Los Angeles is mourning one of its own this week. The celebrity who died, however, was not human but feline. The life and death of famed mountain lion P-22, who made his home in the heart of Tinseltown for a decade, tells us much about the culture of fame, about the myths cities tell about themselves, and how we protect — and fail to protect — the wildlife living in our midst.
P-22, who was euthanized by wildlife officials over the weekend after they discovered that he was suffering not only from diseases of old age but also severe injuries from a recent hit-and-run car strike, was first spied in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park 10 years ago. Wildlife experts could only surmise that the wild cat had successfully navigated not one but two of the nation’s most traffic-clogged highways — Interstate 405 and U.S. Route 101 — before arriving in Hollywood to mark out his territory and find a mate. In a city many come to hoping to get discovered, P-22 was unwittingly found. A noted wildlife photographer was able — after a long remote stakeout involving motion-sensitive cameras — to get snapshots of the beast in the Hollywood Hills and even with the city’s famed Hollywood sign in the background. International headlines ensued, and a star was born.
But nowhere was this wild cat more revered than in his native Southern California, where many Angelenos identified with his struggles and triumphs.
Over the years, the elusive P-22, who mostly lived in the park, dining on deer and coyotes (not to mention, once, a koala from the local zoo), made surprise appearances in adjacent celebrity-filled neighborhoods like Silver Lake and Los Feliz, where he was caught on household surveillance cameras and the cellphones of those who sometimes found themselves unexpectedly encountering the giant cat. There was the occasional paparazzi stakeout, too.
While comparisons to Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt ran rampant — the animal was, after all, handsome and rangy-looking with golden-brown hair, effortlessly cool and, uh, available — P-22 was no Hollywood star with a plethora of romantic choices. There was, for this most famous of mountain lions, no field to play. P-22’s accomplishment in crossing all those freeway lanes left him permanently alone, as far as his own species went. All his possible mates were trapped on the other side. No other mountain lion, male or female, has been able to replicate his journey — though no small number have died trying — and so he never found a mate.
But instead of expressing fear of this lethal loner living in their midst, Angeles residents took pride and joy in their unlikely neighbor. Sightings were so well followed, a resident of the Los Feliz home where P-22 was captured last week expressed little surprise when wildlife officials knocked on her door. “Of course, I knew it was P-22 because I’ve been following the story,” she told the Los Angeles Times. The cat’s recent behavior had been raising concerns — he’d been stalking and hunting small dogs on leashes, killing one chihuahua. Local news outlets had reported that the elderly mountain lion would be tranquilized and brought in for a medical checkup and evaluation.
Los Angeles is hardly the first city to feel that a wild animal represents something essential about itself — just look at how New Yorkers thrilled to a viral 2015 video of a scrappy rodent forever after known as “Pizza Rat” pulling a slice of the cheesy stuff down some dingy subway stairs. The points where Angelenos could identify with P-22 were myriad. He was an immigrant, albeit from the other side of California’s Santa Monica mountain range, who needed to traverse hostile and dangerous terrain to reach his final home! His life, like that of many an Angeleno, was dictated and circumscribed by the city’s car culture.
And, of course, in this town where “the business” dominates, he possessed the most valuable currency of all: fame. When P-22 died, the trade website Deadline offered the ultimate compliment: “His celebrity status was unquestioned.”
But much of this is to anthropomorphize P-22’s life. He knew of almost none of this, after all. His fame was born of a project by wildlife researchers to track the mountain lions in the Santa Monica mountains. (His name comes from his place in this study — the 22nd puma enrolled.) Though the animals are not considered endangered, their continued existence in Southern California is uncertain. Urbanization has left them trapped within a geographically small area, and as a result inbreeding is rife.
And this is where P-22 made his most significant mark. The publicity surrounding him allowed environmental and wildlife advocates to raise the millions necessary to begin construction earlier this year on a land bridge over the 101 — that same highway P-22 so miraculously navigated — so that other, less famous mountain lions, not to mention any number of wildlife that lack such unwitting accidental celebrity advocates as P-22, can more safely imitate his journey. That’s quite a legacy.
Opinion | P-22 was Hollywood's celebrity mountain lion – The Washington Post