A decade ago, on a bright Los Angeles morning, Miguel Ordeñana hiked into Griffith Park, a defiant pocket of green hills surrounded by busy freeways and major roads. Before developers carved up the California landscape, the park hugged the Santa Monica Mountains. Now, during peak traffic hours, 15,000 cars drive Interstate 5 along its eastern edge, and the park’s 4,000 acres — LA’s largest green space — is just a short drive from downtown.
Back then, Ordeñana was an idealistic 29-year-old wildlife biologist who had just started a job with the U.S. Forest Service. That morning, he entered the park from the east, venturing deep into canyons of dark-green chaparral. The traffic noise faded, giving way to the muted rustle of the coastal sage scrub’s low-growing leaves. Ordeñana had come to check out the motion-activated wildlife cameras he’d installed throughout the urban park to document its wildlife, an assortment of raccoons, gray foxes, skunks, coyotes, bobcats and deer. Griffith Park functions like an island surrounded by freeways; once animals find their way into its densely vegetated core, they are, essentially, marooned. Leaving is too risky; the surrounding freeways and overbuilt neighborhood streets keep them largely confined to their newfound refuge. There’s generally plenty of food there, though never enough space to roam, and, crucially, it’s almost impossible for many animals to find mates. After hiking for over an hour, Ordeñana reached the last of his cameras and collected the footage.
Wildlife biologist Miguel Ordeñana in a part of LA’s Griffith Park known to be frequented by the mountain lion P-22.
A few weeks later, as he returned to his cameras on the edge of Griffith Park, lost in thought, a car pulled over and the stranger in it yelled at him, threatening to call the cops: “You’re not supposed to be here!” Ordeñana scrambled for his papers — his driver’s license, U.S. Forest Service badge, the folded-up state permit that authorized his research. But the man was already on his cellphone, and, within minutes, a police car appeared. Ordeñana felt himself tense up, fear and rage roiling inside him. This could be it, he thought. One little gesture, the wrong movement, and it’s over for me. He’d be seen as an outsider, an intruder, a criminal. Someone could pull out a gun and kill him.
Ordeñana is solidly built, about 5 foot 8, with a broad chest, strong arms and short-cropped dark hair. That day, he wore a bright orange safety vest and carried a backpack. And, fortunately, the police reacted calmly, de-escalating the situation. They did, however, remind him to make sure he carried his permit and always wore that official-looking vest.
Video of a bobcat captured by one of the motion-activated trail cameras that Ordeñana uses to monitor P-22’s health and activities, as well as those of other passersby.
He kept returning to Griffith Park. One day, in mid-February, 2012, Ordeñana was reviewing footage. His trail cameras had captured plenty of wildlife. But this time, they also caught something extraordinary: On the left side of one frame, amid overgrown grasses, stood a muscular 120-pound cougar.
Ordeñana was stunned. The mountain lion looked young and well-fed, his coat a shiny beige. Somehow, this teenage predator had defied LA’s relentlessly overbuilt landscape, crossed multiple freeways and sauntered right into Ordeñana’s research turf. “He’s in this unprecedented situation — in a park with so many different landmarks, in a city that’s so famous and associated with everything but nature,” Ordeñana remembered thinking.
Ordeñana swiftly alerted his collaborators. For the preceding decade, the National Park Service had been conducting a statewide mountain lion study, and the agency was thrilled by the footage. It marked the first documented case of a cougar traveling so far into the urban core without getting run over and killed. Within weeks, the Park Service caught up with the mountain lion, sedated him and affixed a GPS radio collar. The cougar was christened P-22, identifying him as the 22nd out of the more than 100 mountain lions studied in Southern California since 2002.
Ordeñana had no idea that P-22 would impact his life the way he has, challenging his understanding of urban nature and science education. Ordeñana’s influence in traditional wildlife biology research would expand, and he would become an important advocate for a more inclusive community science. P-22’s life would pivot as well, as he became the hero of a new story — one about how wildlife could exist and even thrive in one of the nation’s densest urban landscapes.
A 3D topographic map in the Natural History Museum showing P-22’s territory.
