffith Park. Instagram © Miguel Ordenana @ordenana4 August 2017

P-22 has become both legend and hero to a community now passionately working to ensure that all mountain lions in California have a future where they can exist and thrive. His story is an inspirational and compelling example of co-existence and, his documentary is set to change the hearts and minds of all those who see it.

After six months on the film circuit, Director Tony Lee is back to answer a few questions on the positive impact his film is having and the importance of its next screening.

The Cat That Changed America premiered earlier this year and has had various public screenings in and around L.A., what has the audience reception been like so far?

The audience reception has been tremendous and people have really embraced this film. The film has been shown at the Old Summer Cinema in Pasadena, the Green Screens festival in UCLA, and is due to be shown at the DTLA Film Festival at the end of September and the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City in October. We have also had sponsored screenings in Ojai, Oak Park and the Natural History Museum of L.A. County. Everyone wants to find out more about P-22.

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The L.A. Premiere of The Cat That Changed America March 16th at the UCLA James Bridges Theater

The most recent screening of the film in Hollywood included a panel discussion, what are the benefits of having one coincide with a screening?

It really gives an interactive experience so people can watch the movie and then ask questions about P-22. They also have the chance to have their photograph taken with his cardboard cutout which is always popular. By attending the screening they have a chance to speak to the cast about the building of the wildlife crossing and also the widespread impact of rodenticides (rat poison) upon our wildlife.

In addition to raising awareness for the wildlife crossing, what else do you see the film accomplishing?

A big part of the film is the issue of rat poisons as P-22 himself was effected when he had eaten too many coyotes and raccoons, which had ingested rats that had eaten the poison. The poison works its way up the food chain and the audience is coming to realize that all things are connected, and that using these harmful chemicals has devastating consequences for animals.

Do you think your film has encouraged people to take the threat that rodenticides pose to wildlife more seriously?

Absolutely. I think people are shocked to discover the effects of poisoning on wildlife. There are audible gasps in the audience when they see P-22’s photograph as a result of rodent poisoning. People have been asking Poison Free Malibu, who feature in the film, what can be done to prevent the same thing from happening in their neighborhood, how can they get these really dangerous chemicals banned and, how can they put pressure on local authorities to ban the use of rodenticides. There have been positive changes as a direct result of the film.

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P-22 suffered from rodenticide poisoning but was treated and recovered

What has the international reception been like, and do you think people outside of North America will be able to find parallels to challenges they face with wildlife?

The international reception has been awesome. Both The Guardian and the Times of London have written about the film, despite the fact it has yet to premiere in the UK. The universal problem facing all wildlife is loss of habitat – connectivity is a big issue as motorways and freeways have cut swathes across our countryside. Big cats are in danger in particular from habitat fragmentation and, some like the cheetah are near extinction because of it.

The films next big screening is at the Downtown Los Angeles film festival, why is this particular screening so important?

It will reach the heart of the financial district and downtown L.A., where many Angelenos live and work. They may have heard of P-22, but are probably unaware of his amazing story and how he crossed two major freeways to reach Griffith Park. We welcome donors to help sponsor the wildlife crossing through the campaign group Save LA Cougars. The film will be shown at the Regal Live Cinema in Downtown L.A. on Friday September 29th and you can buy tickets through the DTLA Film Festival website.

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Click to see an animation map of P-22’s journey

Now that you have told P-22’s story do you think you will make any more films about mountain lions?

It depends on the story as P-22 is a hard act to follow, but mountain lions are incredible animals and I’m sure there are many stories out there to tell.

Finally, is there anything you can tell us about what will you be working on next?

I’m currently executive producer for the BBC on a new natural history series which will air next year.

Tickets for the DTLA Film Festival screening are now available for purchase. If you would like to support the wildlife crossing directly by making a donation please visit Save LA Cougars.

Love Story

Wonderful short film from Jay Station on Youtube documenting the mating behavior of Florida Panthers. Always fascinating to watch big cat behavior!

Discerning Foxes wear Puma N°5

Animals exist in a completely different sensory world than humans and scents that humans would find offensive or unattractive are often found to be a draw for our four-legged friends. An article in New Scientist recently revealed research by Carnivore Ecologist Max Allen showing gray foxes in California rubbing themselves in “community scrapes” left by male mountain lions.

Discerning foxes wear Puma N°5. While rubbing oneself in puma scent may not sound appealing to us for the fox it could possibly be the equivalent of Chanel N°5 with the added bonus of providing life saving camouflage. Allen tells New Scientist that he was surprised to find foxes frequenting the sites where camera traps had been set up to monitor and film mountain lions. Footage, taken over four years at 26 different sites “revealed the foxes were rubbing their cheeks on bits of ground that had been freshly marked by the mountain lions, often within hours of a big cat’s visit.”

