It was drizzling and gray, late fall, on the old Rickards Movie Ranch, high in the Santa Monica Mountains, in rural, red-state western Malibu. Bleached skulls were tacked to the outside wall of a stage-set saloon; rusting wagon wheels leaned at angles. A hand-painted sign announced a “Public Hanging, 5PM.” Inside the saloon—the shooting location of TV Westerns and Gravy Train commercials and Playboy spreads—a secret meeting was under way.
“This cat is dangerous,” a woman said, her voice carrying tremulously over the saloon door. “He should not be part of the gene pool.”
“Absolutely! Get him out of here,” a man said.
“For years and years, I’ve lived like this,” another woman said. “Now I’m afraid.”
The saloon doors swung open, and Wendell Phillips beckoned me inside, where nine people sat around a large table, in a room crowded with memorabilia of the Old West: hides, brands, a full-mount coyote. Phillips, who is sixty-seven, with a bald head and a sizable mustache, is a former SWAT-team member and now has a law practice defending police officers. He and his wife, Mary Dee Rickards, were leading the meeting, for the victims of a mountain lion known as P-45.
P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male with golden eyes and mittlike paws who dominates the western swath of the Santa Monicas. After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little—a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.
Rickards, who has short blond hair and a cheerful manner, grew up on the ranch and runs a cat rescue there. She and Phillips have horses and dogs and, until recently, had alpacas. Then one night P-45 jumped into the alpaca pen, killing two of them. When it happened again last spring, and three more died, Phillips gave away the rest of the herd and turned his attention to pursuing the culprit. To Phillips, P-45 is a sociopath, a freak—“the John Wayne Gacy of mountain lions.”
The Santa Monica Mountains extend from the Pacific Coast through the Hollywood Hills, to end in Griffith Park. Urban though Los Angeles is, its mountains are furrowed with densely vegetated canyons full of deer and coyotes, cactuses, live oaks, wheeling hawks—a patchwork of public and private holdings claimed both by top carnivores and by their human counterparts.
The real estate is increasingly contested. At some two hundred and forty square miles, the range is the perfect size for one or two dominant males and several females, along with their young. The National Park Service study is currently tracking ten mountain lions in the area, including three breeding males. There is also an unknown number of uncollared lions. Living at such close quarters intensifies the lions’ natural territorialism; in this population, the leading cause of death is conflict with other lions. But adolescent lions who set out in search of their own hunting grounds often come to an impasse. The range is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) to the north, and bisected by the 405 between Brentwood and Bel Air. Just as the roads keep native lions in, they also keep outside lions from entering, and first-order inbreeding has become common. Lush but confined, the mountains are a cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators, whose future is threatened by a double deficiency: not enough space for a group of lions with not enough genetic differences among them.
As a result, the mountain-lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is in danger of entering an extinction vortex, a downward spiral in which everything starts to fail. “They could be in the process of genetic flatlining,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says. “Without our assistance, the Santa Monica Mountain pumas are likely to go extinct.” This is what nearly happened to the Florida panthers, in the mid-nineties, when intensive inbreeding caused physical changes that hindered reproduction. According to Riley, who recently published a paper on the subject, if similar problems occur and no new lions enter the area the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in fifty years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation—in Florida, where the population was larger, it took just six females from Texas to reverse the spiral.
From this point of view, Los Angeles can’t spare a single cat, and certainly not one matching P-45’s profile. According to a preliminary genetic analysis done at Wayne’s lab, P-45 comes from north of the 101: he is an outsider, a lion who successfully navigated the freeway and miles of suburbs to introduce his precious DNA to the Santa Monicas. Under threat, P-45 has inspired a committed following. In November, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Save P-45” defended his behavior as entirely natural. “Killing P-45 is not the answer,” the editorial said. “Surely there is a better way to manage the conflicts that arise when humans and their domestic animals move into areas that have long served as habitat for wildlife.”
