In February 2012, Miguel Ordeñana got a surprise, something he would later describe as being "like seeing Bigfoot or chupacabra for the first time." The L.A.-based biologist was working on the Griffith Park Connectivity Study. It was a project with very little funding, and Ordeñana was putting in weekend hours on the project because the goal was important. They'd set out to determine how connected the massive park is to the rest of the city. Could wildlife get in and out of it? Ordeñana, whose specialties include camera traps and studying carnivores, noticed something on his computer. They had already seen animals like deer and coyote enter and exit the park, but this creature, spotted near the Ford Amphitheatre and the 101 freeway, was different. He had just spotted the mountain lion who would come to be known as P-22.
Spotting a mountain lion in Griffith Park was not normal. There were no nearby populations, so getting here likely would have required travel through residential areas and crossing freeways that are often a death trap for these animals. Ordeñana recalls jumping out of his chair when he saw the image on the computer inside his apartment. He headed out on a two-block jaunt, barefoot, to grab the phone he'd left in his car and call his colleagues, but when he called, no one answered. He left a voicemail, his head swelling with questions about the identity and story of this creature. A few weeks later, the mountain lion was found. He got a collar with a GPS tracking device and a blood test. Soon, the researchers learned that this creature was the son of P-1, the first mountain lion studied by the park service locally. He had traveled here from west of the 405, a grueling commute for humans but a worse one for this beast. A star was born.
P-22 became the rare mountain lion whose movements across the park could draw headlines. Even his bad behavior — like that time he entered the L.A. Zoo and killed a koala — couldn't spark a backlash. Now the subject of a Natural History Museum pop-up exhibition, "The Story of P-22: L.A.'s Most Famous Feline," the mountain lion has achieved a level of notoriety typically reserved for actors, musicians and reality-show personalities. But P-22's notoriety also serves a purpose. For Ordeñana, the famed mountain lion is a way of introducing Angelenos to the wildlife in our midst.
Ordeñana, a wildlife biologist and citizen science coordinator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, looks at the conflicts that arise between humans and animals. As a student at USC, he did that on a study-abroad excursion in Kenya. As his career unfolded, he engaged in similar kinds of research, studying desert tortoises near Barstow, bobcats in Orange County and jaguars in Nicaragua.
After doing his share of field work, Ordeñana wanted to move into a position where he could educate as well as research. "My interests and my passions are to study wildlife and learn more about wildlife," he says, "but it's also to make sure that kids like myself, that grew up in the city, especially minorities, don't fall through the cracks. I felt like that almost happened to me because of a lack of environmental education, a lack of role models out there, that look like me that were scientists."
For the past few years, he's been encouraging locals to become more active in studying the natural world that surrounds them. He has ventured into understudied parts of the city, such as South L.A. and neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley, to document the animals that live in the area. He made a squirrel survey to figure out which species live where. More recently, he has begun local research on bats, which have been found in backyards in unexpected spots in Los Angeles.
Ordeñana grew up in the shadow of Griffith Park. His interest in animals developed earlier and was furthered by trips to the zoo and the Natural History Museum. Despite his interests, even he was surprised by his career turn. Ordeñana figured he might have to go to Africa or a national park for work. Yet he's found quite a bit in the town where he was raised. But city critters don't get the same kind of attention as those in the wild, and learning about them is necessary for humans to learn how to live with them.
Ordeñana remembers seeing raccoons, opossums and coyotes visiting the yard of a neighbor who left cat food outside. It wasn't all magical on the edge of nature, though. Ordeñana's first pet, a cat, was killed by a coyote. "I love coyotes and I was really angry at coyotes for doing that. I was a kid," he says. But young Ordeñana came to terms with the brutality of the food chain. Now, he talks about pro-active ways that people can protect their pets, by bringing them inside at night and for feedings, by encouraging neighbors to do the same and by shooing away the animals when they get too close to your home. "They've been here since the ice age. They're extremely adaptable. They're not going anywhere," he says. "By removing them, you're inviting a new pack that could potentially be more habituated into that same area."
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The juxtaposition of urban and wild landscapes in Los Angeles has left some animals in precarious positions. For mountain lions, freeways running through the hills have essentially left populations stranded. That's resulted in inbreeding and turf fights to the death. "Males are naturally solitary and territorial, kind of keep their distance from other males," Ordeñana says of the animals. "But [seeing] them actively going after each other and then killing their own mates, or potential mates, and then their own offspring — that's not normal and that's happening here in L.A., and that's going to lead to their local extinction if that gets worse." One idea for helping the mountain lions is to build a bridge allowing them to cross the 101 in Agoura Hills. It could actually help a lot of animals, Ordeñana says, even birds.
There are actions that Angelenos can take to help protect local wildlife. There are also steps to help scientists like Ordeñana and others at the Natural History Museum collect data on what exists here. Learning about L.A. nature has its challenges — one of those challenges being inaccessible areas, such as private property — and it takes a community effort to get the research done. But that's part of what's exciting about Ordeñana's work. "It's more gratifying when I can introduce young kids or even adults to the scientific process or get them excited about the scientific process, and at the same time, they're learning more about wildlife in their backyard," Ordeñana says. "All that leads to is more people supporting science and people becoming better stewards of their local environment, which will ultimately help all these animals that we all care about."
"The Story of P-22: L.A.'s Most Famous Feline," Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 W. Exposition Blvd., Exposition Park; now on view. nhm.org/site/explore-exhibits/special-exhibits/p-22.