LOS ANGELES COUNTY’S NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, with its austere but impressive marble rotunda, is an early 20th-century mishmash of Spanish Renaissance and column-heavy Neoclassical style. Despite its opulence, it was a welcoming place for 5-year-old Miguel Ordeñana and his mother, Adilia Koch, a gentle, soft-spoken woman with coffee-colored eyes and hair, just like her son’s. “The museum was a place you could go to when others were closed,” Koch told me. “And what do you do on a Sunday with a young child, when you’re a single parent with not a lot of money?”
Young Miguel loved the taxidermy displays in the museum’s African Mammal Hall, which depicted Tanzania’s Maswa Game Reserve. He would stare at the African lions, with the large male at the center and the tiny, playful cubs close to the lionesses. He’d ask his mom if they were fake. “They’re not alive,” she’d tell him, “but what you see here is real.”
Koch, who had recently separated from her husband, Ordeñana’s father, had left Northern California to join her extended Nicaraguan immigrant family in Los Angeles. She and her son shared a small apartment in Hollywood with her sister and cousins. Like the pride of lions at the Natural History Museum, their home was led by women and full of kids. On weekends, mother and son explored Griffith Park, where Southern Pacific rattlesnakes hid in the grass and coyotes roamed the hills. At night, they read storybooks about talking animals with human qualities and flaws. The boy began to realize that wildlife existed all around him. “I told everybody what I’d learned: Don’t feed the wildlife,” he said. “But some of my first memories are of a woman leaving cat food for the racoons.” The real wild animals, unlike the friendly creatures in his books, kept to themselves. They were mysterious — and Ordeñana was fascinated.
Adilia Koch and Miguel Ordeñana in March, at her home near Griffith Park.
A few years later, mother and son moved into their own duplex in Los Feliz, a residential neighborhood on the edge of Griffith Park with 1960s-era apartments and lush, fenced-in backyards. At night, Ordeñana gazed out the window, trying to identify the critters he saw, from the skunks hunting for the neighbor’s dog food to the family of racoons that triggered the motion-sensing lights. “I would watch what kind of animals would show up, and then I would watch them eat,” he remembers. Some of the lessons he learned were harsh: His own cat, Whiskey, became a meal for LA’s wild predators. “One evening,” he said, “my neighbors watched as my first pet was killed by a pack of coyotes.” He told the story matter-of-factly, though at the time, he wept inconsolably.
He was a shy and sensitive child, and his encounters with wildlife sparked his curiosity. He had so many questions. How did humans and wildlife share the landscape? Where did the coyotes go if their human neighbors refused to tolerate them? Wild animals were everywhere, not just in faraway places like the Tanzanian savanna. And as Ordeñana grew older and exchanged fables for science books, he realized that wildlife didn’t need to be “exotic” to be interesting.
Those early years weren’t easy. Koch worked full-time during the day. At 9 p.m., she put her son to bed and started her night college classes, often doing homework until the early hours, only to start another day just a few hours later. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, LA was rife with gang activity and heavy policing. “It was always really important for me to know that he was safe,” Koch told me. Latino and Black teens were stereotyped and regularly profiled by police. A couple of Ordeñana’s cousins dropped out of high school, and Koch’s own brother got into gangs. Ordeñana, however, stayed out of trouble. In high school, he played football, baseball and video games, keeping his passion for animals secret because he knew his friends would tease him. Being Latino and interested in nature was “weird”; it wasn’t remotely “tough” or cool. “I was a closeted nerd,” Ordeñana said. “I wouldn’t talk about my interests with anyone except my mom and my dad.”
“I would watch what kind of animals would show up, and then I would watch them eat.”
Miguel Ordeñana’s mother, Adilia Koch, holds a photo of herself and Miguel when he was a child.
One day, when Ordeñana was a sophomore, Koch found a pamphlet about the Los Angeles Zoo’s student volunteer program. Ordeñana’s grades weren’t great, but he applied and got into the competitive program — one of only two Latino kids in the class, as far as he remembers. For six months, he spent every weekend attending lectures on zoology and learning about conservation and wildlife. Instead of hanging out with his friends, he learned how to talk about science to the families that visited the zoo.