P-45’s alien provenance aggravates the unease that Phillips and his neighbors feel. “I know P-45 is not indigenous to here,” Phillips told me. “I think he was a killer someplace else.” He added, “I’m not too happy about P-45’s genes getting passed down.” Though the young generally travel with their mothers—mountain-lion fathers are more likely to kill their kittens than to train them—he saw the potential for P-45 to accustom his offspring to a life of theft and slaughter. Besides, he said, “I’m tired of living inside a biology project.” If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the state’s mountain-lion population, or the National Park Service, which he blames for protecting P-45, refused to solve the problem, he warned that vigilante justice would prevail.
“Somebody’s going to shoot him soon,” Phillips said. “They’re just not going to report it. They’re not going to call N.P.S., not going to call Fish and Wildlife. They’re just going to shoot him, pound the collar off with a hammer, put it in a lead box in a bucket of water, and bury P-45 ten feet deep. That will be the end of that story. He will pass from reality into legend.”
Puma concolor, an evolutionary adept that, unlike the sabre-toothed cat, survived the Late Pleistocene Extinction, is found from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Yukon. Until successive extermination campaigns largely eradicated mountain lions from the Midwest and the East, they ranged throughout the United States. Now, as urbanization in the West encroaches on their remaining habitat, some are making audacious attempts to reclaim ceded lands. In 2011, a cat from South Dakota travelled more than fifteen hundred miles, to Greenwich, Connecticut, before being struck and killed by an S.U.V. on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.
Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Though there have been instances of mountain lions targeting people in California—between 1986 and 2014, there were three fatal attacks—it has never happened in Los Angeles County. (Since the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, there have been fewer than thirty fatal attacks in North America; it is an often cited fact that vending machines kill more people than mountain lions do.) “They’re called ghost cats for a reason—they’re very elusive,” Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist with the National Park Service, who manages the field work for the mountain-lion study, told me. “We’ve seen with our data that they do a great job at avoiding us.” But, he said, “in this urban, fragmented landscape, they see us almost every day.”
In Los Angeles, a place long mocked as hostile to nature, the lions are a symbol of stubborn, resilient wildness. Powerful enough to jump fifteen feet in the air from a standstill, they provide a bracing reminder of humans’ place in the food chain. Back-yard wildlife cameras have become popular, which, along with grainy security-camera footage, create a kind of lion TMZ. In December, the actor Will Smith, who lives on a hundred-and-fifty-acre estate in Calabasas, in the middle of the Santa Monica Mountains, went on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and gleefully shared images of what appeared to be a large mountain lion skulking through the brush beside his house. “Look at that thing!” Smith said. “I’m asleep right now, and I think I’m safe—while this is going on!” A ranger, Smith said, had recommended that he encircle his house with lion urine as a deterrent. Smith suggested that a better way to deal with the animal would be to “relocate it to Denzel’s house.”
The lions would probably still be living in obscurity had it not been for P-22, a strong, lean cat with a white muzzle and a pelt the color of orange-blossom honey, whose unlikely story has made him a celebrity. P-22 was born in the Santa Monicas, about seven years ago; scientists believe that as an adolescent he headed east, away from the scratch marks, growls, and scent trails of intimidating older males like P-45. Astonishingly, P-22 crossed both the 405 and the 101, and took up residence in Griffith Park, which sits across the highway from the rest of the Santa Monica range like the heel sliced off a loaf of bread. In February, 2012, Miguel Ordeñana, a biologist who was studying the flow of animals in and out of the park, noticed a mountain lion among the images recorded by his wildlife camera. It was like seeing Big Foot. “It’s almost a mythical animal—people send in photos, and they’re usually house cats or coyotes,” he told me. “This image really proved that Griffith Park is more connected than we thought, and valuable not only to the wildlife that live in the park but to wildlife that live in neighboring parks.” Several weeks later, Sikich captured P-22 and fitted him with a G.P.S. collar, so that he could monitor his movements and study his diet.
