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.