Ordeñana often wonders where he would be if his mom hadn’t exposed him to museums and nature. He’d begun to realize that urban nature deserved conserving, too — that even if it was rarely featured in museums or zoos, it was worth studying and celebrating. Ordeñana was more than a closeted nerd; he was a closeted scientist. He had found his vocation. His path was set.
View of Griffith Park from Lake Hollywood, a reservoir located on the southwestern edge of P-22’s territory.
ON A CRISP, SUNNY SUNDAY MORNING last December, Ordeñana took me to one of P-22’s favorite hangouts. We made our way up an equestrian trail in Griffith Park, not far from the spot where that stranger called the cops on Ordeñana a decade ago, traversing funnels and canyons where we might find scat or tracks or what are known as “scrapes” — clawed traces where mountain lions kick back the dirt and urinate to mark their territory.
As we walked, we talked about the early years of Ordeñana’s career, when he was a struggling undergraduate student eager to find mentors who could help him reframe conservation from his own Latino-living-in-a-big-city perspective. There were not many Latinos doing the kind of work he dreamed of doing. Then, in 2005, he briefly met Roel Lopez, an expert on endangered and fragmented wildlife populations at the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute in College Station, Texas. Lopez encouraged Ordeñana to carve out a solo path.
Historically, non-whites have been excluded from many STEM fields, a disparity that persists today. A recent Pew Research Center study found that Latinos make up just 8% of life scientists in the country; nationwide, there are barely 20,000 Latino conservation scientists. Ordeñana has a theory for why few Latinos gravitate toward the field. “Whether we come from Central America or South America, Latinos are into family and community, and that’s just part of our culture,” he told me. “But when you’re a scientist, you’re told to disconnect, to just be objective about your research.”
“When you’re a scientist, you’re told to disconnect, to just be objective about your research.”
About an hour into the hike, Ordeñana and I stopped at one of his trail cameras, part of the research he’s been stewarding for more than a decade. He checked out its footage. No P-22, but one capture showed a bobcat, followed by her furry, bumbling kitten. Ordeñana has had many sightings in this area, and I can see why. It’s a lovely spot: The trails aren’t marked, and there are few hikers. On a steep hill of volcanic rock, there’s a natural cave that looks out over the oak woodlands below. The canopy swayed in the gentle breeze. If P-22 rested near the edge of the cave, as I imagined he might do when no one was around, the mid-morning sun would warm his giant paws while he napped.
Ordeñana has never encountered P-22 face-to-face. The truth is, he would prefer not to: Mountain lions need their space, he said, and we should never give a wild animal a reason to approach us. “He could be just over there, and you wouldn’t know, right?” Ordeñana said, pointing to thick chaparral to our right. Mountain lions are less aggressive than most other big cats — leopards, African lions or jaguars. “They are a little bit like your scared cat,” he said. If a pack of coyotes approaches, P-22 will often simply abandon a kill. Then again, you couldn’t call a cougar like P-22 faint-hearted; nothing timid would dare to tackle the labyrinth of LA’s massive freeway system.
Sunrise over LA’s Griffith Park, where a lone mountain lion makes his home.
Lions rarely make the kind of journey that P-22 did, but even when an animal succeeds in crossing busy freeways, the odds remain stacked against its species. Genetic isolation due to inbreeding is a serious threat to mountain lions’ survival, and, since lions are an apex predator in California, their demise could affect the entire ecosystem. Last year, a study largely based on National Park Service data found that Southern California’s mountain lions had the lowest genetic variation of any population in the nation. If urban development — and inbreeding — continue unabated, mountain lions could disappear locally within the next 50 years. Today, there are believed to be somewhere between 2,000 to 6,000 mountain lions in the state, though there is no reliable data specifically in Southern California. Across the state, traffic accidents are their leading cause of death.
AFTER THE FOOTAGE CAME TO LIGHT, Ordeñana, Park Service researchers and Beth Pratt, the National Wildlife Federation’s California regional executive director, watched P-22’s image on a loop, trying to decipher what his long trek and urban relocation meant for his species. To Ordeñana and Pratt, it signified two things: Large predators were living in urban areas, and humans had a responsibility to live and let live. This gave new life to an old dream: building a wildlife crossing in dense LA County, over 10 lanes of crowded pavement and into the Santa Monica Mountains.