The park, which was given to the city in 1896 by an eccentric entrepreneur named Griffith J. Griffith, is five times the size of Central Park, and contains the Hollywood Sign, the Observatory, and the L.A. Zoo. A few years before donating the land, Griffith led a hunting party to go after two mountain lions suspected of killing pigs there. These days, P-22 is welcomed as an honored guest of the park, even as millions of people visit each year, including joggers, cyclists, and goat-sized children vaguely supervised on its playgrounds and its trails. In the fall, Los Angeles celebrated the first official P-22 Day: more than two thousand people attended, among them scores of elementary-school children, in craft-paper ranger vests, who read letters of appreciation to an animal who has become part of the curriculum in many public schools. Mary Button, a representative of Friends of Griffith Park, said, “We’re thrilled to have P-22 here in his home.”
The park is eight square miles, but for P-22 it’s a Hong Kong microflat—the smallest known home range for an adult male mountain lion. If he wants to breed, he will have to face death on the freeways again, or hope for a mate as daring as he was. A lion alone, P-22 is living out the classic science-fiction narrative of the protagonist who wakes up to discover that he is the last of his kind. By day, when the trails are overrun with humans, P-22 hides in plain view, resting in the dense brush down in the shady draws. After dark, he stalks the park and its environs, haunting the deer that graze in Forest Lawn cemetery and ambling around the Hollywood Sign, on Mt. Lee. It was on Mt. Lee that Steve Winter, a big-cat photographer for National Geographic, set up a flash-equipped camera trap. After waiting for more than a year, he got a shot of P-22, bathed in light, in front of the Hollywood Sign: a magnificent holdover from the Ice Age posed with the unmistakable emblem of the American megalopolis.
Griffith Park is adjacent to the residential neighborhoods of Beachwood Canyon and Los Feliz, and P-22 regularly visits both. One morning, at Jason and Paula Archinaco’s house—a six-thousand-square-foot structure built into a hillside across the street from the park—two contractors for A.D.T. home security came tearing out of a crawl space where they’d been working, frantic with fear. They had seen a mountain lion, and needed to take the rest of the day off. Jason called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the media. By the time Paula got home from a meeting down the hill, the street was clogged with news vans, and a helicopter hovered overhead. For the next twelve hours, she worked the door like a bouncer at a hot night club; for every two reporters who came out, two more could come in. “It was like we had a Kardashian in our house,” she said.
Courtesy Miguel Ordeñana
To the Archinacos, who have three domestic cats, a no-shoes policy, and a Buddha garden, P-22’s brief residence under their house felt like a visitation from a spirit animal. Paula said, “He had these big amber eyes. He looked sad, like, ‘Why did I get caught?’ ” Fish and Wildlife tried to dislodge him by pelting him with beanbags, but he wouldn’t budge. Finally, when the crews went home, P-22 sneaked out unobserved and went back into Griffith Park.
P-22 has attuned the people of Los Angeles to the unsustainable predicament of their lions. “He is that relatable victim,” Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, the California director of the National Wildlife Federation, says. “He’s a social-justice story, an environmental story, a love story, stranded, as he is, in the park. He is a champion for so many issues—nobody has enough space.” An ebullient outdoorswoman with sun-streaked blond hair, Pratt-Bergstrom has worked in Yellowstone and Yosemite. “I’m a National Parky,” she said, explaining that most of her career has been devoted to a traditional approach to conservation, in which you keep wildlife in preserves and let the cities go. “If you told me I’d be doing wildlife conservation in L.A. three years ago, I would have laughed. ‘L.A. doesn’t have any wildlife! What’s there to do?’ ”
P-22 changed Pratt-Bergstrom’s mind. Now, with a fresh P-22 tattoo on her shoulder, she uses his plight to advocate for connectivity (the conservation principle that calls for linking areas of habitat), especially in cities, where habitat may exist but the boundaries to it are often fatal. Her initial plan to reserve the domain name L.A. Cougars was modified after a Google search returned NSFW results; now she uses Save L.A. Cougars. In P-22’s name, she also maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; one Valentine’s Day, she set up a Tinder account for him. On his Facebook page, which has more than six thousand likes, she includes a friendly bio: “Hi! I’m LA’s loneliest bachelor. I like to hang out under the Hollywood sign to try and pick up cougars. Likes: Deer, catnip, Los Feliz weekends. Dislikes: Traffic, coyotes, P-45.” Last fall, Pratt-Bergstrom retraced P-22’s presumed route from the western Santa Monicas into the park: forty-seven miles, which she completed in three days, with a lion-tracking G.P.S. collar around her neck and a cardboard cutout of P-22 strapped to her back.
