By now you're no doubt familiar with the life story of P-22, the Hollywood mountain lion who's made a home for himself in Griffith Park. After being born somewhere in the Santa Monica Mountains, the young prince – his father was P-1, the first king of the Santa Monicas – spent his earliest years learning to survive as a mountain lion in the big city by sticking to mom's side. Then around his second birthday, P-22 was pulled away by the lure of independence. With the exception of mothers and their young offspring, mountain lions, also known as cougars, pumas, catamounts, and ghost cats, are loners.
Setting off from the only home he'd ever known, the tawny-coated cat with piercing blue eyes had few options. To the south and west lies the Pacific Ocean. To the north and east run two of the nation's busiest highways. A less courageous cat might have opted to stay close to home, but P-22 knew that doing so would mean certain death. The primary cause of death for male mountain lions comes at the paws of other males. If he was going to find his own territory, empty of dominant males, he would have to go elsewhere. All we know is that he found his way across the 405, through Brentwood and Bel Air, through Beverly Hills and the Hollywood Hills, and then somehow survived crossing the 101, a second freeway, to wind up inside Griffith Park, where he turned up one February evening in 2012 in front of a motion-activated camera.
For more than six years, P-22 has only rarely strayed from Griffith Park's eight square miles. While he's certainly got enough food there to last a lifetime, he'll probably be a lifelong bachelor. That's what makes his epic crossing of two highways only a half-victory; his royal lineage likely ends with him. (Though he's perhaps the only Hollywood celebrity to grace the cover of National Geographic Magazine, so the trade-off may be worth it.)
Around the time that a teenage P-22 was mugging for the cameras in Griffith Park, an adult male had already set up shop in the nearby Verdugo Hills. A citizen scientist named Johanna Turner, who first noticed the big cat on her own camera traps, nicknamed him "Jughead," but the world would come to know him as P-41 after he was outfitted with a collar by biologists with the National Park Service.
A small range between the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains, the Verdugos are separated from Griffith Park by fewer than five miles. The two males might as well have been five hundred miles apart, though, because an impenetrable sea also known as the city of Burbank spans those five miles.
When researchers first trapped and collared P-41 in 2015 they estimated he was perhaps eight years old. Genetic information derived from blood tests revealed that the King of the Verdugos – the only male lion in the small range – was an outsider, not a descendant of P-22's relatives in the Santa Monica Mountains. More likely he found his way into the Verdugo Hills from the San Gabriel Mountains, which meant that he survived crossing the 210 at least once.
Because he was a stranger from an unknown family, not much is known about his early years, but he would have lived his life much as P-22 had. Around his second birthday he would have left his mother's side in search of new opportunities, eventually finding his way to his new home near Burbank. Like his counterpart in Griffith Park, P-41 had an incredibly small territory spanning some 19 square miles. (The average territory for a male mountain lion in California is closer to 250 square miles.)
Unlike the Griffith Park prince, however, this king had a queen. Known to Turner as "Nikita," the female doesn't have a formal "P" designation because she isn't included in the National Park Service study like P-22 and P-41. Still, camera traps in the Verdugo Hills deployed by Turner and others have revealed that the royal couple had three litters of kittens over the years.
P-41's story ends in October 2017, when he turned up dead just a few weeks after the La Tuna fire burned a good chunk of his kingdom to the ground. By the time that biologist Jeff Sikich, who leads the National Park Service mountain lion study, was alerted to the carcass (thanks to a Facebook message sent to the park service by a local homeowner), he had already been decaying for several days at least. "It was extremely rotten and maggot-infested," he recalled. "I bagged it and CDFW [California Department of Fish and Wildlife] came and picked it up to perform a necropsy."
A few weeks later at the CDFW wildlife investigations lab near Sacramento, the partially decayed lion was sprawled atop a stainless steel table. His fur was matted with mud and leaves; his once menacing eyes were clouded. In truth he appeared less like a stately predator and more like a hairy, deflated balloon. An incongruous end for a king.
State wildlife veterinarians Deana Clifford and Jamie Rudd, together with a pair of scientific aides, carefully picked through what remained of his body in an attempt to determine what killed him. Any mountain lion that turns up dead winds up here, where Clifford and Rudd and their team work as feline detectives attempting to sort out its cause of death. Although P-41 was wearing a collar that could have offered insight into the final days of this cat’s life, the electronic tracking device prematurely stopped transmitting data several months earlier, leaving CDFW’s study of mountain lion health as the only method to gather data about his death.
One thing they could verify from the outset was that P-41's feet did not show evidence of burning, muddying the hypothesized link between the wildfire and his death. Beyond that, they admitted there wasn't much they could tell me before the lab results came back from the organ tissues they biopsied. "It's kind of like the dog ate my homework," said Clifford. "The maggots ate my data."
"We follow these animals to learn many things, but one of them is what are the mortality causes, what are they dying from?" says Sikich. "It would have been great to know exactly how that individual reacted [to the fire] and met his fate."
Though the state vets could not conclusively identify a cause of death, the lab tests did confirm the presence of at least six different rodenticides in his liver. Clifford also noted that the cat seemed thin, which was odd for animal that had been granted the nickname “Señor Floppy Belly” by several locals. Even if the fire wasn't directly responsible for his ultimate downfall, perhaps it made it difficult for him to hunt. Nobody will ever truly know.
Together, both of these magnificent animals living on either side of Burbank underscore just how difficult it is for wild animals – especially large carnivores – to find their way in the big city. Assuming they can survive their often deadly attempts to cross our roads and highways, a feat both of these cats were able to accomplish (though too many lions fail), they are then faced with the prospect of gobbling up poisoned foods. (Rat poisons work their way into the predators' bodies not by eating the poisons themselves, but by eating other animals that have been poisoned.) These animals already do so much to avoid people that their response to humans looks a lot like a classic prey response to a predator. In other words, humans terrify them. The sound of human conversation alone makes them skittish, more likely to abandon a kill even before they've eaten their fill. How ironic then that even if left to feast in peace, they can't avoid the bootprint of humanity.
But these two mountain lions also teach us how easy it would be for us to make their lives just a little bit better. The Prince of Griffith Park and the King of the Verdugos reigned over the two smallest known territories for any male mountain lions ever recorded. If these sub-par habitats were deemed good enough for them, then perhaps it's on us to finally stop using anticoagulant rodenticides, to finally build that bridge over the 101, to give them a fighting chance to thrive. They're already meeting us halfway by taking advantage of the tiny slivers of green space we haven't yet bulldozed in the name of progress, including the Boeing-managed Santa Susana Field Lab, the contaminated former government nuclear and rocket test site in the Simi Hills.
We can be better neighbors by building predator-proof enclosures for our livestock and by keeping a watchful eye on our pets — at least for those of us who live in the mountains, in cougar territory. Rather than become frustrated when the large cats inevitably get themselves into trouble, let’s do everything we can to limit the chances that they inadvertently snack on the wrong creatures.
Confronting the death of P-41 and the sometimes-Pyrrhic victories of P-22 challenges us to imagine a better, more wildlife-friendly vision for Los Angeles. We can either tolerate the animals that find ways of surviving in our city against all odds and shrug our shoulders when they inevitably run out of clever hacks for persisting in the urban jungle, or we can design our neighborhoods with their well being in mind and embrace the wilder side of urban living.
Top image: An image of P-22 showing his recovery from mange November 2014. | National Park Service/Flickr