At the celebration for the late catamount P22 at the Greek Theatre on Saturday, tribal elder Alan Salazar spoke about how his people – the Chumash and Tataviam – divide themselves into different animal clans. Since I can remember, I have felt myself to be a member of the mountain lion clan. As a child, I read and watched everything I could about the mysterious, majestic “ghost cats,” with their tawny fur, striking Gen X-worthy facial hair, silent stealth, deadly strength, and ridiculously cute spotted kittens. I even started my own novel about one (the first of too many unfinished manuscripts to come). I had feline fever in general – the cat child to grow up into the cat lady. But I was particularly drawn to pumas, in part because they are the only big cat found in multiple areas of the United States, but mostly because one of the places they have long thrived is California. I am a third-generation Cali girl who was abducted by my parents and relocated to a small Midwestern town when I was just four years old. Panthers were my people; I went to the library and visited them in books.
It took me four decades to come back home. Just a few years after my return, LA welcomed another new resident, this one with a Los Angeles Times front-page story: a mountain lion rather dorkily named P22. The P stood for puma, one of the many names given to Puma concolor. The number indicated his ranking in a study of his breed taking place in the Santa Monica Mountains. Except this handsome fellow wasn’t with the rest of his kind in the hills between the San Fernando Valley and the Pacific Ocean: He was in the middle of Griffith Park.
Over the next 10 years P22 became a cause celebre and a celebrity. Instead of freaking out about an apex predator in their midst, Angelenos rallied around this cat of mystery who somehow snuck through suburbs and across multilane interstates and past In-N-Out Burgers to shack up in a park that’s ample for humans but litter-box-sized for a big cat. Amazingly, for a decade, he sustained himself on park deer and the occasional house pet and koala – a long life for a cougar. The world rallied around P22. He became the poster kitty for the preservation of this imperiled population of pumas, his image used to raise funds for the biggest wildlife crossing in the world, now being built across Highway 101.
Like so many of us, I watched all the stories about his sightings and misadventures, his sickness and his chihuahua snacks. I even got to write one of those stories, for LMU Magazine, interviewing Beth Pratt – the National Wildlife Federation organizer and writer who has led the efforts to create the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, and Jeff Sikich, one of the NPS rangers leading the study that gave P22 his moniker.
I knew that at 12 years old, P22 had probably lived out eight of his nine lives. So I wasn’t shocked in December when he was found in a back yard in Los Feliz, injured from a car crash, emaciated, dying. Still, I cried when I heard he was euthanized. And I wept a couple times yesterday, at the celebration in the park that was his home.
The sold-out event featured speeches from Pratt, Sikich, and many of the scientists, activists, artists, citizens, politicians and schoolchildren who loved him, including the musician Diplo, representatives Adam Schiff and Ted Lieu, and actors Rainn Wilson and Julia Butters. It was so LA. And I loved it. With people – okay, mostly women – dressed in cat ears and tails, I felt a little like I was at Cougar ComiCon. Like I had found my clan.
Sure the event was sappy, goofy, long. Exhibit A: The descendants of the Tokens played their hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” But the overall message was important and timely. As Sikich said, this wasn’t just a memorial for a Hollywood star: it was a “celebration of coexistence.” That was the theme sounded over and over, that there is no such thing as wild, as one speaker remarked; “it’s all home.” As Salazar said, we have to move from a policy of extermination to a “policy of living in harmony.”
Cougars have always symbolized the place of my birth to me, but I would never have imagined that one would become the most famous animal since Lassie, as P22 was called, in the years of my homecoming. The king of Griffith Park is dead, but long live the mark he made on the world – including an in-progress safe passage for his kin and other animals, and a changed understanding of human’s relationship to our fellow animals.