P-22 The Hollywood Cougar

It is noon in the Santa Monica Mountains and the sun beats down on a meadow hundreds of feet above the valley.  A female mountain lion yawns and sniffs the air for prey.  Nearby, her four cubs run and ramble through the yellow grass, chasing each other’s tails and swatting at butterflies.  The most rambunctious one is P-22, a male cub with bright yellow eyes and big furry ears.  He is the leader of cubs – the first one to charge after rabbits or dash between rocks in search of reptiles.  He senses his mother is tired from a morning hunt and the rising heat.  She plops down in the shade of a tree and P-22 races to her, jumping on her back, biting her tail, and nuzzling her neck.  She growls affectionately and starts to lick his dusty fur. His tummy growls and he realizes that her hunt this morning was unsuccessful.  It is getting harder and harder to find enough prey to feed the family.  Plus, the days and years of sun have left the ground parched and dry.  They have to walk farther every day to find a drink of water.

Two years tick by and P-22 and his siblings are thin and hungry.  The never-ending heat and drought have scorched the hills.  The prey has left.  They need to leave their territory in search of food and water.  To do so, they need to cross the busy freeway.  P-22 does not like the freeway.  It is noisy and hot and large boxy things race along it like speeding cougars.  In the past, any time he ventured close to the freeway, his mother roared and swiped at him with her mighty paws.  Now they are all inching down the hillside towards the freeway.  They stalk forward slowly, using the dry brush as cover.  If they don’t find food shorty, they will not survive.  Already, their ribs are showing through their sagging skin.

P-22 and his siblings stay close behind their mother as they reach the side of the freeway.  They crouch down in the dirt as the large boxy things blast by them at incredible speed.  In the distance, across the freeway, they see the dark ridges of far-off mountains.  On top of one mountain, P-22 can see lights like a bunch of stars fallen to Earth.  The stars are bright and much closer than those in the sky.  He feels as if he can race across the freeway and bound up to those stars.  P-22 wonders what a star tastes like.  Is it crunchy or sweet or meaty?  It looks like there are enough stars on that ridge to feed him and his whole family.  As if in reply, his stomach rumbles in anticipation.

Finally, his mother rises and slowly steps onto the freeway.  She looks left and right and twitches her tail.  She glances over her shoulder and growls to her offspring, then dashes onto the freeway.  Instantly, the young cougars bolt after her.  Suddenly, bright lights race out of the darkness and a loud horn shatters the night.  P-22 leaps ahead, racing for the opposite side of the road and the dark hills beyond.  He runs with all his might, losing track of his mother and siblings.  All he knows is that he must run to survive.  

When P-22 reaches the other side of the freeway, he cannot find his mother and siblings.  The big dark beasts continue to blast by with great gusts of wind, blowing fumes and ruffling his patchy fur.  He trots farther away from the smell and noise, seeking the shelter of trees up a nearby hill just like his mother taught him to do.  He hides in the bushes and settles down to wait, occasionally sending out a roar in hopes his family will hear him.  The hours tick by and he falls asleep, exhausted by his nighttime adventure.

He awakes alone.  He is hungry and thirsty.  Where is his family?  He does not know, but what he does know is that he needs to eat and drink.  He slowly creeps from his hiding place and slinks higher up the hillside in search of a jackrabbit, raccoon, or possum.  Anything to fill his rumbling belly.  Soon he reaches the top of the hill and stands overlooking the valley below.  The sun is rising and the boxy beasts continue to blast along the freeway. He looks for his family and emits a dry, croaky roar, but there is no reply.  He jogs off down the other side of the hill, farther away from the freeway and deeper into the trees in search of food.

And this is how P-22 fills his days, weeks, and months – searching for food at dawn and dusk, and resting in shade and hidden lairs during the days.  One day, he is out searching for food when he smells something strange on the wind, something he hasn’t encountered before. It smells salty and musky.  His ears and tail twitch nervously as he scans the nearby brush for a hidden predator.  Suddenly he feels a pinch of pain in his shoulder and a rustling of bushes behind him.  He turns to attack but his legs are growing heavy and his head is feeling dizzy.  As if in slow motion, he sinks down to the ground and rolls on his side.  In a few seconds, he is fast asleep.

He wakes hours later, groggy and confused.  The sun has shifted in the sky and is nearing the horizon.  It is almost dusk. He sits up and instantly feels something thick around his neck.  It emits a very low hum and occasional beeps.  This bothers him tremendously and he tries to scratch it off with his mighty back paws but it won’t budge. It feels like a snake around his neck and he wishes it would slink away, but it stays latched around his neck, never moving or biting, just beeping.  

Snake or no snake, he needs to eat and so P-22 roams the hillside and neighborhoods for food and water.  There is not much to eat in these new hills on the other side of the freeway.  There are lots of buildings and barking animals, hot streets and racing objects – nothing like the quiet hillsides of his first home.  There is much more noise over here and he has to hunt very carefully to get a good meal.  And he has discovered that the stars on this mountain ridge – the ones he saw years ago from the other side of the freeway – aren’t stars at all but blinking lights on large metal beams.  They are not food at all!  He doesn’t know what they are, but he likes to sit near them at night and scan the hillside.  Sometimes he gazes off into the distance, to the hills of his first home and loving family.  

