Imperial Valley Press

Tribes, researcher­s debate final fate of P-22, famed LA puma


LOS ANGELES ( AP) — The life of Los Angeles’ most famous mountain lion followed a path known only to the biggest of Hollywood stars: Discovered on- camera in 2012, the cougar adopted a stage name and enjoyed a decade of celebrity status before his tragic death late last year.

The popular puma gained fame as P-22 and cast a spotlight on the troubled population of California’s endangered mountain lions and their decreasing genetic diversity. Now, with his remains stored in a freezer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, wildlife officials and representa­tives from the region’s tribal communitie­s are debating his next act.

Biologists and conservati­onists want to retain samples of P-22’s tissue, fur and whiskers for scientific testing to aid in future wildlife research. But some representa­tives of the Chumash, Tataviam and Gabrielino (Tongva) peoples say his body should be returned, untouched, to the ancestral lands where he spent his life so he can be honored with a traditiona­l burial.

In tribal communitie­s here, mountain lions are regarded as relatives and considered teachers. P-22 is seen as an extraordin­ary animal, according to Alan Salazar, a tribal member of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians and a descendent of the Chumash tribe who said his death should be honored appropriat­ely.

“We want to bury him like he’s a ‘wot,’ like a ‘tomier,’ “Salazar said, “which are two of the words for chief or leader” in the Chumash and Tataviam languages, respective­ly. “Because that’s what he was.”

Likely born about 12 years ago in the western Santa Monica Mountains, wildlife officials believe the aggression of P-22’s father and his own struggle to find a mate amid a dwindling population drove the cougar to cross two heavily traveled freeways and migrate east.

He made his debut in 2012, captured on a trail camera by biologist Miguel Ordeñana in Griffith Park, home of the Hollywood sign and part of ancestral Gabrielino (Tongva) land.

Promptly tagged and christened P-22 — as the 22nd puma in a National Park Service study — he spawned a decade of devotion among California­ns, who saw themselves mirrored in his bachelor status, his harrowing journey to the heart of Los Angeles and his prime real estate in Griffith Park amid the city’s urban sprawl. Los Angeles and Mumbai are the world’s only major cities where large cats have been a regular presence for years — mountain lions in one, leopards in the other — though pumas began roaming the streets of Santiago, Chile, during pandemic lockdowns.

Angelenos will celebrate his life on Saturday at the Greek Theater in Griffith Park in a memorial put on by the “Save LA Cougars.” P-22 inspired the group to campaign for a wildlife crossing over a Los Angeles-area freeway that will allow big cats and other animals safe passage between the mountains and wildlands to the north. The bridge broke ground in April.

P-22’s star dimmed last November, when he killed a Chihuahua on a dogwalker’s leash i n the Hollywood Hills and likely attacked another weeks later. Wildlife officials said the puma seemed to be “exhibiting signs of distress,” in part due to aging.

They captured P-22 on Dec. 12 in a residentia­l backyard in the trendy Los Feliz neighborho­od. Examinatio­ns revealed a skull fracture — the result of being hit by a car — and chronic illnesses including a skin infection and diseases of the kidneys and liver.

The city’s cherished big cat was euthanized five days later.

Los Angeles mourned P-22 as one of its own, with songs, stories and murals crying “long live the king.” Post-It notes of remembranc­e blanketed an exhibit wall at the Natural History Museum and children’s paw print messages covered a tableau outside the LA Zoo.

While fame is fleeting for most celebritie­s, P-22’s legacy lives on — though in what form is now up for debate.

The Natural History Museum took possession of the animal’s remains, prompting swift condemnati­on by tribal leaders who feared P- 22’s body could be taxidermiz­ed and put on display. Samples taken during the animal’s necropsy also are causing concerns among the tribal communitie­s about burying the cougar intact.

“In order to continue on your journey into the afterlife, you have to be whole,” said Desireé Martinez, an archaeolog­ist and member of the Gabrielino (Tongva) community.

A year before P- 22’s death, Ordeñana — the wildlife biologist whose camera first spotted the cougar and is now a senior manager of community science at the Natural History Museum — had applied for a permit from the state for the museum to receive the mountain lion’s remains when he died. Typically an animal carcass would be discarded.

 ?? AP PHOTO/JAE C. HONG ?? A girl looks at a photo of the famed mountain lion known as P-22 as the exhibit wall is covered with Post-It notes paying tribute to the big cat at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Los Angeles, on Jan. 20.
AP PHOTO/JAE C. HONG A girl looks at a photo of the famed mountain lion known as P-22 as the exhibit wall is covered with Post-It notes paying tribute to the big cat at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Los Angeles, on Jan. 20.

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