It was a radical idea, but without it, they reasoned, Southern California’s lions were doomed. These conversations marked the true beginning of what would eventually become the proposed Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing. The National Park Service had already weighed in on the idea, not just to help P-22 and his ilk, but to be a bridge for all the other species roaming the less urbanized parts of the Santa Monica Mountains.
A rendering of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, a 210-foot-long bridge across 10 lanes of highway that will become the largest urban wildlife crossing in the world, once it’s completed.
Living Habitats LLC and National Wildlife Federation
“I had really not been exposed to the science of connectivity when I was coming up in school, over 30 years ago,” Pratt told me last November during a Zoom call. “We were taught, ‘You put the wildlife here and the people there; the way to do conservation was through a little refuge.’” At the time of P-22’s discovery, Pratt pitched a fundraising campaign for a wildlife crossing. At first, the National Wildlife Federation held back. Pratt said that leaders in her field were saying things like P-22 “shouldn’t be there, because he’s just an outlier.” A decade ago, such a crossing might have helped P-22 make his way east to Griffith Park, or even leave the area to find a mate. Now, however, it’s too late: He’s settled about 30 miles away from the proposed bridge, in a place where he is able to find plenty of food. He has little incentive to travel too far from his adopted home.
Lions can be fiercely territorial. Typically, a solitary male mountain lion needs about 150 square miles to roam, an area about half the size of New York City. But P-22 lives on only nine square miles, less than a tenth the size of a normal range. And it’s far from traditional cougar territory, if you include the nearby Warner Brothers’ studios and Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Like other Angelenos, P-22 has visited the graves of famous people like Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.
P-22’s own celebrity status has helped Pratt, Ordeñana and their allies raise awareness about wildlife, especially among young people in communities of color, who have historically been excluded from the field and rarely get to experience nature firsthand — certainly not in a city like LA, which isn’t known for wildlife or conservation. “For me, and for a lot of people, P-22’s story is an entry into changing our thinking: Many species are running out of habitat, and we need to learn to co-exist,” Pratt said. A wildlife crossing will make room for these mammals, expanding their already-shrunken range, countering the seemingly endless development of LA’s sprawling landscape.
“Here’s this cat that literally lives under the Hollywood sign,” said Pratt, laughing over Zoom from her cabin in the foothills outside Yosemite National Park. “He’s handsome, he’s challenged with his dating life.” P-22 is unlikely to breed: He would have to leave his Griffith Park kingdom and risk his life in Los Angeles traffic just to seek out a mate. Pratt’s own life and career, like Ordeñana’s, is now tied to P-22’s story; she even has the famous lion’s stoic face tattooed on her upper left arm, along with the Hollywood sign.
In 2020, the California Fish and Game Commission heeded conservationists’ pleas and moved a step closer to protecting six mountain lion populations under the state’s Endangered Species Act, which now limits the construction or expansion of highways in core cougar habitat unless measures are put into place to ensure linked habitats. Ordeñana and others say that stitching Southern California’s ragged landscape back together with a wildlife bridge would allow not just mountain lions but many other species to spread through the Santa Monica Mountains, north to Simi Hills and the Santa Susana Mountains and even farther, to Los Padres National Forest, northwest of Los Angeles. Bobcats, gray foxes, mule deer and coyotes all need room to roam.
In late April, thanks to Pratt and Ordeñana and many others, the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing — the first wildlife crossing of this scale in an urban area of this size and density — broke ground in Agoura Hills, about 30 miles west of Griffith Park. Once built, it will be the largest urban crossing in the world.
After he discovered P-22, Ordeñana landed a job at the Natural History Museum of LA County, the same museum he’d spent countless hours in as a kid. As one of the managers of the community science team, he has created community science projects throughout Southern California.