Several years pass and soon these new hills are dry.  Rodents are scarce and water has evaporated from the canyons.  P-22 hasn’t eaten in days and is losing weight.  He needs to find something to eat.  Slowly, he creeps up a ridge towards a home perched above his lair.  He keeps his head and tail down, his powerful haunches inching him forward.  His large yellow eyes scan the hillside for any sign of movement. Closer and closer he prowls to the home.  And then he smells something – a mixture of sweet and savory.  He follows the scent and comes upon a small container of what smells like food.  Without thinking, he gulps it down in huge mouthfuls, finishing the meal in a matter of seconds.  Just then, a dog starts barking, alerted by the cougar’s presence.

P-22 dashes down the hillside and zig zags into the brush, coming to rest by his hidden lair.  He sits down and licks his paws before rubbing them across his whiskers.  A few minutes later, his stomach clenches and his insides rumble.  Something is not right.  The pain in his belly intensifies, turning into a fiery burn and P-22 rolls onto his side, letting out a low moan.  Soon he sinks into a fitful sleep.  In his dreams, he smells that salty-musky scent again and he feels himself floating on air.  He is moving – he can tell by the air brushing his whiskers – but his legs are not moving.  He hears strange sounds and senses light behind his heavy eyelids but he sinks silently back into a deep sleep.

When P-22 awakes from his dreams it is dawn and the air is cool.  He is inside his lair.  He does not know how much time has passed but he remembers feeling sick and then falling asleep.  He gets up slowly to start another round of hunting.

And so the years pass and P-22 sleeps, hunts, and lounges in the Hollywood Hills.  He is the apex predator on this small patch of turf high above the freeway next to the stars.  It has been years since he has seen another cougar and he wonders where they have all gone.  Is he the only one?

Then one winter night ten years later, P-22 is walking along a narrow road on the top of the mountain.  The evening is dark and quiet. Suddenly, he hears a roar and sees a flash of light.  He tries to jump out of the way but the roaring beast is too fast for him.  He feels a sharp pain and is thrown into the air, then tumbles down an embankment.  P-22 closes his eyes and fades into sleep.  The next day he wakes up sore and in pain.  It takes a long time to stand and make his way up the embankment.  He wanders aimlessly down the street, too tired and hurt to hunt.  His only option is to go towards the homes to find some food.  Shortly thereafter, he smells that salty-musky scent and this time sees several men standing across the street.  They aim a large stick at him.  He feels a familiar prick in his shoulder and a sudden heaviness.  He drops down on his haunches and rolls onto his side, quickly fading into sleep.  P-22 never opens his eyes again but in his dreams he is racing towards his mother and siblings.  He is finally home!  

This has been the story of P-22, a real mountain lion, or puma, who lived in the Santa Monica Mountains in California.   He was born in the western Santa Monica Mountain range around 2010.  His father was named P-001 but nothing is known about his mother.  At some point in his early life, he crossed two major freeways – the 405 and the 101 – ending up in the Eastern Santa Monica Mountains around Griffith Park and the Hollywood Hills.  His territory was very small – only 9 square miles – the smallest ever recorded for an adult mountain lion – and he found himself trapped alone in this populated area surrounded by busy freeways.  

During this time, local biologists had been studying mountain lions and in March 2012, they caught and sedated P-22, then attached a tracking monitor and collar on him.  They called him P-22 – the “P” meaning “Puma” and 22 meaning he was the 22nd puma – or mountain lion – in their study.

P-22 became a minor celebrity as sightings of him roaming the Hollywood Hills were captured by photographers.  One man hid cameras around the hillsides and eventually captured a photo of P-22 near the famous Hollywood sign.  This iconic photo was then featured on the front of National Geographic Magazine.

In 2014 and 2015, P-22 was captured again by the biologists and treated for rat poisoning and mange.  He was released back into the Santa Monica Mountains where they continued to track him for the next seven years.  However, in December 2012, P-22 was hit by a car.  The biologists captured and evaluated him.  Due to the severity of his injuries, plus other life-threatening conditions including kidney failure, heart disease, and skin diseases, he was put to sleep.

In February 2023, a large blessing ceremony was held to “welcome P-22 back to his homeland.”  This event was attended by approximately 6,000 people, including celebrities, musicians, and politicians, as well as representatives from Native American tribes such as the Chumash and Shoshone.  Shortly thereafter, P-22 was laid to rest in a private location in the Santa Monica Mountains.

P-22 left behind an amazing legacy. He became an ambassador for animal conservation and the plight of California mountain lions.  He was dubbed the “Brad Pitt of mountain lions” and conservationists soon lobbied for the creation of a wildlife crossing over the 101 freeway.  This crossing would allow mountain lions and other wildlife to safely cross between the two mountain ranges, thus safeguarding these species and ensuring animal diversity among the two ranges.  This crossing broke ground in 2022 and is expected to be completed in 2025.

Additionally, P-22 has been the subject of books, TV shows, songs, and murals highlighting the Los Angeles lifestyle and the importance of wildlife conservation. His image is also being considered for a statute and a postage stamp.

Who could imagine that one mountain lion could impact California in such a large – and positive – way? 

What do you think of P-22 and his life in the Hollywood Hills?  Have you ever seen a mountain lion in the wild or at a zoo?