No wild animal in our midst has captivated us more than P-22, the young mountain lion who makes his home in Griffith Park and managed to strike a pose perfectly in front of the Hollywood sign for a now famous photo captured by motion-sensitive cameras. So far his interactions with us have been, well, tame. He has never approached a person in Griffith Park, he has never attacked anything we care about.
Until now. P-22 is the prime suspect in the killing of a koala at the Los Angeles Zoo. The gruesomely mutilated remains of the koala after the puma fed on it were found 400 yards from the koalas' enclosure last week. Zoo director John Lewis said there were no signs of a struggle. The predator, likely, leaped over eight feet of fencing and another foot of barbed wire, grabbed the koala off the ground and jumped back out into the darkness. Suddenly, our enchanting urban wildlife ambassador is a precision killing machine.
Of course, he always was. But when P-22, who is outfitted with a GPS collar and tracked by the National Park Service, pounced on anonymous mule deer or raccoons (and he apparently left behind remains of a raccoon on zoo grounds as well) it didn't prompt the shock and front-page headlines that come after an attack on a 14-year old female koala with a name (Killarney), keepers who cared about her and visitors who found her cute.
This isn't the zoo's first violent brush with its roaming wild neighbors. Last year, a bobcat got into an enclosure and killed two tamarin monkeys, Lewis told me. (The tamarins were moved to another area.) The staff of the zoo, which is located within Griffith Park, is constantly evaluating how to protect the zoo's own wild animals from other animals. National Park Service officials told Lewis that the 9-foot-high fence should probably be 12 feet if it's going to keep a puma out.
Following this latest incident, all the koalas are off-exhibit and vulnerable smaller antelope are moved in the evening to inside night quarters. Some animals are always put inside at night, but others remain outside. "We are in a large urban park with a lot of great wildlife, and we have to figure out how to deal with it," Lewis said.
Remote cameras had been set up at the zoo to track intrusive bobcats and coyotes. Those same cameras picked up P-22 last month on the zoo grounds. That is why Lewis and others believe that the koala killing was probably P-22's work. "I would almost bet money that a coyote couldn't have done that," Lewis said.
A Los Angeles city councilman, Mitch O'Farrell, has called for P-22 to be removed from the park and relocated to a more remote area. Meanwhile, Councilman David Ryu -- whose district includes Griffith Park and the zoo -- called the incident unfortunate but said the cougar should stay put. The species is part of the natural habitat of the park.
He's right. It's always going to be difficult to balance protection of wildlife with protection of urban communities. So far, P-22 has avoided contact with people -- which he could certainly have in Griffith Park if he wanted it. And this appears to be his first zoo-animal killing. If he continues lurking around the zoo, maybe Park Service authorities should consider relocating him. The zoo can't simply become a fast-food stop for him. But if the zoo can better protect animals that could be preyed upon, and if P-22 can go back to a diet of deer and raccoons, maybe the delicate balance can be maintained.