LA's most famous feline resident got himself into a bit of trouble recently. Workers at the LA Zoo were surprised to find one of their koalas missing, a small tuft of fur left behind in her place. Eventually, the dead marsupial was found some four hundred meters away. After reviewing security footage, zoo staff were surprised to find evidence that the mountain lion called P-22 just might be the culprit.
It's not certain that the six-year-old lion took out the Australian mammal, a 14-year-old female named Killarney who liked to walk on the ground at night rather than remain safe high in the trees. The evidence is circumstantial, though damning. But that was the first indication that the famous cat had found a way into and out of zoo grounds. It's possible that P-22 initially found his way over the zoo fence while hunting raccoons, a hypothesis supported by subsequent photos showing P-22 snacking on the masked mammals inside the zoo. On the evening of March 2, it seems likely that P-22 couldn't resist expanding his diet a bit when Killarney appeared on his radar.
The mountain lion first wandered into Griffith Park sometime around February of 2012. Natural History Museum researcher Miguel Ordeñana was reviewing photos from a camera trap as part of a survey called the "Griffith Park Connectivity Study." After passing through hundreds of photos of deer, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and bobcats, he was surprised to find a much larger cat. After being born farther west in the Santa Monica Mountains, P-22 would have had to survive crossing two of the nation's busiest freeways, the 405 and 101, to make it all the way into the safe haven of the park.
Shortly after the initial discovery, carnivore researchers from the National Park Service trapped and collared the lion as part of their ongoing study of the species. He went from local legend to international celebrity after National Geographic photographer Steve Winter snapped a picture of him with the Hollywood sign in the background, a photo that would wind up on the cover of the august magazine. Despite all the attention, P-22 – the twenty-second puma included in the ongoing NPS study – has since lived a fairly quiet life in the park. But it’s a life that's been uniquely impacted by humans.
Two years ago, camera trap photos revealed that the cat was in ill health. An assessment conducted by NPS researchers revealed that he was suffering from mange, likely brought on by the ingestion of prey animals who themselves were full of anticoagulant rat poisons.
After his recovery, he found himself again in a tight spot – literally. Workers installing a security system at a home in Los Feliz ran into the famous cat while working in the crawlspace under the home. Despite hours of continued harassment by wildlife officials and the media, including loud noises, bright lights, and being shot at with beanbag bullets, the impressive cat didn't exhibit even a hint of aggression.
This is a cat that has learned to coexist, completely un-aggressively, with a species far more dangerous than his own: us. That he has so far managed to eke out an existence in a habitat a tiny fraction of the size typical of male mountain lions' habitat is all the more impressive. Griffith Park contains fewer than seven square miles; most males roam territories spanning some two hundred square miles.
Zoo director John Lewis has the right attitude. 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."
But not all agree with Lewis. In a statement, City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, whose Thirteenth District borders the zoo, said, "this tragedy just emphasizes the need to contemplate relocating P-22 to a safer, more remote wild area where he has adequate space to roam without the possibility of human interaction."
From a practical perspective, this is simply an ineffective solution, and it's not an animal welfare-oriented one. "When you try to relocate a territorial animal like a male mountain lion, you're likely going to put it in another mountain lion's territory," said Michelle LaRue, research ecologist at the University of Minnesota and executive director of the Cougar Network. Territorial animals will defend their territory with their lives – or take the lives of those trying to edge their way in.
And even if another male didn't kill P-22, he'd keep wandering in search of some free real estate, a journey that would again increase his risk of being hit by a car while crossing a highway. The number two cause of death for mountain lions in Los Angeles is an unsuccessful highway crossing attempt (the number one cause is more natural: aggressive interactions with other mountain lions). "If the idea is to preserve P-22's life," adds LaRue, "relocating him puts him at far more risk that he's at right now."
The fact is that recovering carnivore populations, the beneficiaries of half a century of careful conservation policies, combined with increased opportunities for our own outdoor recreation, have brought humans into increased contact with toothy predators. Despite the fact that bees, mosquitoes, spiders, snails, snakes, and even deer are responsible for more human deaths every year than mammalian carnivores, our fear of mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and the rest remains firmly entrenched. (Fairy tales don't feature little girls stealing porridge from a snail family.) Rather than remove the scary critters, let's instead learn how to coexist.
Hunting animals is simply what mountain lions are supposed to do. Rather than attempt to take the wild out of the wilderness, we need to remain vigilant in our work to coexist with the animals animals around us. That's as true for protecting the koala at the zoo as it is for the chihuahua in the backyard. While the zoo should take care to determine how the mountain lion has been accessing zoo grounds and attempt to fortify its borders, the idea to remove wild animals would be a misguided attempt to ensure the safety of their captive counterparts.
Protecting the animals we leave in enclosures where they are unable to escape the threat of predation is our burden to bear, and it’s a challenge that can be met without harming the wild animals already living nearby. Mourn for the koala, but also mourn for a world in which a zoo koala would be prioritized over our local, native wildlife.
Blame for the tragic death of Killarney rests squarely on our shoulders. Let's not add P-22 to the list of animals whose deaths at our hands could have been avoided.