Memorial for mountain lion P-22 draws thousands

Thousands of people flocked to the Greek Theater on Saturday to celebrate the life and legacy of P-22, the mountain lion that roamed Griffith Park for more than a decade.

In an event that lasted more than three hours and was streamed online to thousands of viewers, more than four dozen speakers – including scientists, lawyers, politicians and celebrities – recognized the far-reaching impact of the puma on conservation and wildlife research.

“You will be remembered as the king of Griffith Park,” said DJ and music producer Diplo, who was on stage holding a stuffed P-22. “The world has lost a great creature and the people of Los Angeles missed their chance to see you in the wild.”

The mountain lion surprised the world in 2012 when it appeared in Griffith Park, long thought to be too small to house an apex predator. To reach Los Feliz from its probable birthplace in the Santa Monica Mountains, the cougar would have made an unlikely journey through the Hollywood Hills, crossing the 405 and 101 freeways.

P-22’s lonely presence in the heart of Los Angeles became the basis for an international campaign to build the world’s largest wildlife bridge over the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills. And his late-night forays into Los Feliz and Silver Lake, captured with iPhones and Ring doorbell cameras, helped teach Californians that Los Angeles is a lot wilder than it seems.

“He made us more human, more connected to that wild place within ourselves,” said Beth Pratt, a regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation and organizer of the event. “We are part of nature and he reminded us of that.”

Two women, a man with a microphone and a child with cat ears dance on the stage, behind them a detail of a mountain lion

Warren Dickson, right, with 3rd Rock Hip Hop, performs.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The event was largely festive and celebratory, with guests as diverse as a muralist, a puppeteer, and three groups of elementary school students. Actor Rainn Wilson, who appeared in one of the first fundraisers for the Wildlife Bridge, led the crowd with an original song that included the lyrics “P-22, P-22, you left behind a lot of friends and cougar poo.”

P-22 had behaved erratically for more than a month before his death on December 17, including attacking three Chihuahuas and killing one. After being hit by a car in Los Feliz, he was caught by wildlife biologists for an examination. They discovered serious health problems, including a fractured skull, a torn diaphragm, and heart, kidney, and liver disease.

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he made the “heartbreaking decision” to euthanize P-22. The crowd fell silent as he described holding the cat’s paw in his final days.

“P-22 was beautifully abstract, the essence of the wildness of wild things,” Bonham said. “He was also something very real. I only became aware of the last aspect when I held his paw in my hand and the weight overwhelmed me. … I’ve thought about him a lot since then, trying to soothe my soul.”

Many people can be seen in front of a digital display that reads "Peace Love P-22."

Thousands attended the celebration.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Jeff Sikich, a biologist with the National Park Service, caught P-22 seven times in 11 years to replace his tracking collar and conduct health screenings. As part of a federal study of cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains, he monitored cougar movements daily for more than a decade.

Sikich said he’s studied hundreds of large carnivores and “never imagined that one of these animals could bring so many people together to celebrate living together.”

“The legacy of P-22 will live on in its contributions to wildlife conservation and our increased awareness of how to live in harmony with nature,” said Sikich.

Representatives of the Gabrielino Tongva and Chumash tribes compared the loss of homeland to the encroachment of humans on the territory of the cougars.

Most cougars in the Los Angeles area live in the Santa Monica Mountains, bisected by the 101 Freeway. This almost impenetrable barrier has cut off the cats from a larger northern gene pool, leading to inbreeding and genetic abnormalities.

Scientific modeling has drawn a grim conclusion: Without interventions like the Wildlife Bridge, the mountain cougars of Santa Monica and Santa Ana could become extinct within 50 years.

“The cougars of the Santa Monica Mountains are on a razor’s edge, and their path could lead to extinction or coexistence,” said David Szymanski, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The National Wildlife Foundation aims to raise $500 million for wildlife crossings over the next five years. The executive director of the Wallis Annenberg Foundation, which has pledged millions for the Agoura Hills bridge, has pledged $10 million for the effort.

The Agoura Hills Bridge, which broke ground on Earth Day last year, was funded largely by private donations from around the world, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation.

Three men pose with a cut-out of a mountain lion

From left, Joey Salehi, Jared North and Scotch Crisostomo pose with a cutout from P-22.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

P-22 fans arrived at the celebration’s lunchtime event as early as 9:30 a.m. Saturday, lining up the sidewalks of Vermont Avenue for the best seats in the 5,900-seat theater.

Inside, vendors sold T-shirts and pins, fans took photos with a cut-out cougar, and a Los Feliz resident gave out free copies of a magazine she printed at home called “Catamount!”

Kathy Mellon, wearing a blue and white sweater showing P-22’s face, drove from Irvine to the event.

“It’s a short trip for P-22 considering how far he had to travel,” Mellon said.

She has become known among friends and colleagues as a P-22 expert. Her friends, she said, have learned to expect a stuffed puma as a baby gift.

“I hope it brings a little closure,” said Rebecca Damsen of Ohio, who said she and her children have followed the exploits of P-22 from half the country for years. Damsen wore a faux fur stole and stuffed ears and tail originally from a Lion King costume.

A man poses with a photo of a mountain lion slinking past the Hollywood sign and the same image is on his shirt

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter holds his famous photo of the P-22.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The crowd also heard the origin story of P-22’s most iconic moment: a photo that ran in National Geographic of the cat slinking past the Hollywood sign. It took six camera traps and 15 months to get the picture, photographer Steve Winter said.

Wearing a t-shirt with the iconic image, Winter took photos of the crowd as he exited the stage.

Elected officials – including Los Angeles City Council Member Nithya Raman, State Assembly Member Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), State Senator Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and US Rep. Adam B. Ship (D-Burbank) – They also honored part of a mountain lion.

On Friday, Schiff launched an attempt to commemorate P-22 on a postage stamp. He thanked the cougar for “gracing us with your presence, your pranks and your awesomeness.” Memorial for mountain lion P-22 draws thousands

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