Biologists aren't sure exactly when the cougar known as P-22 slipped away from under Jason and Paula Archinaco's sleek, multi-level white contemporary in Los Feliz on Tuesday.
About 1 a.m., officials cleared the area and left P-22, who had startled the workers who came upon him in a crawl space, to find his way out. When officials returned a few hours later they could not locate the 6-year-old, 130-pound mountain lion.
About 11:30 a.m., Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service's Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, reported that he had used telemetry gear to pick up a ping from P-22's tracking collar in a remote canyon in Griffith Park, about 11/2 miles inside the park's boundaries.
For three years, the animal has ranged the park. Surveillance camera video and data from P-22's GPS tracking collar show that the Los Feliz neighborhood has also been a regular hangout. Lt. Marty Wall of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife speculated that P-22 might have been regularly using the crawl space of the house, which has frequently been vacant.
Wall said Tuesday that P-22 showed no signs of aggression when officials tried for hours to coax him out from under the house by launching beanbags and tennis balls at him and poking him with a stick — practices known as hazing.
He did not hiss or growl but "just moved from side to side," Wall said.
Wall had brought equipment to shoot the lion with a tranquilizing dart, but could not see beyond the lion's eyes, forehead and ears.
"We need a haunch or a shoulder," said Janice Mackey, an agency spokeswoman.
On Tuesday, after confirming P-22's departure, the Archinacos blocked the crawl space to prevent his return.
Yangzom Brauen, a Swiss actress and activist, said that normally she is not frightened by the wild animals that roam her neighborhood's narrow streets and undeveloped hillsides.
"We live here in a natural park so we live with the animals," she said. "We are in their territory."
She slept with her sliding door closed Monday night, however, after learning that the fully grown mountain lion had holed up nearby.
One animal-rescue activist questioned the decision by wildlife officials not to leave a warden posted nearby overnight.
"I am surprised that no law enforcement was assigned to watch for the animal leaving, to protect it from people," said Rebecca Dmytryk, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Wildlife Emergency Services in Moss Landing, Calif. Dmytryk said she would have stationed a warden with night-vision goggles in a truck to confirm P-22's departure.
Mackey defended her agency's protocol.
Since 1986, she said, there have been 14 verified mountain lion attacks on people in California, three of them fatal.
"Lion attacks are rare," she said. P-22 "wasn't a lion that was threatening people.... If we can get a lion to return to his habitat on his own, we always strive for that."
Occasionally, a nonaggressive mountain lion wanders into the wrong place at the wrong time. In March, a healthy young male found outside a Macy's at a Riverside County mall died after a game warden shot it with a tranquilizer dart.
In December, Sikich successfully tranquilized and collared P-34, a young female mountain lion that residents of a Ventura County mobile home park saw under a trailer. She was returned to the wild.
Most mountain lions remain elusive and out of sight, Sikich noted. But "they are wild and unpredictable animals," he added.
If anyone has reason to question the wisdom of letting a mountain lion roam through what has become human habitat, it would be Anne Hjelle of Mission Viejo.
On a sunny winter afternoon in January 2004, Hjelle and a friend headed out for a mountain bike ride in Orange County's Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. Barreling down a narrow dirt path, Hjelle saw a blur leaping from the brush. The mountain lion, she said later, hit her "like a train."
The cougar tore at the left side of her face and sank its teeth repeatedly into her neck. Alerted by the screams of her and her friend, other cyclists pelted the cat with rocks until it ran away. Hours earlier, the same lion fatally mauled a male mountain biker. Authorities tracked and killed the lion.
Hjelle, 42, had six reconstructive surgeries and remains scarred. Yet she is remarkably charitable toward cougars.
"They come with the territory, so to speak," she said Tuesday.