Tuning Up - Autumn 2023


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The life and death of a celebrity puma—and what it really means to be wild  

By Sophie Newman | September 5, 2023
Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

On December 17, 2022, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife euthanized P-22, the celebrated mountain lion “king” of Griffith Park, after he was struck by a car in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. P-22’s death inspired a public memorial concert attended by thousands, coverage in local and national news outlets, a eulogy from California Governor Gavin Newsom (whose father was a founder of the Mountain Lion Foundation), and several murals across Los Angeles. Previously, P-22 had been the subject of books, a documentary, and an Instagram account with more than 15,000 followers. He was arguably the most famous mountain lion of all time and, by some standards, one of LA’s most beloved celebrities.

He was born around 2010 in the western region of the Santa Monica Mountains, where he lived anonymously for the first years of his life before heading east to Griffith Park, somehow crossing the 405 and 101 freeways without being hit. In March 2012, scientists from the Friends of Griffith Park Wildlife Connectivity Study, which had installed cameras around the park to monitor wildlife, found him wandering across one of their screens. Soon afterward, he was caught, christened P-22 (since he was the 22nd puma in an ongoing study), and fitted with an e-collar, which he wore until his death.

Over the next 10 years, P-22’s movements were meticulously tracked, recorded, and publicized. In December 2013, he appeared in the pages of National Geographic, prowling in the darkness underneath the glowing white Hollywood sign. He became the new face of urban wildlife conservation efforts, helping to raise funds for one of the world’s largest wildlife bridges, currently being built over Highway 101. In 2014, he was captured for a routine collar change and treated for a serious case of rat poison ingestion. In 2015, he was discovered in the crawl space of a Los Feliz house. Despite the presence of helicopters and news cameras and numerous flying projectiles—officials shot rounds of beanbags and tennis balls in an effort to flush him out—P-22 refused to leave until the cover of night. In March 2016, the carcass of a koala was found at the Los Angeles Zoo, and though P-22 was captured on security footage roaming the grounds at night, no one could prove—or perhaps no one wanted to prove—that he was the perpetrator.

Despite living in LA for almost two years, I hadn’t heard of P-22 until his death last December. First I saw friends mourning him on social media. Then I noticed his picture in coffee shops. Strangers began striking up conversations with me about their grief. A horse owner in Griffith Park, whom I’d spoken to only in passing, told me in detail about two personal encounters with P-22, both times when she was out late at her barn. With a mystical look in her eyes, she described the feeling of being watched before she noticed the big cat’s golden gaze and slowly backed away.

The descriptions I heard were almost spiritual. It was as if P-22 had been an earthly manifestation of the divine, a sort of miracle, surviving as he did amid encroaching urbanization and highways and rat poison—an icon of hope, of our ability to live in harmony with nature. People called P-22 a hero, a symbol, an incarnation of all that is beautiful and mysterious about nature. But perhaps he was just an animal doing what he could to survive with what he was given. After reading the history of the last 10 years of his life, I kept wondering how wild he really was.

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