Famed mountain lion P-22 is the prime suspect in the killing of an L.A. Zoo koala

Her body had been mutilated and most of her face was missing. Blood soaked what remained of her gray fur.

The killing, which was announced Thursday, beneath the foothills of the city was fitting of noir murder mystery, except for the setting and the victim: the Los Angeles Zoo — and a koala.

Small and elderly at 14 years old, Killarney the koala was discovered far from her dirt-paved pen. The prime suspect is a bit of a celebrity. He has graced the pages of National Geographic with the Hollywood sign as his backdrop. He's a cougar dubbed P-22 who once caused a media frenzy when he came out of the mountains and took refuge in the crawl space of a Los Feliz home.

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In legal terms, the case against the so-called mascot of Griffith Park is strongly circumstantial. Black-and-white photos and video taken by Los Angeles Zoo surveillance cameras place him near the scene the night before Killarney was discovered missing.

"He was seen in a couple of locations, and certainly would be capable of doing it," said John Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Zoo.

As for the big cat's alleged victim, Lewis said: "She had a tendency at night to come down out of the trees and walk around on the ground, so that certainly would have made her vulnerable to an attack. The other koalas that were in the habitat were untouched, so that may have helped lead to her demise."

P-22 is believed to be the most urban mountain lion in Southern California. Experts say genetic testing shows that he was probably born in the Santa Monica Mountains and then crossed the 405 and 101 freeways to make Griffith Park his home in 2012.

About a month ago, cameras caught P-22 on zoo grounds. It's unclear how the puma managed to hurdle an eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire.

He's made several appearances since then, but has not bothered any of the animals. He is thought to have previously left behind the remnants of a wild raccoon, a staple of his usual fare, which includes mule deer and coyotes.

But a growing number of incidents in which mountain lions have attacked pets have wildlife authorities and park biologists concerned that pumas' diets have expanded.

Still, there is no forensic evidence proving that P-22 killed the koala, even if he has no alibi.

"When you lose an animal that suddenly, it's tough," said Beth Schaefer, the zoo's general curator. "But we love P-22 too. So, you're torn. This is his home, too. This is his park. It's just like, why did you have to come in here, P-22?"

On the morning of March 3, zookeepers discovered Killarney was missing from the enclosure she shared with other koalas and kangaroos. She had arrived from Australia in 2010 and was about 15 pounds.

Although near the end of the usual life span for koalas, she liked to amble about on the ground at night while her companions stuck to the safety of the trees. A predator attempting to escape with her would have had to jump into a sunken enclosure and then climb at least nine feet back out of it.

"It's a pretty good feat in itself," Lewis said.

There was no sign of a struggle. No blood. No hint of an attack.

About 40 yards away, a tuft of fur was found on the ground.

An hour later, a zoo curator discovered Killarney's remains on a hillside, 400 yards from the koala exhibit.

The killing has sent a chill throughout the zoo. The smaller animals and those with hooves are now locked up at night.

The koalas have been taken off public display and moved to enclosed areas. As survivors who might have seen a violent attack, their behavior is being monitored. So far, they appear to be faring well, said one official.

There have been discussions about whether to put up a taller perimeter fence around the zoo, although the rough terrain would pose a problem.

"A lot of the animals, if possible, we leave them out at night so they can be in the environment, in the air, but we may have to change that," Lewis said.

City leaders have called for the protection of all the zoo's creatures.

"We are investigating the circumstances of the koala's [death], but in the meantime, we are taking action to ensure that all of our animals are safe," Barbara Romero, deputy mayor for City Services, said in a prepared statement.

L.A. City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell suggested it was time for P-22 to find a new home.

"Regardless of what predator killed the koala, this tragedy just emphasizes the need to contemplate relocating P-22 to a safer, more remote wild area where he has adequate space to roam without the possibility of human interaction," O'Farrell said.

"P-22 is maturing, will continue to wander and runs the risk of a fatal freeway crossing as he searches for a mate," he said. "As much as we love P-22 at Griffith Park, we know the park is not ultimately suitable for him. We should consider resettling him in the environment he needs."

That may be a tough move, considering that affection for the mountain lion runs deep. When he contracted mange, biologists caught and treated him with topical medications and vitamin K injections. His supporters were heartened to learn he had gained back some weight and recovered from his skin lesions and scabs. He was also the poster puma for the "Save L.A. Cougars" campaign, which proposed a wildlife crossing at the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills.

Schaefer, the zoo's general curator, said P-22 is an urban cat. "He's used to solving urban problems in his head."

The California director of the National Wildlife Federatio called a mountain lion living in Los Angeles "something to celebrate."

"Mountain lions are called ghost cats for a reason," Beth Pratt-Bergstrom said. "They are solitary animals that want to be left alone. P-22 lives in an urban park visited by millions of people and is rarely seen, demonstrating what we already know — it is possible to peacefully coexist and the risk of danger is very low."

Word of Killarney's demise surprised visitors at the zoo Thursday.

Two mothers with young sons in tow decided to head toward the koala's old home.

"We're going to go pay our respects," said one.




Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 11, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Famed puma is prime suspect in zoo koala's death" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe