Lions in Our Midst

Last month a wild mountain lion, while out on his nightly rounds, helped himself into the Los Angeles Zoo after hours and famously dismembered one of its residents. The prey was a 14-year-old koala named Killarney, and her suspected predator was none other than Los Angeles’ most popular mountain lion, a seven-year old tom named P-22.

What happened next was the stranger half of the story: Nobody hunted the lion down and shot him for his offense.

To the contrary, Angelenos rallied around their favorite cat. P-22’s champions dominated the Internet discourse. Zoo officials—who with a word could have had him killed—said all the right things, all the way to the top: “There’s a lot of native wildlife in this area. This is their home,” said the zoo’s director, John Lewis. “So we’ll learn to adapt to P-22 just like he’s learned to adapt to us.”

P-22 had introduced himself to Los Angeles four years earlier as a wayward young male who ventured from his birthplace in the Santa Monica Mountains some twenty miles to the west, crossing the relentless Hollywood and San Diego freeways en route. P-22 thus became the first of his kind to survive the suicide scramble, only to find himself trapped inside a playground of ten million people in the city’s Griffith Park.

Lion biologists soon thereafter snared and tranquilized P-22 and fitted him with a satellite tracking collar that put his every move on the map. Reporters for the L.A. Times chronicled his escapades, as he occasionally ventured out of the park and into the Hollywood Hills. He opened a Facebook page, he started tweeting, he garnered celebrity endorsements and a name-the-cougar contest. In 2013, P-22’s brand went global, when National Geographic photographer Steve Winter captured him strolling by night before those iconic fifty-foot letters HOLLYWOOD. A few months later, P-22’s fans held their breath when he turned up sick from ingesting household rat poison. His trackers treated him, P-22 returned to form, his fans exhaled.

Although the killing of Killarney was P-22’s first hint of questionable misconduct (he’d been politely feeding on wild deer, raccoons and coyotes, and otherwise minding his own business beneath the multitudes’ noses since his arrival in 2012) it wasn’t his first brush with the authorities. One day last year he was discovered holing up in the crawl space of an apartment building outside his mountain park. That little excursion had the country watching live, with news cameras rolling while animal control officers tried to shoo him home—which he managed himself that night after everyone left.

Greater Los Angeles has adopted an animal that in other parts of the country would be automatically assumed a public threat and executed. Compare P-22’s treatment to the reception of a similar young lion who in 2014 wandered out of the hills and onto the plains of South Dakota, where he eventually came to the roadside town of Wall. The visiting lion failed to escape town before somebody spotted him ducking for cover into a crevice. Officers of South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Parks dropped smoke bombs into his hideout. The lion clung tight. A city employee started digging—with a backhoe. The cat staggered out, the officers shot him dead. The backhoe lion was officially tallied as the 724th killed in South Dakota over the previous decade.

The lion of Wall was just one of dozens of wanderlust young males from South Dakota who over the past decade have been killed attempting to cross the Great Plains, where lions have not lived in more than a century. Not one was ever known to threaten a soul. (Most were seeking mates.) And not one was known to survive—though one in particular would demonstrate the unimaginable possibilities. In the summer of 2011, after two years and more than two thousand miles traversing the gauntlet, the most heroic of these pioneers passed within thirty miles of Manhattan, before meeting a car on a Connecticut parkway.

Those lions now venturing eastward beyond their mountain homes in the Rockies have become ducks in the Midwest shooting gallery. Those who stay put are not faring much better. Every western state except California holds a yearly sport hunt for mountain lions, and each state has agents charged with killing additional unwanted cats. Texas classifies its mountain lions as varmints, to be shot on sight, year-round. Washington, prevented by federal law from allowing angry ranchers to shoot the state’s few wolves, has attempted to appease them by upping their lion-killing quotas. Nevada, in addition to hunting its lions for sport, has a law on the books that earmarks roughly $400,000 per year for its wildlife agency to spend killing predators, lions included, no biological rationale required. The official U.S. tallies amount to some thirty-five hundred dead cats each year; the resulting number of kittens orphaned and starved goes uncounted. And all of it aimed against a tribe of cats whose supposed menace to society is debunked daily by such neighborly exemplars as the Connecticut cat who politely toured the country in search of love, and by P-22, whose one unwitting offense was an ill-advised foray to the L.A. Zoo for groceries.

And even P-22 now treads just one errant step from the crosshairs. If, say, instead of killing the koala Killarney, P-22 had happened upon somebody’s loose poodle, its owner could have legally called for his execution, and the whole Hollywood fairytale would have come to a grim ending.

