Prime Suspect

Everyone’s favorite mountain lion P-22 was back in the news again and this time it wasn’t for hiding under someone’s house. The feline celebrity and resident of LA’s Griffith Park was simply doing something that comes naturally to him in a not so natural environment.

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Mountain Lion P22 prime suspect in death of the LA Zoos Koala. Image – The Guardian

Last week P-22 made the headlines for being the prime suspect in the death of the LA Zoos 14 year old Koala named Killarney. Sometime during the night of March 2 P-22 scaled the 8 foot high wall of the Zoo and allegedly got into the exhibit killing Killarney. Zoo staff found that she was missing the next day and began the search discovering her body not far from the enclosure. After reviewing security footage they found evidence which indicated a Mountain Lion, namely P-22, was most likely responsible.

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The attack wasn’t recorded although there are photos of P-22, around the Zoo grounds. – Image LA Times

Security footage which monitors outside wildlife showed P-22 has frequented the Zoo before, although they do not know exactly how he is getting in or out. They think he has been taking raccoons on the property as prey and, they know prior to this event P22 had never touched a Zoo animal. While no footage exists of him actually taking Killarney he was seen entering the grounds that night and tracking data from the GPS collar he wears reveals he was in the area however, it remains inconclusive if he was the one actually responsible for killing the Koala. Kate Kuykendall with the National Park Service told Los Angeles ABC7News that “He was in the area, but our GPS points are separated by two hours, so we can’t say for sure.” She also goes on to say that it is possible that a “bobcat or another carnivore may be the culprit.”

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Since the incident the Zoo is taking extra precautions by removing the Koala’s from exhibit and ensuring they are locked up in their night quarters when the Zoo closes. – Image NBC LA

The Zoo is in close proximity to the city’s largest urban park, which has lots of native wildlife including bobcats and coyotes, so P-22 wouldn’t be alone in having frequented the Zoo and surrounding area.

The media ran stories all week-long some more sensational than others and while it is sad that the Koala died, and most will agree it is not pleasant to read about, P-22 should in no way be made out as the bad guy for behaving like a mountain lion. He is after all a wild animal who has learned to co-exist, as best he can, in a densely populated city without incident.

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So far P22 has survived freeways, rat poisoning, urban sprawl and the pressures of an ever-growing human population. P22 – Image – Steve Winter

The majority of the public came to his defense but there were a few, including Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who suggested that P-22 should be “moved to a safer, more remote wild area where he has adequate space to roam without the possibility of human interaction”. Moving a mountain lion is not advisable – it is stressful for the animal and easier said than done. Relocating a cat to a new area can create problems with other mountain lions that may already reside there as they will fight, often to the death, to defend their territory. On the other side, Council member David Ryu acknowledged that while the death of the Koala was unfortunate, moving P-22 should not be an option. “As our City continues to grow, wildlife and humans are increasingly competing for space, resources, and places to call home. Many of these species play a critical role in creating healthier ecosystems that benefit us all.”

Importantly in all of this LA Zoo director John Lewis seems to get it and does not place blame on P-22. In an official statement he said, “there’s a lot of native wildlife in this area. This is their home. So we’ll learn to adapt to P-22 just like he’s learned to adapt to us.” This is actually a good thing, while California mountain lions are specially protected from sport hunting, depredation permits can in some cases be issued to kill cats that are determined to pose an immediate threat to the public. While this was clearly not the situation with P-22 other mountain lions in California without his celebrity status may not be so lucky when they are ‘perceived as a threat’. In 2015 The Mountain Lion Foundation reports that 256 such depredation permits were issued resulting in 107 of the cats being killed.

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For now it seems that P22 is safe, but comfort levels are clearly being tested. – Image National Park Service

Mountain lions like all native wildlife play a valuable role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, and society must learn not to vilify them for doing exactly what they are supposed to do, the responsibility clearly lies with us to protect ourselves, Zoos, livestock and pets. There is no one perfect solution when it comes co-exiting with wildlife, but if mountain lions are going to survive people must be prepared to utilize the best possible solutions that benefit both humans and animals – whatever they may be.

Wildlife everywhere is suffering from human pressure and while we often point fingers and insist people elsewhere, like Africa, learn to ‘live with and protect’ lions we should be addressing our own practices with wildlife at home. After all we may be guilty of some of the same things we are so quick to accuse others of.

