Why Los Angeles Fell in Love With the Mountain Lion Known as P-22

A local celebrity, the feline that was the face of several conservation campaigns died this weekend

a cougar walks at night with the Hollywood sign in the background
This 2013 photo of P-22 helped catapult him to fame. The cougar inspired conservation projects for urban wildlife and earned a robust Instagram following. Steve Winter / Courtesy of Vital Impacts

A mountain lion that had roamed the streets and parks of Los Angeles for more than a decade, gathering fans and encouraging conservation campaigns, was euthanized on Saturday.

During recent weeks, the cougar, named P-22, appeared agitated and acted abnormally. He strayed farther from his usual range, coming closer to humans. He even attacked two dogs and killed one of them. Following these events, authorities captured the animal on December 12.

A medical examination revealed significant head trauma and damage to P-22’s right eye and internal organs, leading experts to conclude the cougar had been hit by a car this month. The cat also had several other health complications, ranging from kidney failure, to weight loss, to a parasitic skin infection.

“As the agency folks and veterinarians relayed these sobering facts to me, tissue boxes were passed around the table and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Beth Pratt, the National Wildlife Federation’s regional executive director in California, says in a statement.

Combined with the mountain lion’s age and clear need for long-lasting veterinary care, these factors “left P-22 with no hope for a positive outcome,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says in a statement. Euthanization was “the most difficult, but compassionate choice.”

At 12 years old, P-22 surpassed the average lifespan of wild cougars, which usually live for ten years. He defied the odds from a young age. He left his birthplace in the western Santa Monica Mountains, traveled 50 miles and crossed two multi-lane freeways on foot to reach what would become his long-term home in Griffith Park, a 4,210-acre oasis with urban wilderness areas in the midst of the city.

As tends to happen when a wild animal lives in unusually close proximity to humans, P-22 attained local fame. The cougar amassed an Instagram following of 10,000. (It has since ballooned to 14,000 since his death.) The city of Los Angeles celebrated the big cat annually with a fall festival. Several residents felt a kinship with P-22, a lone bachelor surrounded by hazards, looking for a mate.

“He became a celebrity in the city of celebrities,” Steve Winter, a nature photographer who captured a famous image of P-22 with the Hollywood sign, tells BBC News’ Kayla Epstein. “It gave people hope, because they’re living in this big urban area, and they have this park they walk into that was actually wild with a California cougar.”

four children face away from the camera to show cougars drawn on paper on their backs
Children at the 4th Annual P-22 Festival show off cougar drawings in Griffith Park in 2019. John Sciulli / Stringer via Getty Images

As P-22 coexisted with humans and other animals in the city, a few mishaps occurred. In 2016, for example, the cougar became the main suspect in an attack on a koala at the Los Angeles Zoo. The zoo had no video evidence of the actual killing, but P-22 had been recorded nearby. While the zoo staff could have called for the cougar’s death following this event, they did not. “You can’t hold a mountain lion accountable for being a mountain lion,” Beth Schaefer, the zoo’s director of animal programs, told the Los Angeles Times in April.

On the whole, though, P-22 was a catalyst for urban conservation initiatives. About two years after he arrived in Griffith Park, the cat was captured on camera looking extremely frail. His tail was “as thin as a pipe cleaner,” write Laura J. Nelson and James Queally for the Times. The National Park Service treated the animal, and medical tests revealed P-22 had ingested rat poison. In part due to the image of an ailing P-22, the California legislature passed a temporary ban of some rat poisons in 2020.

But perhaps the cougar’s most permanent impact is a wildlife bridge across a 10-lane portion of the 101 freeway. Inspired by P-22’s story, Californians raised $77 million in state funding and private donations for this connector that should help cougars move around safely to find mates. The state began construction on the project, which is the world’s largest wildlife overpass, in April and is expected to finish as soon as 2024.

Following P-22’s death, conservationists are calling for continued protections for cougars and other urban wildlife, particularly through connecting habitats that have been broken up by construction of roads and urban areas.

“I hope we can channel this grief into action,” J.P. Rose, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity’s Urban Wildlands program, says in a statement. “Let’s commit to building more crossings, ending rodenticide use and factoring in wildlife connectivity when we allow development in our community.”