The mountain lion known as P22 has become something of a celebrity in the city of Los Angeles. The big cat resides in Griffith Park, a 4,000-acre park tucked in the Hollywood hills, and has inspired murals, songs and even an exhibit about his life.
This February marks 10 years since scientists first found P22 while setting up camera traps in the area. His discovery was considered jaw-dropping, and scientists say that P22 has come to symbolize something uniquely LA, a city where wild landscapes rub shoulders with dense urbanism.
“A city long bashed for being a concrete jungle full of smog proves the world wrong by making a home for a mountain lion,” says Beth Pratt, California director for the National Wildlife Federation. Pratt even has a tattoo of P22 and dubbed him the “Brad Pitt of mountain lions” – attractive, enigmatic and unlucky in love. He has plenty of deer to eat, no male competitors in his territory, but also no hope to find a mate.
Pratt points out that in any other part of the country, P22 probably would have been removed or killed. In Los Angeles, he’s famous.
P22’s journey to Griffith Park began many miles away in the Santa Monica mountains, which have been home to 100 lions and where P22 was born, around 2010. P stands for puma and the number corresponds to the individual cat that is part of a scientific study by National Park Service biologists, who are researching mountain lions in the Santa Monica mountains.
Sometime around 2012, P22 left the Santa Monica mountains and set off on a remarkable 50-mile journey that took him across two major Los Angeles freeways, evading traffic and human detection. He eventually found the wilderness of Griffith Park to set up his range – at 8 sq miles, it’s probably the smallest roaming territory of any known mountain lion (typically a male cat’s territory is 150 sq miles). When he was caught on film in Griffith Park, he probably hadn’t been there for very long. He was soon fitted with a collar to track his movements, and the city started to fall in love.
Griffith Park, a 4,000-acre park tucked into the Hollywood hills, is visited by millions. Photographer: J David Ake/AP
Gerry Hans still remembers the remarkable day that P22 was found. Hans, the president of the nonprofit Friends of Griffith Park, had just brainstormed a camera trap survey of the park, to see what kinds of creatures were making the area home. But he and biologists in the park were started to discover that, alongside the coyotes, bobcats and foxes, their cameras picked up the unmistakable image of a mountain lion.
Hans said hey wanted to be sensitive about how others would take the news: “We released a study report of the camera traps, and gently slipped it in that there was a mountain lion,” he says. “There was a lot of nervousness from residents.”
P22 has never posed danger to people, choosing to coexist peacefully and lurk in the night, keeping his distance from human neighbors. Scientists point out that P22 lives in an urban park visited by millions of people and is rarely seen.
A few times over the past years, P22 has found himself in hot water. In 2014, he became sick after eating an animal that had been killed with rodenticide. That led to a public outcry about the availability of such poisons, and in October 2020 California passed into law AB 1788, which bans the use of the most lethal anticoagulant rodenticides.
In 2015, he got trapped underneath a house, creating a media circus – and a desperate problem-solving effort to get him out. The following year, he leapt an 8ft wall into the LA Zoo and mauled a sleeping koala to death. Instead of singling out the cat, the zoo changed its policy of letting animals wander outside during the night.
P22 has never posed a danger to people, although Angelenos are fond of sharing videos of the big cat making an appearance in their back yards. Photographer: Alamy
P22 has also become a symbol of the need for wildlife crossings to reconnect habitats fragmented by human development. Los Angeles is set to break ground on the world’s largest wildlife crossing in early 2022, which will connect two parts of the Santa Monica mountain range, allowing P22’s kin – and animals from lizards to birds – to increase their range and allow for more genetic diversity .
What might the next decade bring for the iconic puma? In the wild, mountain lions only live a dozen years, but in captivity they can live up to 20 or more, Hans says. “P22 is somewhere between being out in the wild and in captivity,” he says. “He likely is not going to ever die from interaction with other male lions.”
That leaves him time to increase his rising stardom. P22 is a remarkable animal and so totally an LA cat, says Pratt. “Like many Angelenos, he’s chill, likes hanging out under the Hollywood sign, and managed to navigate the brutal traffic on the 101 and 405.”
Pratt says she loves how this city has embraced an apex predator. “The LA area possesses a value of coexisting with wildlife that I celebrate – people share their Ring videos of P22 making an appearance in their back yard with excitement, not fear,” she says. Not bad for a small town cat – he truly did make it big in Hollywood.