Why are foxes resorting to rubbing Eau de Mountain Lion on them? Coyotes. Foxes are in direct competition with the much larger coyote and are often killed by them, Allen says this is a way for the foxes to evade detection. “Coyotes are very reliant upon smell when hunting and are much bigger than the foxes. The foxes have a hard time fighting back, so they use this to give themselves a chance to escape.” To a coyote if it smells like a puma it must be a puma.

It was found that no other animals, coyotes or bobcats, exhibited this behavior even though they were documented to have visited the community scrapes, but 85% of the foxes did. Predator avoidance seems the most likely explanation and in order to confirm, Allen and his team are planning to tag some gray foxes to determine if puma scents are in fact helping them survive predation.

The Cat That Changed America

P-22 the most famous mountain lion in the world is a both a celebrity and messenger. So far he has managed to: survive the deadly traffic of Los Angeles; stealthily navigate the cities massive urban sprawl taking up residence in an area that represents 3% of a normal size home range for a mountain lion; and, recover from a potentially life-threatening case of rodenticide poisoning. For the most part P-22 has overcome the odds, but his story is a cautionary tale with an important message – one that is explored in the upcoming documentary film The Cat that Changed America.

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The film focuses on P-22, the challenges mountain lions are facing in California and the plan to build the world’s largest wildlife crossing which will help connect mountain lions, and other wildlife, to spaces better suited for them. There is an urgency to get the crossing built as mountain lions are running out of time in California – they are threatened by urban sprawl, inbreeding, vehicles, rat poison and ultimately extinction. If they do not get the help they need now they will most certainly be gone in 50 years

P-22 has helped to create a movement that is shifting our view of mountain lions and, with effort on our part to learn to co-exist with this important keystone species, his story can be a catalyst to help change America and the rest of the world.

In anticipation of the films release I recently spoke to Director Tony Lee about The Cat that Changed America and the role he hopes it will play in helping P-22 and other mountain lions in California.

When you first became aware of P-22, and the crisis facing mountain lions and wildlife in LA, what inspired you to tell his story?

I was struck by how passionate and eloquent the campaigners for the wildlife crossing are, especially Beth Pratt, the California Director for the National Wildlife Federation, and Miguel Ordenana of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It was actually Miguel who was the first person I spoke to about the story, which is appropriate as he captured the first photograph of P-22 in one of his camera traps in Griffith Park.

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The making of The Cat that Changed America – Behind the scenes stills provided by Tony Lee

Why do you think it is important to make this film now?

I think the film is very timely, as the National Wildlife Federation and the Save LA Cougars campaign are aiming to raise $10 million by the end of 2017 to fund the development of the wildlife crossing, with the long-term goal of completing the crossing in 2021. They need to raise a total over $55 million for this. My film is part of this much larger campaign to raise funds and raise awareness.

How do you see P-22 and his story changing the way Americans, and the world, view mountain lions and their role in a healthy ecosystem?

I chose the title “The Cat that Changed America”, because P-22 has moved the dial in our thinking about where urban wildlife can thrive, especially wildlife as big as a mountain lion. P-22 is living in the middle of the second largest city in the United States, and one of the biggest metropolitan cities in the world. If wildlife is to co-exist alongside us, we also need to change our thinking about what are acceptable places for wildlife to live. We also have a choice of becoming responsible and considerate neighbors, which means changing our consumer lifestyle, thinking about the impact on the countryside and not using rat poisons.

In a feature for the Natural History Network you wrote that this was “an intricate and sensitive story”, as well as a challenging one. What makes P-22’s story different from other wildlife conversation films you have made?

I feel a huge responsibility to tell the story well, and use my knowledge and experience as a filmmaker. Together with Alex Rapaport my cinematographer based in LA, we aimed to tell the story through cinematic language and emotional appeal. This story is different from other conservation films I have made, because it is part of a bigger campaign, and I feel the urgency and the responsibility that comes with that.

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Director Tony Lee with Cinematographer Lance Jeffery

You also mentioned that the 1 hour film was completed in about 3 months. What were some of your biggest challenges making a film about one of the most elusive and shy cats in the world, in such a short time frame?

As a wildlife filmmaker, I know that filming mountain lions, and especially P-22 within the time frame would be nigh impossible. They are called ghost cats for good reason as they are incredibly elusive. So I concentrated on filming the characters connected with the wildlife crossing and studying P-22. For actual mountain lion footage, I relied on existing film captured by Miguel Ordenana and Matthew Whitmire who were part of the Griffith Park Connectivity study, as well as the National Park Service, who had footage and photographs of P-22.

