On Saturday, thousands of people flocked to the Greek Theatre to honor the life and legacy of P-22, the mountain lion that captured the hearts of people around the world. This incredible cat made an improbable journey to Los Angeles, crossing two major freeways, and inspired an international campaign to build the world’s largest wildlife bridge across the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills. P-22’s presence in the heart of Los Angeles and his nighttime forays into Los Feliz and Silver Lake, caught on iPhones and Ring doorbell cameras, taught Californians that Los Angeles is far wilder than it appears.
At the celebration, more than four dozen speakers – including scientists, advocates, politicians and celebrities – honored the puma’s far-reaching impact on environmental advocacy and wildlife research. Actor Rainn Wilson, who appeared in one of the first fundraising campaigns for the wildlife bridge, led the crowd in an original song that included the lyrics “P-22, P-22, you left behind a lot of friends and cougar poo.”
P-22 had been acting erratically for more than a month before his death Dec. 17, including attacking three Chihuahuas and killing one. After he was struck by a car in Los Feliz, he was caught by wildlife biologists for an exam. They discovered serious health problems, including a skull fracture, a torn diaphragm and heart, kidney and liver disease. Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, made the “gut-wrenching decision” to euthanize P-22.
Jeff Sikich, a biologist with the National Park Service, captured P-22 seven times over 11 years to replace his tracking collar and perform health exams. He monitored the cougar’s movements daily for more than a decade as part of a federal study of pumas in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Representatives of the Gabrielino Tongva and Chumash tribes compared the loss of native lands to the encroachment of humans on puma territory. Most pumas in the Los Angeles area live in the Santa Monica Mountains, which are bisected by the 101 Freeway. That almost impenetrable barrier has cut off the cats from a wider gene pool to the north, leading to inbreeding and genetic abnormalities. Scientific modeling has drawn a dire conclusion: Without interventions such as the wildlife bridge, pumas in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains could be extinct within 50 years.
The National Wildlife Foundation aims to raise $500 million for wildlife crossings in the next five years. The executive director of the Wallis Annenberg Foundation, which contributed millions to the Agoura Hills bridge, has pledged $10 million to the effort. The Agoura Hills bridge, which broke ground on Earth Day last year, was largely funded by private donations from around the world, including from the foundation of actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
The crowd also heard the origin story of P-22’s most iconic moment: a photograph that ran in National Geographic, showing the cat prowling past the Hollywood sign. It took six camera traps and 15 months to get the image, photographer Steve Winter said.
P-22 was not only an incredible animal, but he was an inspiration to many. He made us more human, and reminded us of our connection with nature. His legacy will live on in his contributions to wildlife conservation and our heightened awareness of how to live in harmony with nature. We will always remember P-22, the king of Griffith Park.