Ode to a Hollywood Mountain Lion

Ode to a Hollywood Mountain Lion

National Park Service from USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Our animal chaplain mourns the death of a famous mountain lion, and shares lessons from the feline's passing.

“I just booked my ticket to L.A.,” I exclaim. It’s a leap of faith because tickets aren’t even available yet for the event. But it’s not every day that thousands of humans will gather to memorialize wildlife.

If you live on the West Coast of the United States, you are probably already well acquainted with the story of P-22. If not, I’d like to tell you about this remarkable puma who padded over 50 miles—crossing two multilane freeways—to take up residence in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. For over a decade, he lived primarily in that 4,210-acre natural and landscaped park, engulfed by the living and working spaces of almost four million humans.

His extraordinary story drew our attention to the unfathomably complex problems we’ve created for other species by expanding our highways and sprawling wherever we like on this planet, which inevitably fractures their habitats and leads to human-wildlife conflicts.

Of course, it’s not likely that P-22 intended to teach us specific lessons. No, it would be beyond presumptuous to suggest that he would have experienced the trials of his life that way. And yet, death provides us opportunities to assemble moments of a life and look at their through-lines. Here’s the sage advice I noticed between this big cat’s paw prints.

Acknowledge That Life-or-Death Decisions Are Complex

After P-22’s observed behavior indicated he might be in distress, he was tranquilized, captured, and taken to the San Diego Zoo for a checkup. The medical results were discouraging. P-22 had sustained significant trauma to his head, right eye, and internal organs, which suggested he had been hit by a vehicle. On top of that, the veterinary staff documented a parasitic skin infection over his entire body, irreversible kidney disease, and other chronic illnesses.

The California Department of Fish & Wildlife was reticent to release P-22 back into the park and decided that he should either be confined to an animal sanctuary or be euthanized. Ultimately, they chose the latter, citing that confining a previously free-living being who needs ongoing medical treatments in captivity would raise additional stressors. Anyone who has ever had to make a difficult choice about euthanizing a cat or dog they live with knows that these decisions are rarely easy.

Take Time to Honor Loss

On the day the lion was killed, I was notified while mid-lecture with my animal chaplaincy students. I immediately switched gears. “I’d like us to pause and take a deep breath together. A remarkable cat has just died.” So we observed a collective moment of silence, and I said a few prayerful words. “Dear P-22, I apologize for the conditions we created for you and your kind. I hope you are free from pain.”

After class, I grabbed a box of tissues and read the words posted online by Beth Pratt, a regional executive director in California for the National Wildlife Federation, who knew the mountain lion personally. In “A Eulogy for P-22, A Mountain Lion Who Changed the World,” she reflected, “He inspired millions of people to see wildlife as their neighbors. He made us more human, made us connect more to that wild place in ourselves. We are part of nature, and he reminded us of that.”

Honor Every Loss, No Matter the Size or Popularity of the Being

In the following days, P-22 would appear on the front page of newspapers across the country, including the coveted “above the fold” primary placement of The Los Angeles Times. It reported, “Improbable trek led puma to win Angelenos’ hearts.” On the flip side, The Washington Post offered, “Famous Los Angeles cougar, P-22, captured after killing Chihuahua.”

I’m sorry, little dog. It must have been terrifying to be attacked by a giant cat. I hope you are happy and joyous in the What’s Next.

Admit That Interspecies Living Is Messy

Predators need to eat, and that creates endless quandaries. For example, another Californian puma, P-45, got himself in a heap of trouble in 2016 by eating 10 alpacas on a ranch in Malibu. The event spurred a raucous debate between conservationists, animal activists, government officials, and ranchers. California law allows predation permits to kill mountain lions, so the puma’s fate hung in the balance for a bit. Finally, the Mountain Lion Foundation and National Wildlife Federation collaborated with the rancher, designing enclosures to protect the animals from P-45 and other predators. Indeed, a high percentage of predator conflicts arise not because a human is being injured but because another animal is viewed as valuable property.

The National Park Service is currently unsure about P-45’s status. His collar stopped transmitting a signal, and he hasn’t been caught on remote cameras in a while. I’m rooting for P-45 to be okay but has gone into stealth mode, learning to avoid our attempts at surveilling him, like a feline James Bond. That observation shows my discomfort about the human superiority we exert in tagging and tracking “wild” life. And yes, I realize the hypocrisy in this statement since I had both cats I live with microchipped so they can be returned to us if they go lost (or escape?).

Dear alpacas, I’m sorry my species dominates yours, keeping you caged for our own profit.

Never Underestimate the Power of Charismatic Megafauna to Rally People

For over a decade, P-22 impacted the people in his environment. For example, when cameras once showed him in rough shape, the National Park Service treated him for eating an animal who had ingested rat poison. In part, this event would lead California to legislate stricter rules for homeowners about the use of some rodenticides—and remind us that when we seek to solve one interspecies issue, we often create others.

Dear little creatures called pests, I’m sorry we create toxic substances. I promise to draw attention to more humane options for managing human-wildlife conflicts. I may not have a huge impact, but please know that I’m trying.

Recognize That Small Creatures can Inspire Impressive Urban Conservation Initiatives

Over the years, P-22’s story inspired millions in donations to the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing. Now under construction, the corridor will allow wildlife to cross over the freeway. Conservationists suggest this will not only help make life safer for individual animals, but also encourage the survival of many species and improve ecosystem health.

That impressive project is not the only inspiring idea to help wildlife cross roads. In the 1960s, Amos Peters got tired of seeing squirrel fatalities outside his office in Longview, Washington. He engaged a couple of architects to help him construct a 60-foot-long squirrel-sized suspension bridge between two trees. Dubbed the Nutty Narrows Bridge, it cost less than a thousand dollars. Over time, six more bridges were built in the adjacent area. When I recently visited Longview, I was delighted to see more than one squirrel cross overhead and meet an entire community tuned into their safety.

While jumping from mountain lions to squirrels may seem like a ridiculous tangent, I assure you I have a point to make. An ode to an animal is not merely an homage to one being. It is a soliloquy to the entire interconnected web of which they have been part.

In P-22’s case, his ode will continue to be written. Memories of the mountain lion will inspire us to compose new lyrics for other animal neighbors. And he will undoubtedly continue to be part of a heated debate between governments, scientists, settled communities, and native peoples about who retains ownership of an animal’s remains when their spirit leaves Hollywood.

Rev. Sarah Bowen directs the Animal Chaplaincy Training Program at Compassion Consortium. Enroll at

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