One of his most treasured projects has focused not on mountain lions, but on bats. “Bats are like mountain lions,” he said. “They’re controversial. People either hate them or are afraid of them, or love them, but at minimum, they are conversation starters.” Ordeñana suggested installing sensors in backyards and apartment complexes in central LA and rotating them month to month. His visits gave him a chance to meet his neighbors and educate them about conservation. Within weeks of the first installation, those neighbors found evidence of bats in some of LA’s most overbuilt neighborhoods; during the first year, they identified multiple species in places that scientists had never bothered to look. Most wildlife biologists might have expected to find bats migrating along wetlands or lagoons or golf courses. Instead, they found evidence of bat migration amid the liquor stores and car washes of Long Beach’s Eastside neighborhood.
“They’re controversial. People either hate them or are afraid of them, or love them, but at minimum, they are conversation starters.”
For years, Ordeñana, Pratt and her team have been building momentum through the kid-friendly #SaveLACougars science education campaign, where people can sign up to do group hikes along parts of P-22’s 50-mile trek, donate to the wildlife crossing campaign or buy P-22 swag. They can watch a 3D virtual reality video that begins with an encounter with a mountain lion and ends with a computer rendering of the future wildlife crossing.
On an overcast, chilly weekday morning in December, I exited the 101 freeway and got lost near the end of the road, in an undeveloped area of rolling hills. Only a couple of valley oaks were still standing; a wildfire last year damaged this stretch of land along with other parts of the Santa Monica Mountains. An interpretive sign proclaimed “Future Site of the Wildlife Crossing at Liberty Canyon,” but there was little to indicate what’s to come — a 210-foot-long bridge across 10 lanes of highway and a landscape restored with native plants, designed to mitigate the sound and light disturbances from the approximately 300,000 vehicles that drive the nearby highway every day.
Despite its 164,000 miles of freeways, the U.S. has only around 1,000 wildlife crossings, most of them in the West. So far, there’s little data on landscape connectivity, and politicians have long dismissed wildlife crossings as wasteful. But there are a few ambitious projects that serve as models for Liberty Canyon — Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, Trapper’s Point in Wyoming and the Trans-Canada Highway wildlife crossings in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. A study on the Banff crossings shows that a well-designed crossing can benefit humans as well as wildlife, reducing animal-vehicle crashes even as it creates the necessary links for animal movement and allows small mammals to avoid predators and large mammals to escape humans.
A Chicago-based firm called Living Habitats designed the $87 million crossing. Biologists including Ordeñana advised the team, working with Robert Rock of Living Habitats on the crossing’s design, along with an expert on light pollution and even a mycologist who is focused on the ecological restoration of the site. Ideally, the bridge is just the beginning. In late 2021, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which included $350 million for animal-friendly projects, passed. It’s the biggest investment in wildlife crossings in U.S. history.
“This is great news for other people who are thinking outside the box, who are studying an area or studying a species that usually isn’t a top priority,” Ordeñana said. We stood in his mother’s backyard, gazing out at the downtown Los Angeles’ skyline. “Griffith Park is just so isolated. … ‘Why are you wasting your time studying Griffith Park when it’s an island?’ Mine was a research question that not a lot of people had faith in.” After all, how could wide-ranging animals possibly survive on a green island like Griffith Park?
For the past six years, Ordeñana has been one of the main ambassadors of the #SaveLACougars grassroots campaign, helping to raise more than $78 million for the crossing from nearly 5,000 donors, not just Angelenos with big pockets, but also children and families who followed P-22’s story and were eager to give whatever they could.
When Ordeñana first identified P-22 in his trail camera footage a decade ago, he never imagined becoming a protagonist in the mountain lion’s journey. P-22 was a main character in Ordeñana’s journey, too, as he traversed his own unclear paths with few guides. But even in the beginning, when he was a shy, nerdy kid, Ordeñana was drawn to wildlife that other people either took for granted or assumed had long vanished from urban LA. Who better to discover P-22?
“It all started with just taking a chance,” he told me earnestly, as we stood between the lush trees in his mother’s garden. “I’m not this extra-talented scientist; I’m just willing to take a chance looking at places where other scientists won’t.” We watched the sun as it set that night above the city. A cold breeze kicked in. Soon, the coyotes would descend from Griffith Park, and P-22 would likely take a stroll around his kingdom.
Ruxandra Guidi was formerly a contributing editor for High Country News. She writes from Tucson, Arizona. Follow @ruxguidi
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This coverage was supported by contributors to High Country News.