A Lion in L.A.: A New Way of Thinking about Wildlife in Los Angeles
Hunched in the chaparral, pupils wide pulling in the night. The scent of a mule deer drew him here. Tired of raccoon he was anxious for a proper meal. The mountain lion stalks close, just as the deer lifts its head in panic he is on it. The deer’s neck snaps in the lion’s jaws as he pulls it to the ground. In the background looms the tall lit letters spelling HOLLYWOOD.
When I was twelve years old a friend and I pitched a tent in my backyard, loaded my pellet gun and talked until four in the morning. Still dark, before dawn I shot a possum off our cinder block wall. A few days before this a possum killed my cat.
I grew up on the edge of Los Angeles about two miles from the Santa Susana Mountains. There were as many strip malls and Western Bagels as any other L.A. suburb. There were also raccoons digging for grubs in the lawn and great horned owls terrorizing neighborhood cats. Playing in Chatsworth Park, I caught frogs and explored past yellow signs warning of rattlesnakes and mountain lions.
The Hollywood lion, known as P-22, has been living in Griffith Park since 2013. He is from the Santa Monica Mountains around Topanga Canyon. He risked crossing the 405 and 101 freeways and trespassed through the gated mansions of Bel Air in search of the ample deer of Griffith Park. Unlike most transplants to Hollywood, P-22 found fame. He has become a local celebrity with more Twitter followers than his Councilman, David E. Ryu. Other than a night under a Los Feliz home, P-22 has avoided Angelenos aggression by resisting the urge to eat corgis and sticking to the isolated canyons of the park.
Angelenos live side by side with more wildlife than residents of most of the world’s major cities. We are often ignorant of this wildlife, respond to it with hostility, or fetishize it. But, another response is possible.
In Ecology of Fear, author Mike Davis explains Los Angeles’s proximity to wildlife: “The six-county Los Angeles region is unique in the Northern Hemisphere for the intensity of interaction between humans, their pets, and wild fauna.” He points out that this is a result of rapid urban sprawl into mountains and deserts rather than farmlands. Davis writes that Los Angeles has over 675 miles of ‘wild edge,’ far more than any North American city. Considering most of this wild edge is mountainous, it becomes less of a shock that a black bear invites himself into a Sierra Madre pool on a triple-digit September day.
These interactions are not comfortable. A family of skunks has moved in beneath my North Hollywood apartment. They are evading paying our Los Angeles rents and their spray forces my windows closed several nights a week. My neighbors are calling for the skunks entryway to be boarded up and insisting the cat-lady stop putting out Friskies. Is there a better way for us to interact with these animals? Are we continuing to view nature as something to bring under control, exploit, and eliminate?
The Natural History Museum’s recently installed Nature Gardens, Nature Lab, and corresponding website sheds new light on wildlife in Los Angeles. In the exhibit I learn that there is a fly whose larvae develop in the La Brea Tar Pits subsisting off animal matter in the oil. I take my time with a colorful illustration showing the history of those brazen brown squirrels that demand half the lunches of college students. They are not native and have pushed our timider native gray squirrels to the peripheries of the city. On the website I read that our best place to collect spiders is a public men’s bathroom in Long Beach. This child-friendly display teaches that the animals around us are not encroaching on our territory or us on theirs, together we are creating new ecosystems.
There are movements reflecting this attitude. Activists are pushing for a land bridge over the 101 freeway that can be used by mountain lions (less daring than P-22) and other wildlife to access open lands currently cut off to them. Then there is the LA River. The 51-mile artery of our city that many of us drive over thinking it is nothing more than a flood control channel. But, my mom has stories of playing on its muddy banks as a child. You can watch fishermen pulling up carp in soft-bottom sections of the river. There is a sweeping movement to revitalize the river including tearing out parts of the pavement. The hope is that steelhead trout will return as harbingers of a healing river.
Arguments for protecting wildlife typically stress the value the animals provide for humans: skunks eat black widow spiders; rattlesnakes hunt rats; coyotes prey on yapping chihuahuas. Advocates point out that the animals were here before humans and therefore have equal or greater rights to the land. These arguments hold some truth but continue to view wildlife as something ‘out there’ or ‘other.’
We laugh at Youtube videos of black bears swimming around in pools. When camping we worry about them ripping into our tents for a bag of Doritos. They enjoy these things as much as we enjoy picking a wild berry or pulling a salmon out of a river. The skunks may have been in North Hollywood before the tiki bars but I know at least one family of them that prefers a shelter built by humans. The line marking Davis’ ‘wild edge’ has become so blurred in Los Angeles that the whole place is wild.
Eventually, P-22 will leave Griffith Park, abandoning his solitude and hunting grounds to find a mate. His Facebook page will be deactivated along with his celebrity status. He will cross the freeways at night after the commuters have made it home. But, if you happen to be stuck in the Sepulveda Pass and catch sight of him; roll up your windows and take a moment to appreciate the community you live in.
Since I first wrote this article:
- L.A. mountain lion, P-39, was killed on the 118 freeway.
- Malibu mountain lion, P-45, entered a ranch and killed eleven alpacas, the rancher received a permit to kill the lion but after outcries from concerned citizens stated she would not kill the animal.
- Councilman, David E Ryu, passed P-22 in Twitter followers.