The danger of overidentifying with animals, particularly carnivores, is that it leads people to expect human behavior of them. When, inevitably, the animals disappoint, the reaction is often punitive. Last spring, the affection of the public and the forbearance of officials were tested when P-22 got past a nine-foot-high fence at the L.A. Zoo and ate the face off an endangered Australian koala named Killarney. After a brief discussion about whether it was time to remove P-22 for his own sake, and possibly for ours, city leaders decided that he should stay. Pratt-Bergstrom took it as a significant victory. “In any other city, he would probably have been shot,” she said. “The zoo said, ‘Our bad—we didn’t have a tall enough fence.’ This is the second-largest city in the country, and it has said it’s O.K. with an admittedly dangerous predator living in its midst. This is a real shift, and it’s revolutionary for wildlife. L.A. is making a home for a mountain lion. C’mon, everyone else!”
Every other day, Jeff Sikich, of the National Park Service, searches the steep, prickly hills of western Malibu for a cat named P-19 and her kittens. The Park Service refers to P-19 as the Selfie Cat: in a fetching picture captured by a wildlife camera, she looks almost as if she were sucking in her tawny cheeks to pose. Not long before P-45 was collared, he mated with P-19; the kittens are the only known carriers of P-45’s prized north-of-the-freeway DNA. In a complicated family tree, their success could help reverse the damage caused by two generations of inbreeding: before finding P-45, P-19 twice mated with her father, who then also mated with one of their kittens.
Courtesy National Park Service
P-19’s kittens by P-45 are a female and a male, known as P-46 and P-47. A few weeks after their birth, Sikich sneaked into their den and, with a veterinarian, surgically implanted very-high-frequency radio transmitters in their abdomens. The transmitters’ batteries tend to falter after about fifteen months—also the age at which mountain lions typically leave their mothers, a behavior that scientists call dispersal. P-19’s kittens will reach fifteen months in March, and Sikich needed to capture them before then to fit them with G.P.S. collars of their own. The challenge was greater than usual: six months ago, P-19’s G.P.S. stopped working. Luckily, she also had a radio transmitter on her collar, which, along with the kittens’ implants, would give Sikich the information he needed to set a trap for them.
Early one morning, I met Sikich in a lot near a state park in the mountains, and got into his white government truck. He is forty-one, six feet two and lanky, with green eyes and close-cropped grayish hair. Stealthy and circumspect, he has captured more than a hundred lions in his career. “You have to be the cat to catch the cat,” he says. Once, when P-22’s G.P.S. was down, he ambushed him from a tree limb with a blow dart loaded with sedatives, and replaced the collar while P-22 slept. There is an inherent tension in his work, which explains the caginess in his bearing: wanting the public to care about mountain lions in general, he is wary of anyone’s knowing too much about any particular lion. He often parks far from his tracking grounds and hikes indirectly, lest he be followed, and he never publicizes the lions’ exact locations. He said, “We don’t want people hiking to these points, hoping for photo ops or selfies, and we don’t want people who don’t like lions to be able to find them.”