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California Director for the National Wildlife Federation Beth Pratt-Bergstrom

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Wildlife Biologist Miguel Ordenana in Griffith Park

You interviewed researchers, experts and citizens for the film – what about P-22’s supporters has stood out most?

There are so many wonderful quotes and passionate stories in the film; some of the stand outs for me include Miguel’s description of finding the P-22 photograph for the first time, which he likens to discovering ‘Big Foot’. Beth also describes her life changing experience when being shown around Griffith Park by Jeff Sikich and realizing that urban wildlife as big as a mountain lion can live right in the middle of LA. Sherry Ferber’s description on hearing that a mountain lion had been killed on the 101 freeway near her home in Liberty Canyon and how that cemented her bond with these cats, and Poison Free Malibu’s plea to stop using anticoagulant rodenticides as we are poisoning the Earth as well as each other.

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National Park Service wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich

The Cat That Changed America has been accepted at the World International Film Festival in Los Angeles and New York. Are there plans to enter it at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival where the conservation focus will be on the big cats?

Yes I absolutely plan to submit it to the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. I actually won the Special Jury Award at Jackson Hole in 2015 (for ‘The Secret Life of Your House’, about animals which live in our homes). The award partly inspired me to make this film about P-22. I’ve already approached the Festival board with panel suggestions for their Wild Cats symposium, with the focus being on connectivity and habitat fragmentation facing wild cats.

How important is it for a wildlife film like this to be seen at film festivals?

I think it’s vital to raise awareness to anyone who is interested in wildlife, and especially to those who are unaware or not so interested. P-22 is a celebrity, but many Los Angelenos and people around the world are still unaware of the serious issues facing mountain lions and how they are suffering from fragmentation, habitat loss and the threat of anticoagulant rodenticides.

Besides the film festival circuit where else will the documentary be available for viewing?

I’m currently talking to distributors and channels about broadcasting after the film festivals. I’m hoping that the popularity created by the festivals will stir broadcaster interest as it has done so with other environmental films such as ‘Blackfish’ and ‘Racing Extinction’.

Was there anything that you learned about mountain lions during the process of making the film that has left you in a position to be a better advocate for the species?

Yes, I didn’t know that male mountain lions need very large home ranges – around 200 square miles – they need to be connected to open spaces, otherwise they will fight to the death over territory. It’s our responsibility as Los Angelenos and considerate neighbors to ensure they have enough space to thrive, otherwise they suffer from the effects of inbreeding and intraspecific killing.

P-22’s celebrity seems to be doing for mountain lions what Elsa the lioness of Born Free did for African lions. How do you see your documentary fitting into a new movement towards helping save North America’s lion?

I like to think that bringing my 25 years experience as a wildlife and conservation filmmaker will help P-22’s cause and help raise funds for the wildlife crossing. In fact I feel so strongly about this film, it’s the first time I have used my own money to solely finance a feature, because I felt so passionate about getting it made. I’m sure that people will want to watch it, but I also see it as a donation I’ve made to the Save LA Cougars campaign in the way I know how to contribute as a filmmaker. Conservation films have been notoriously difficult to get funded, but I think we are entering a golden age for documentaries, and I’m excited to be part of that movement.

Do you think that P-22’s story will help change attitudes towards mountain lions and how they are viewed and ‘managed’ outside California?

Absolutely. P-22 has been described as a conservation hero and ambassador, and in fact, I’ll be putting him forward in that category at Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 2017. A conservation hero doesn’t necessarily have to be a person like E.O. Wilson or David Attenborough, it can be an animal too, and P-22 is the best poster child for urban wildlife and issues of connectivity.

What is the main message about mountain lions in LA, and in general, that you want people to take away from the film?

If we are to coexist with nature, we radically have to change our lifestyle and our way of thinking, and become part of nature, even if we are living in one of the densest urban areas on Earth. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate; we are Nature’s gatekeepers, the responsibility of the planet at this moment in time rests solely in our hands, and P-22’s story and the wildlife crossing truly shows that charity begins at home, right on our doorstep.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Be sure to visit the films website The Cat that Changed America and share – If there is any story that can help sway people’s interest in helping conserve North America’s lion it’s this one.

If you would like to support the wildlife crossing by making a monetary donation please visit Save LA Cougars

About Producer and Director Tony Lee: Tony is an award-winning filmmaker, television producer and author. Tony has worked in California for 2 years for National Geographic Television and in New York City for Animal Planet. Over his 25 year career, he has produced and directed many programmes in the science and natural history strand for a range of broadcasters. He spends his time between California and England, and has a special interest in big cats.