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P22 is doing for Mountain Lions what Elsa the lioness did for African Lions, will his status will be enough to protect him and ultimately his entire species? P22 – Image Griffith Park Trail Cam

Mountain lions in California face many threats from inbreeding, death by vehicles and rat poison as well as habitat loss. The SaveLACougars campaign is trying to raise awareness and funds to build a much-needed wildlife crossing in LA to connect the species to the wild places they need to get to. If you would like to find out more about the campaign and why it is so important to help these big cats, be sure to watch the TEDx event talk given by Beth Pratt-Bergstrom the California Director for the National Wildlife Federation below.

How a Lonely Cougar in Los Angeles Inspired the World.

#SaveLACougars has also launched an official online store where 100% of the proceeds from merchandise purchased goes directly to fund the campaign.

Mountain Lions of LA

Last night 60 minutes featured the Mountain Lions of LA including some good footage of P22 the resident Mountain Lion of Griffith Park who is also at the center of the Save LA Cougars campaign. In case you missed it, click here or on image below to view the segment.

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The Mountain Lion That Could

My trip to L.A. would not have been complete without meeting the cities most “wild” and elusive celebrity, a big cat who hasn’t let fame go to his head.

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P-22 on his home turf – Griffith Park the second largest Urban Park in the US

P-22 also known as the Hollywood Hills Cougar, was first spotted in 2012 by camera traps set up by the Griffith Park Natural History Survey’s Wildlife Connectivity Study. P-22 had been looking for a new territory, dispersing from the Santa Monica Mountains, when he did something remarkable and crossed two of the busiest freeways in the US, the 405 and the 101.

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P-22’s journey to Griffith Park from the Santa Monica Mountains across two major highways and through a highly developed urban area Image – NWF

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First images of P-22 in Griffith Park taken in 2012 – Photo Griffith Park Connectivity Study – NWF

P-22, the mountain Lion that could, survived the freeways and made it to Griffith Park where he decided to take up residency in an area that represents 3% of a normal size home range for a mountain lion. Surrounded and trapped by the busy city of Los Angeles in an urban park that gets millions of visitors a year P-22 also managed to remain out of sight. His anonymity wouldn’t last long as his story spread and his celebrity cemented when photographer Steve Winter captured him, in the now iconic photo, with the Hollywood sign in the background.

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P-22 in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic Photo – Steve Winter

From that moment on P-22 became the poster cat for the plight facing urban wildlife trying to survive in and around the big city. He would also become the center of the National Wildlife Federations (NWF) Save LA Cougars campaign, an initiative to ensure mountain lions have a future in California by providing a much-needed wildlife crossing at the 101 freeway. While it’s amazing to think a mountain lion lives in Griffith Park, he shouldn’t be trapped there. In the future the crossing will help ensure these cats are better connected to wild spaces more suited for them.

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P-22’s home is surrounded by a sea of endless human development

To find out more about Save LA Cougars I met up with P22 (the cutout – no real mountain lions were used in the making of this story) and Leigh Wyman California Program Assistant, Urban Wildlife at the NWF. We decide to meet in Griffith Park at the entrance close to the Los Feliz neighborhood where a few months earlier P-22 took up residence under the crawl space of a house. I spot the familiar cutout of P-22 propped up against the picnic table and he is not alone, some children have gathered around excited and curious about the big cat.

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Camera traps catch P-22 feeding on deer in Griffith Park – Photo Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

I will find out that P-22 draws a lot of attention when he is out and about and, when I ask Leigh about being upstaged by a life-size cardboard cut out of a mountain lion she tells me “it’s great actually and it brings out people’s concern about mountain lions…it gets a dialogue going especially after the Los Feliz crawl space incident.”

While the cut out is a lot of fun, the basis of the Save LA Cougars campaign is a serious one. Mountain lions are in trouble and facing a multitude of challenges from habitat loss, vehicular deaths, intra-species killings, inbreeding and poisoning by rodenticides. Barriers like freeways add to these problems by restricting the ability of mountain lions to move around freely from one territory to another. The link provided by the crossing is going to be vital to the survival of the species.

Leigh explains that mountain lions are one of California’s last big predators and that possibility of loosing them has led to discussion and speculation on what it would do the ecosystems. As we are finding out everywhere predators like mountain lions play a major role in maintaining the health of ecosystems and loosing them could have negative and irreversible consequences.