On the roof of the truck was a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree antenna. Sikich turned it on and entered a code associated with P-19’s radio transmitter, and one for each of the kittens. We drove through Westlake Village, an affluent suburb in the San Fernando Valley, and into a subdivision, listening for their signals. When we heard them, Sikich stopped on the side of the road. From the back of the truck, he pulled out a contraption that looked like a project from a middle-school science fair: the Wright brothers’ airplane, rendered in hangers from the dry cleaner. This was a directional antenna—which once nearly got him shot by the L.A.P.D. in Griffith Park when he was tracking P-22. While officers trained guns on him, he dropped the antenna and threw his hands in the air, shouting “Biologist! Biologist!”
Sikich pointed the antenna at a steep green hill behind the houses and arced it slowly through the air. We heard a faint clicking, P-19’s signal, which strengthened as he moved the antenna north, then fell away. He reversed directions, again finding the signal’s peak. For the next hour, we drove through neighborhoods, trying to find additional listening points that could help narrow down the whereabouts of the lion family. This was mountain-lion country, but the landscape, with its red tile roofs and basketball nets and mini-S.U.V.s, was in the process of forgetting it. At the end of a cul-de-sac, we scaled a low cinder-block wall and entered open space. Eventually, Sikich was able to point to where the lions were: in a drainage near the top of the green hill, where the terrain formed gentle pleats, like fabric beneath a cinched belt.
We were at the mountains’ northern edge, overlooking the 101. Below us, beside the road, was the entrance to an underpass that Sikich believed may have been P-45’s way into the Santa Monicas—and could be the kittens’ way out. The road shhhhhhhhed insistently, soul-killing as a vacuum. A hundred and seventy-five thousand cars pass here every day, and a collision with any one of them would almost certainly be fatal to a lion. In December, Sikich verified the death of one of the lions in the study when he found her collar smashed against a Jersey barrier in the middle of a ten-lane freeway; a few weeks later, one of her young kittens died as it attempted to cross; a few weeks after that, another of her kittens was killed on the same road.
For P-19’s kittens, staying behind in the crowded Santa Monicas would also likely mean death, in a fight with their father or with another breeding male. Since 2002, when the Park Service study began, only one male lion born in the Santa Monicas has lived past the age of two.
Courtesy National Park Service
In late January, P-19’s radio transmitter failed. All that remained were the kittens’ implants, whose signals were easily obstructed, often faint, and, in any case, soon to go dark. The matter of catching the family became urgent: any day, they could go from study subjects to ghost cats once more. For weeks, the cats had been evading Sikich, bypassing the bait he laid and spending long stretches of time on private land, where he could not follow. Then, one morning, a carnivore intern working with him located the kittens on land belonging to the Park Service, in a wilderness between Phillips’s property and the Pacific Ocean. Sikich dragged in a roadkill deer and buried it with leaf litter, scraping the earth as a lion would, so that P-19 might think she’d stumbled on another lion’s cache. In a tree above a rocky promontory, he hung a speaker attached to an MP3 player loaded with a track he calls Deer in Distress: Ma ma maaaa maaaaah. That night, a camera he had set there recorded P-19 and the kittens, eating heartily. At last, Sikich had his chance.
The next day, while the cats were resting nearby, he divided up the remaining meat between two cages, placing it behind a treadle at the back: if a lion stepped there, the door would close, and Sikich would get an alert on his cell phone. In the evening, we met along the Pacific Coast Highway, where he had service. Just as the sun went over the horizon, his phone signalled. We drove up a steep canyon, followed by a truck carrying several of his colleagues, and pulled over at a soft shoulder. It was a starry night, and water rushed in a nearby stream. A cold wind blew—good for lion work, it carried away our scent. We scrambled up an incline, breathing the dark-green smell of crushed sage. The researchers wore headlamps, which raked searchingly across the terrain, lighting a sign that read “Danger Mountain Lion Capture Area.”
Sikich went ahead to check the traps. When he rejoined us, he was beaming. “P-19 just went in,” he said. “We’ve got her and one of the kittens.”