The latest episode in the P-22 reality show has tenuously confirmed the devotions of Los Angeles for its slightly mischievous lion—a little bubble of benevolence in the mountain lion’s hazardous life among humans. But beyond the warm embrace and soothing Hollywood headlines awaits a far meaner country openly gunning for his kind.


  1. Edward Goldstein on April 11, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Will: Can’t wait to read Heart of a Lion. This is obviously a story worthy of its author.

    • Will Stolzenburg on April 11, 2016 at 1:05 pm

      Gracias Eduardo!

  2. Celia Woods on April 12, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. … There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
    —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
    I can’t wait to read Heart of a Lion. I am absolutely sure another book worthy to be read.
    Celia Woods

    • Will Stolzenburg on April 12, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      Bless you, Celia. And thanks for sharing that bit of Rachel. She would have loved this cat.

  3. […] Lions in Our Midst […]

  4. Bill Rejebian on April 15, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Hear, hear, Will!
    Picking up “Heart of a Lion” this weekend. Can’t wait!

    • Will Stolzenburg on April 15, 2016 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks, and hope you like it, Bill. BTW, speaking of heroic cats, how’s El Jefe doing these days?

      • Bill Rejebian on April 18, 2016 at 9:49 am

        I love what I’ve read so far!

        Ah yes, El Jefe- staying out of trouble and looking for love!! 😉

  5. Caroline Griffin on May 3, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    I haven’t stopped thinking about the Connecticut lion and the senseless persecution of these great creatures. This is such a provocative book and a compulsive read. I’m profoundly grateful to you and hope this haunting and eloquent book serves as a catalyst for change.

    • Will Stolzenburg on May 3, 2016 at 4:26 pm

      Many thanks, Caroline. I’m with you. As much as I would have loved a nonstop joyride following in his path, the societal dangers he faced at every turn were impossible to ignore. He really was an awesome cat. Let’s hope his successors are given the chance they deserve.

  6. Lane Batot on May 6, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    JUST finished yer SPLENDID book, “Heart Of A Lion”!(also read “Where The Wild Things Were”–also excellent–, and soon to git “Rat Island”! yeah, I’m a FAN, now!). I was SO HOPING to read more about this amazing individual cougar, when I first heard of his incredible journey back in 2011. Being a died-in-the-wool puma aficionado since birth(and now a zookeeper caring for cougars!), and keeping tabs on the whole “Eastern Panther” phenomenon for 5 decades, this has to be the MOST DRAMATIC, and unbelievably, impossibly well-documented dispersal out there(so far!). And what a dang good job you did writing it! I am not as negative in my beliefs of the cougar eventually recolonizing the East(as so many researchers in yer book seemed to be), especially the Appalachian chain, which is SUPERB panther territory again! I lived many years in PERFECT cougar habitat in the East, on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, and regularly roamed places that NO HUMANS EVER visited, where cougars could be living and no one the wiser. Despite all the common lore regarding their presence, I never found tracks(even in long, long searches when it snowed), scat, kills, and never a “sighting”, despite, critter geek that I am, driving isolated back roads in the wee hours just HOPING for a glimpse! No luck, but I’m hopeful–ONE DAY.(I DID see LOTS of bobcats!) With the potential of escaped/released captives surviving, the dispersal from the West, and Florida panthers from the South, I think it IS possible, eventually. If they can JUST get established in the Appalachians! All the tragic deaths of dispersers only tells PART of the tale of these extraordinary elusive cats, I think–how many HAVE slipped by our overly civilized awareness, or will in the future? I think at least a FEW might….just a matter of time(I say with fingers crossed). But I’m a “cage-half-empty” kinda thinker that way…….L. B.

    • Will Stolzenburg on May 6, 2016 at 1:43 pm

      Thanks for all, Lane, and amen to your hope for the Appalachians. No doubt lions could live well there, and no doubt they would, if only we could get a female or three across the great wall, without getting run over or shot along the way. That’s the great challenge. I think there may eventually be daring males who like our Connecticut cat will survive the trip, but I think the females are going to need some help–and some patience from their new neighbors once there. Thanks again for your thoughts.