“If mountain lions don’t get help inbreeding can also occur and then they are in trouble genetically. For example fathers will mate with daughters, which leads to kinked tails, and other health issues. Since there isn’t an abundant amount of cats something needs to be done to ensure they will continue to be around.” Left unchecked inbreeding could be a cause that leads to the species demise.

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P-22 last year looking good after recovering from a bad case of mange – Photo National Park Service

The National Park Service conducted a 12 year study of mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains capturing, collaring and tagging about 30 plus cats, give or take a few that have been lost. “With the GPS data the biologist collected they can see the cats as points on a map over all locations. The data shows the lineage of the cats, what it means for genetic variation and how it helps the population. It also shows that the cats come right up to the freeways to cross but instead turnaround.”

Cost of connectivity Early this year the campaign got a boost when the California Department of Transportation received a  one million dollar grant from the State Coastal Conservancy. The money pays for the environmental assessment and initial design of the what the actual crossing structure will look like. Once that phase is over the campaign will need an additional 2.5 to 3.5 million to get shovel ready plus more beyond that. Early estimates put a tunnel crossing in at around 10 million, however I am told the final cost of the crossing along with the actual design is still yet to be determined.

Location location location The campaign should be shovel ready by sometime in 2018 and will break ground at the Aougra Hills exit at Liberty Canyon on the other side of the 101 freeway. Based on the data collected and the fact that there have been more than a few mountain lions killed by vehicles near the proposed crossing, Liberty Canyon has been determined to be the last best place to help wildlife cross the freeways.

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Beth Pratt-Bergstrom  NWF’s California Director with P22 at one of the LA freeways he crossed – Photo NWF

All wildlife wins “There are big areas of protected private and public land that work as funnels for mountain lions and other wildlife out of the Santa Monica Mountains. While mountain lions are the priority because they are endangered, the crossing will benefit all wildlife like deer, fox, bobcats, coyotes right down to the smallest amphibians and that’s what make this project fantastic.”

Does the crossing mean more mountain lions in the city? I am told that there was some concern about that but there is a very good possibility that the crossing will “lessen human and mountain lion interactions because they won’t need to come into our space, they will have a better free flow into the more wild areas.”

Will the cats use the crossing? “Since we can’t go around asking the mountain lions or tell them where to cross,  we rely on the scientific data collected on both the mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains and where the hot spots are needed for connectivity.  You also look at the data from crossings built elsewhere and you can see they work. Science has proved crossing can be successful.” Biologist have collected and pinpointed the best possible location for the crossing and will use camera’s to monitor activity as well as continue to collect blood samples to track the cats DNA.

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Banff National Park’s wildlife crossing structures. Cougars are quick learners, taking approximately three years to adapt to the crossing. Image © Parks Canada

I am told that there has been mainly all positive support for the project and that California is ready for this to happen. “California is opening the door to a new way of thinking about transportation, city planning and the environment – it becomes part of people’s mentality.” Looking at the state of the Florida Panther which is highly endangered she says people in California “do not want mountain lions here to get to that point, and the open-minded perspective on incorporating wildlife into daily life is really exciting.”

Steve Winter’s photos helped propel public knowledge of the campaign and was extremely helpful when it came to “raising awareness with complete strangers.” Leigh tells me that she started P-22’s Facebook page and in 3 weeks it had 3,000 likes from all of over the US and the rest of the world. “In L.A. it’s become part of the local culture in and around the city. I have even heard side conversations about P-22 in the grocery store!”

Leading by example “Traditionally the approach has been to protect islands of land like Yellow Stone or Yosemite which is great, but what they are seeing now is that connectivity is essential for wildlife and ecosystems to flourish. By creating a wildlife crossing in an urban setting we hope to set the platform for other cities to do the same.”

While most other wildlife crossing around the world, like the ones in Europe or Banff National Park, are constructed in more natural and open areas California will be constructing it in a huge urban city, which has not been done before. “It’s a new way for cities to keep an ecological mindset and their urban system overlapping. You have downtown L.A., the Hollywood walk of fame on one side and bobcats, coyotes and a mountain lion in Griffith Park, the two worlds can co-exist and L.A. and California want them to continue to exist.”

The biggest obstacle is the funding, but the NWF has been working with the necessary agencies and is confident that they will come up with the required money. “The campaign is more than a snowball effect it is moving at a fast pace.”