Sikich loaded a dart with anesthetic and sedative, and he and a colleague headed into the woods. Fifteen minutes later, they came back, staggering under the weight of the animal they held between them on a tarp: P-47, the male. “Man! P-47’s a beast,” Sikich said. Nose to tail, he was nearly seven feet long, covered in a thick mustardy coat flecked with black. His paws looked as big as a hand spread wide. Bottom heavy, his body tapered to an elegant head with a Greek nose. Under his neck the fur was rabbit-white and soft.
Sikich fitted the kitten with a G.P.S. collar, took samples of blood and hair, and pulled back his gums to measure his teeth. Perfectly white canines nearly an inch long formed a circular bite, like the wax Dracula teeth you see on Halloween. P-47 snored, his belly full of deer. I thought of my children, asleep in their beds. The researchers weighed the cat at a hundred and eight pounds—thirty-five pounds heavier than a male kitten from an earlier P-19 litter at the same age. “That’s P-45’s DNA for sure,” Sikich said.
When it was time to wake P-47 up, Sikich wrestled him into his empty cage. “This is great,” he said. “A young dispersing male with a collar. It’ll be super interesting to see where he goes.” Injected with a reversal drug, P-47 blinked, hissed, hammocked his shoulders, and reared to bare his teeth: Haaaahhhr. Staring at us, he banged his head on the top of the cage and started gnawing on its bars. For a moment, it looked as if he would tip it, and then Sikich, to my horror, propped the door open with a stick and encouraged him to leave the cage. The researchers turned down their lamps and stood back a few feet. Through the gloom, I could see P-47’s eyes, like unlit yellow traffic lights. He quieted, and from the cage we heard a chirp, like a songbird’s warmup. A moment later came a high-pitched answering squeak: his sister, P-46, uncaged, disconcertingly close, invisible to us. The siblings talked this way, back and forth, as if to reassure each other that everything would be all right. When P-47 finally bounded out of the cage and disappeared, I noticed that for a long time my heart had been beating with an unaccustomed, satisfying fear.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, P-45 indulged himself. Down the road from Wendell Phillips’s place is a tumbledown alpaca farm that for the past four years has belonged to Victoria Vaughn-Perling, who lives in a suburb that is a twenty-minute drive away. She is a weaver, and it was always her dream to retire to the countryside. But alpaca wool—she hadn’t known—is susceptible to moths, and whatever work she finished the moths were just as fast to undo. Her plans to move to the farm never took shape, either. She and her husband, Joseph, separated, and it was all they could do to keep renters in the place. Many nights, it sat empty.
Courtesy National Park Service
After losing nine alpacas to mountain-lion attacks over the summer, the Vaughn-Perlings tried to upgrade the pens where the animals stayed at night. They added motion-sensor lights and a line of electric fencing, and played talk radio turned up loud. Above the electric line, Victoria strung colored pennants, to make the barrier appear higher than it was. Some nights, she stayed out in her car, with the lights on, ready to blare the horn if the lion returned. Joseph, a technologist, looked for ideas on the Internet. In retrospect, Victoria told me, she could see that they had been naïve. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” she said.
Thanksgiving weekend was rainy, and she didn’t make it to the farm, believing that a lion wouldn’t hunt in the rain. The radio shorted out; the lights and the electric fence, powered by the sun, failed to turn on. P-45 came.
Two nights later, Wendell Phillips brought me to the farm. Construction lights illuminated a pitiful scene of alpaca carnage. In a corral surrounded by a waffling, loose-weave wire fence some eight feet tall, a chocolate-brown alpaca lay in a heap, matted with blood, its long neck rumpled like a cast-off knee-high. Nearby was a fluffy white alpaca named Cuzco. Its neck arched like a ballerina’s, and there was a gaping hole in its abdomen. In the attack, P-45 had killed ten more of the Vaughn-Perlings’ alpacas, including a baby, which had been found strung up on the fence; he had eaten only from Cuzco. The following night, he went down the road to the Shalom Institute, a Jewish retreat center, which has a petting zoo where visitors can learn about animals in the context of Torah study. Phillips told me that the zoo, which had also suffered previous attacks, was far better defended than the Vaughn-Perlings’ farm. “I’ve seen medium-security correctional facilities that weren’t as secure,” he said. Still, P-45 leaped onto the roof of the animals’ enclosure, spooking them so badly that they broke the gate from the inside and delivered themselves to him in an open pen.