      • Lane Batot on May 6, 2016 at 2:12 pm

        I’d be all for some of those “excess” female(and male) young Florida Panthers getting hit by cars trying to disperse, carted up to and released in the Apps–there has been some talk of such, I’ve read. Hasn’t gotten anywhere yet. Also was an effort being made to establish another population with releases in the Okeefenokee–an experimental effort attempted but aborted–not popular with the locals, alas,–but you probably know all that! Did you ever hear/read about that cougar kitten hit by a car in Kentucky in the 1990’s? I saw a photo of it at the time(long before the internet hoaxes began appearing, I might add!)–it WAS a young, still spotted cougar cub. The story behind it was that a motorist hit it at night, and turned it in to the local Wildlife department. His claim was that an adult with THREE youngsters in tow were crossing the highway, and he accidentally, and unfortunately clipped the last kitten. DNA tests were done, and it turned up at least partially from South American origins, which meant likely at least partially descended from an escaped/released captive. But IF TRUE, that meant a surviving, reproducing female WAS out there, somewhere(with a coupla surviving kittens at the time). I’ve always felt that some of the more legitimate sounding reports from the East WERE from surviving escaped/released captives, who survived a few months, or maybe even a few years, enough to keep the beliefs in a surviving population alive, but being alone, unable to establish a breeding population. Depending on who you believe, some of this may have occurred in Florida as part of the “Florida Panther” population. But the idea of former captive “pets” establishing is never a popular view with most of the “scientists”. I’m personally all for WHATEVER WORKS!

        • Will Stolzenburg on May 6, 2016 at 4:45 pm

          Yes, I’m aware of the Kentucky kitten, with all due suspicions. And yes, the occasional appearance of escaped/released captives explains so much of what little physical evidence exists of eastern cougars. Curious: Given your experience with captive cats, what’s the usual lifespan for such cougars?

          • Lane Batot on May 7, 2016 at 10:10 am

            Sigh…..Just lost one a coupla years ago–he made it to 16. He was healthy as a horse and was a very laid back(constantly purring!), happy cat up until his last year, when he became quite arthritic. Another(his roommate–2 NEUTERED males who were BEST pals all their lives–both confiscated/rescued from illegal pet trade–both from Detroit, Michigan) before him made it to 14–he had A LOT of issues, mostly caused by stress–he had apparently been abused before we rescued him, and he never mentally really recovered. Stress will kill ya! I’ve heard of captive cougars making it to twenty or so, but it seems like the mid-teens(like most domestic cats and dogs that way) is a common lifespan. Of course for a male to make it to 10 in the wild is really lucky! Females in the wild often live longer, I’ve read, being less likely to get torn up in territorial fights. We(at the zoo I work at) planned to get more rescues(who would otherwise be euthanized–sadly, plenty of them out there needing homes….) to replace our older males when they passed, just as 3 cougar kittens were orphaned in Oregon by a legal hunter(he did not realize–until too late–that he shot a lactating female, but had the sense enough to realize it once he did, and the decency to backtrack her–in the snow I imagine–and find the den and turn the kittens in to the Oregon zoo, where they were bottle-raised–their eyes JUST opened when found, so they would never have survived otherwise), which we got elected to adopt! Raising those guys(hands-on until they got too big!) was one of the BEST experiences of my life! They are two years old now, very happy, well socialized, and adjusted to life in captivity(alas….) So hopefully, I’ll have a dozen or so more years to share with them……

  7. Lane Batot on May 7, 2016 at 10:26 am

    ……and not to be too much of a Blog Hog here(ahem!), but I did want to comment on the POST SUBJECT, too! KUDOS(not to be confused with kudus) to the L. A. Zoo for their response(or lack thereof) regarding P-22’s exotic dinner. My take on livestock or captive animals getting nailed by wild predators, or even free-ranging domestic dogs, is that protection of WHATEVER vulnerable animal one is keeping is the responsibility of the keeper(s), and you do whatever it takes to provide them secure, predator proof surroundings. You DO NOT expect the surrounding natural world to stop functioning and ignore the tempting victims in your care. If there is a boo-boo, you fix it yourself–you DO NOT go out and try to massacre all the local predators and neighbors’ dogs(though you might inform the neighbors of their dogs’ extracurricular activities–for the dogs’ sake). Having kept sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, ferrets, domestic cats, and other predator-vulnerable critters, I’ve had my share of experience with visiting wild predators! When an “accident” has occurred in the past, I don’t get mad, I get better fencing! Alas, this seems to be a rare philosophy–but glad to hear the L. A. Zoo has such considerations!

  8. Janny Wurts on August 14, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Just finished Heart of A Lion – bravo.

    FL resident, well educated to the science side, regarding the plight of our own FL panther, running 3 trail cams N. of the Caloosahatchee R. for hard data, you got it all totally right. Thank you for a beautiful book, start to finish, even though it made me cry – a lot. I will be putting in for our local book club, and recommending it, highly. This is the educational book I’ve been looking for, and so readable.

    Thank you

    • Will Stolzenburg on August 15, 2016 at 10:26 am

      How nice to hear. Thank you. Please give my best to your book club. And BTW, if you happen to be in the area, I’ll be presenting the lion’s story at Ding Darling on March 31. And how are the plans going for ferrying a female or three across the Caloosahatchee 😉

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