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With P-22 and Leigh Wyman – Thumbs up for #SaveLACougars

Taking one for the team P-22 has been the ultimate spokes cat for the wildlife crossing, urban wildlife and the Save LA Cougars campaign but how does he make out in all of this? Sadly the crossing won’t help him, at six years of age he is the confirmed bachelor of Griffith Park, but his story has provided the juice and momentum for the campaign which will assist in helping his relatives and ancestors that still roam the surrounding areas.

How will P-22’s story end? Leigh laughs when I joke about the movie deal “This is Hollywood though…so you never know.”

Looking for ways to support the Save LA Cougars campaign?

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  • Text “LION” to 25383 to donate $10 to #SaveLACougars on your mobile
  • Download the Save LA Cougars Campaign Flyer to help spread the word
  • Donate directly to NWF and the Save LA Cougars Campaign
  • Volunteer with the NWF or host a fundraiser for P22 at home or with your school
  • Snap a selfie with P22’s cutout and be sure to tag it with #SaveLACougars to help spread awareness on social media

Finally, no self-respecting mountain lion, in Los Angeles, would be without a way to connect with his fans so be sure to check out P-22 on Facebook.

Bright Lights Big Cat

When Mountain Lion P-22, also known as the Hollywood Hills Cougar, wandered into the Los Feliz Hills area of Los Angeles sometime on Monday to take refuge in the crawl space of a house, the home owners weren’t the only ones who got a surprise. P-22 was made famous when his photo was featured on the cover of National Geographic after camera traps set up LA’s Griffith Park captured a stunning image of him at night, with the glowing Hollywood Hills sign in the background.

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The story of P-22 touched many and put a spotlight on wildlife forced to live in close proximity to humans, with nowhere to go these animals are often under pressure to learn to adapt to an ever diminishing natural environment. Photo – Steve Winter

It had been determined through genetic testing that P-22 was related to Mountain Lions from the Santa Monica Mountains, and that he had left home in search of new territory crossing at least two of the busiest freeways in the US to get to Griffith Park where he now resides. That he was able to navigate through a maze of human development unseen and survive the freeway crossings makes him one very lucky cat.

Bright Lights, Big Cat  – P-22 captured by camera trap with the glowing city lights of Los Angeles behind him

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Photo – Steve Winter

Having overcome one major hurdle he faced another  last year when he was found suffering from a severe case of mange and exposure to rat poison, which is proven to be deadly to wildlife. The rat poison is also what made him susceptible to mange, but luckily P-22 responded to treatment and photos taken later that year showed he was doing well.

Cougars are extremely secretive choosing to avoid people and, P-22 had done a pretty good job at remaining elusive. However on Monday that all changed when he was discovered under the LA home. According to the LA TimesSurveillance camera video and data from P-22’s GPS tracking collar show that the Los Feliz neighborhood has also been a regular hangout… California Department of Fish and Wildlife speculated that P-22 might have been regularly using the crawl space of the house, which has frequently been vacant.”

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Sorry P-22 your hideout has been discovered – Image the LA Times

Workers installing a security system in the house discovered the cat and told the owners who called Animal Services. The Department of Fish and Wildlife was notified and they tried to figure a way to get the cat to come out. That’s when things got crazy.

Reporters flocked to the site and helicopters hovered and, if you didn’t know any better you would have thought you tuned into the latest paparazzi chase for some big Hollywood star.  At this point I was hoping for a happy ending where P-22 did not become a victim of an overzealous media.

Using tranquilizers was not an option because they could not get a clear shot, so instead officers opted for other non-lethal methods which included launching bean bags and tennis balls at the cat. However, nothing they did seemed to work and it was clear that P-22 was not going to come out.

For the video of the NBC local news report click here

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Featured on local news report – P-22 a victim of the paparazzi

Unfortunately the harassment was kept up for a while, but finally common sense seem to prevail and they stopped trying to force him out, everyone finally backed off.

At some point later when all the commotion had died down P-22 slipped out unseen, just as stealthily as he had come. It was reported on Tuesday morning that the 6-year-old Mountain Lion had left the building and was tracked, by his radio collar, back safely in Griffith Park somewhere. One day P-22 will likely leave Griffith Park again and when he does I hope he is given the respect and space he deserves.

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P-22 and his story has come to represent the crises facing urban wildlife. He is also at the heart of the Save LA Cougars campaign which aims to help Mountain Lions and other wildlife by building a wildlife crossing to connect habitat needed for their survival.