“That smell, if you’ve never been to a homicide scene, is the smell of death,” Phillips said, standing over Cuzco. He pointed out the killer’s signature: the blood around the head; the tooth marks where he’d crimped the windpipe, suffocating it; the open cavity, intestines removed. “I doubt he’ll be back tonight,” he said. “Ate enough from the body cavity. Probably gorged up asleep somewhere.” He showed me his weapons, a .40 Smith & Wesson Springfield XD tactical—a SWAT entry gun—and a semi-automatic Bushmaster. “The black rifles that the media hates so much,” he said.
In California, mountain lions have special protection. Although for much of the twentieth century the state paid bounty hunters to kill them, since 1990 trophy hunting has been banned. There is, however, a provision for “depredation permits”—permission, retroactive or in advance, to kill a mountain lion that threatens or attacks a person or his property. In 2015, a hundred and seven mountain lions were killed on depredation permits. The Vaughn-Perlings had lost nineteen animals to P-45. Victoria got a depredation permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and asked Phillips to execute it. He had experience.
Last spring, after the second attack on his place, Phillips took out his own permit to shoot P-45. Inside an old stall used for hay storage in the Western Town on his property, he had rigged a blind, cutting a window into a wall that looked over a pasture, where he left one of his dead alpacas as bait. For three freezing nights, he lay in wait, sometimes dozing off in the chair he’d dragged in, an elaborately carved wooden throne, which, Mary Dee Rickards said, had appeared in Errol Flynn’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” The alpaca started to stink. On the third night, at a little past one, Phillips startled awake to see an enormous creature leap over a five-foot fence. “I was not prepared for him to be as large as he was,” he told me. “He looked almost like an African lion, and his coat was almost as brown as deer hide. He was obviously an apex predator in the prime of his life. Not much body fat.” P-45 rolled the alpaca over with his paw as if it were a beach ball. Phillips took aim, but just as he fired P-45 ducked his head to eat.
P-45 fell to his side, and Phillips was sure he had delivered a mortal wound. But then P-45 clawed his way over the fence and into the surrounding bushes. After Phillips reported shooting him, Sikich, worried that he was injured, tracked him into dense undergrowth a quarter mile away, where he had hunkered down. When Sikich hiked in, P-45 took off, apparently unscathed. “We didn’t hear of a domestic animal being killed for two or three weeks after that,” Phillips said. “And then he started killing again.”
Courtesy National Park Service
The night of my visit to the alpaca farm was unusually cool, with the temperature dropping into the forties. Around 10 P.M., Victoria came out of the house, wearing prescription sunglasses—she’d mislaid her eyeglasses—a light shirt, and a skirt that flared around her knees. She whispered, as if the lion could hear. “If there’s something that’s aggressive, capriciously aggressive, and is attacking so many different people’s homes, eventually it’s going to be a child,” she said. She wished that the people who were actually responsible, whoever they might be, would move the lion somewhere else. “It’s not killing to eat,” she said. “It’s killing for the pleasure.”
To understand P-45’s behavior, though, one need not enter the psyche of a criminal mastermind. Just picture a cat, after dinner, toying with a ball of alpaca yarn. “This is a mountain lion being a mountain lion,” Sikich told me. “It’s programmed to jump on prey items. The only unnatural thing here is having non-native animals in a native animal’s territory unprotected.”
It is a message that he and his colleague Seth Riley have been trying to impart for quite some time. Months earlier, they’d scheduled a workshop for animal hobbyists living in mountain-lion country, in the hope of educating them about how to keep their animals safe. They had thought that fifteen people might attend, to see their demonstration of a lion-proof enclosure made with kennelling materials available at Home Depot. Instead, a few nights after P-45’s Thanksgiving spree, hundreds of people turned out for the workshop, ready to defend his life. Centuries of frontier history began to flow the other way.
“I hear P-22 is going to take a hit out on anybody who takes out P-45,” one man joked as he found a seat in a barn at the Paramount Ranch, a National Park property that once belonged to the movie studio. Activists had come from all over the state. One protester held a sign that said “Paws Up Don’t Shoot.” There was a tone of self-abnegation, and an inversion of Phillips’s resentment of the beast marauding his paradise. Humans were the interlopers, murderers, and thieves. “We invaded their home and their land,” a woman cried. At stake was the life of a lion they had come to adore—and the salvation he might represent for the entire mountain-lion population in the Santa Monicas.
“We need the DNA!” a woman shouted. “Keep the DNA in the mountains!”
“Is the homeowner aware that the extinction of mountain lions is on her head?”
Anyone who saw the matter differently was shouted down, deemed insufficiently wild to live among predators. “Go to L.A.! Go back to the city! Get out!”
After the workshop, Victoria pledged not to act on the depredation permit, but not without a bitter sense of having been victimized again, this time by P-45’s fans. P-45 was famous, and evidently he could do as he pleased.
The last best hope for the mountain lions of Los Angeles is a little strip of undeveloped land, a quarter of a mile wide, wedged between two housing developments on the south side of the 101 Freeway, at Liberty Canyon, in Agoura Hills. It is here, beside the freeway underpass that Sikich suspects was used by P-45, that the State of California plans to build a land bridge over the freeway, connecting the Santa Monica Mountains with the open space on the other side. Beyond it lie the Santa Susana Mountains and, farther still, the Los Padres National Forest, a three-thousand-square-mile wilderness that Sikich calls the Promised Land. The project, which will cost some fifty million dollars and is currently under environmental review, will be privately financed. Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, of the National Wildlife Federation, who leads the fund-raising effort, says she will walk across the bridge in 2021, no doubt with the cardboard cutout of P-22 strapped to her back. P-22, who has rallied the conservation community and the larger public around the need for connectivity, won’t benefit from a crossing. However, Sikich says, “the crossing will prevent other lions from potentially ending up in a dead-end spot the way he did.”
Courtesy National Park Service
According to a preliminary design, an apron lushly planted with sweet-smelling mulefat and coastal sage will funnel animals up a gentle incline to the crossing, where the landscaped habitat will continue high above ten lanes of freeway, before depositing the animals, ideally none the wiser, in the open space on the far side. An extraordinarily complicated piece of engineering, the land bridge is based on a conceptually simple design. Back in the seventies, when this part of the 101 was built, a chunk of earth had to be removed to make room for the road; it was dumped nearby, and is still there today. To build the land bridge, the design proposes to take the dirt and put it back—only, this time, it will be suspended on pillars twenty-four feet above the road. Visually, the bridge will be a kind of truce, between the future we thought we wanted and the past we had.
When completed, the project will be the largest urban crossing for wildlife, a mega High Line for animals. Riley, who has been working on the crossing for fifteen years, told me, “It would be a very specific visual reminder that people in Southern California care enough about wild places and wild species to do this. Even in the second-largest metropolitan area in the country, we can do what it takes to preserve wildlife—the whole range, all the way up to and including mountain lions.”
Meanwhile, the animals are coming. For the past eighteen months, Sikich has been monitoring a series of cameras he installed in the underpass and in the natural habitat that will one day form on-ramps for the bridge. The cameras have captured bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and deer. They have also captured two uncollared lions, one coming from the north, the other from the south. Each reached the freeway barrier and, finding it as yet too inhospitable, turned away. ♦