Two months before her wedding, wildlife conservationist Beth Pratt-Bergstrom decided to get her first tattoo: a portrait of P-22, L.A.'s most infamous mountain lion. The large homage on her upper arm serves as a symbol of her permanent commitment to protecting California's mountain lions.
“I didn't anticipate it would be so big,” Pratt-Bergstrom says with a laugh. “But it's become almost an educational poster. I was in a cafe 100 miles from L.A. and I was wearing a sleeveless dress, and this woman in a business suit came up to me and said, 'Hey, how's P-22 doing?' I was like, 'You know P-22?' It's a great educational talking piece.”
P-22 has become the poster child of a movement to help save Los Angeles' mountain lion population. A resident of Griffith Park, P-22, it was discovered through genetic testing, is related to mountain lions who live in the Santa Monica Mountains. So to make it to Griffith Park, he would have had to travel nearly 50 miles, crossing both the 405 and the 101 freeways.
“There's just something about what this cat did that captured the imagination of the world on how he survived,” Pratt-Bergstrom said. “P-22's story is very relatable: Who can't relate to being stuck in traffic, dateless and lonely?”
As the California director of the National Wildlife Federation, Pratt-Bergstrom travels throughout California to shepherd conservation projects. Her most significant project: the proposed Liberty Canyon wildlife crossing, a safe passageway over the 101 at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills for mountain lions and other animals. Once completed, it would be the largest wildlife crossing in the world.
“This is both the easiest and hardest conservation campaign I've ever worked on,” Pratt-Bergstrom says. “There's no bad guy here — we don't have to fight anybody. There is nothing holding up this project except money. It's really just up to us to raise the money.”
Its price tag: $50 million.
To raise awareness, Pratt-Bergstrom recently embarked on a journey she always dreamed of undertaking: the 48-mile trek from where P-22 was born to Griffith Park, where P-22 resides.
“Seeing, through his eyes, what P-22 had to face — that was magical,” Pratt-Bergstrom said.
Pratt-Bergstrom's hike spanned three and a half days and was part of P-22 Day, a newly registered holiday that will take place in L.A. every Oct. 22 to raise awareness for mountain lion conservation.
“For me, what the hike also highlighted that I hadn't expected — but I guess I should have — was the lack of [land] connectivity for people as well.”
Once the Liberty Canyon crossing is built, people are going to be able to hike from the Simi Hills to Malibu without hitting pavement, a point made by Joseph Edmiston, executive director of Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, during his P-22 Day kickoff speech.
Along her journey, Pratt-Bergstrom encountered pedestrians attempting to walk on Mulholland Drive to reach corridors of parks along the road — but they couldn't.
“I don't know how that cat got across the 405, but Mulholland Drive is especially dangerous. You are winnowed down to no green space. We thought we were doing to die. There's no sidewalks and there's fast traffic,” Pratt-Bergstrom says. “If you try to go out on the road, you're really taking your life in your hands. There are a lot of blind curves.”
“But you come to this one point where you see Griffith Park through the trees, sticking out [in the distance], and you can see the radio antennae, and I thought, 'Wow, this is what P-22 saw. And he kept going?' It's all houses and roads in between. And he kept going.”
During the hike, Pratt-Bergstrom wore a new, two-pound GPS mountain lion tracking collar around her neck (which was later donated to the National Park Service) so her journey could be followed online. Dozens of people including fellow wildlife researchers and conservationists, as well as the general public, joined Pratt-Bergstrom during various segments of her journey.
Her most memorable stop: Topanga Canyon Charter Elementary School, which hosted a celebration in P-22's honor. Presenters included architect Clark Stevens, who designed the wildlife crossing, and archaeologist Dr. Gary Stickel, the man who inspired the Indiana Jones character.
“They had Chief Ernest Salas [of the Kizh Nation Gabrieleño band of Mission Indians] perform a naming ceremony for P-22,” Pratt-Bergstrom said. “The next day, they had a school assembly where the children made a song for P-22. One of the school kids got onstage and read a letter he wrote that said, 'Dear P-22, I am sorry that you are lonely and scared. I know how it feels, I have been there.' And it just brought me to tears.”
Notable supporters of the event included Robin Finck of Guns N' Roses and Nine Inch Nails, Nick Hexum of 311, Robert Trujillo of Metallica, musician Pearl Aday and actress Ashley Scott.
“Where else in the country do you have rock stars throwing a party for a mountain lion?” Pratt-Bergstrom asked. “Principle [Steven] Gediman and [wildlife advocate] Nikki Hexum and the entire community really came together there. That community really gets it — the coexistence thing. It really does take a village and Topanga really does value wildlife — and that's inspirational.”
Two thousand attendees celebrated this year's inaugural P-22 Day. Scores of volunteers, planning committee members and nonprofit organizations helped make the event a success.
“Without the help of the Annenberg Foundation (which recently pledged to donate $1 million toward the construction of the wildlife crossing), we would have not been able to put on this series of events,” Pratt-Bergstrom says.
“If you would have told me I would be doing mountain lion conservation in the middle of Los Angeles five years ago, I would have laughed hysterically at you,” Pratt-Bergstrom confesses. “I grew up thinking that wildlife belongs in places like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but I've since realized that wildlife belongs here in Los Angeles.”
If P-22 were relocated — a scenario that has been opposed by both conservationists and the public — his life would be in grave danger. He could be injured while trying to return to his territory or killed by another dominant male. Since only 50 percent of California's land is suitable for mountain lions and a male's territory typically spans 250 square miles, there is no unoccupied space to relocate him. Miraculously, P-22 is surviving on 8 square miles of land.
“If this is the only way P-22 can live, it's not up to me to say this is not nature,” Pratt-Bergstrom said. “They have nowhere else to go. He belongs in the landscape; this is part of his home.”
National Park Services researchers estimate a total of 15 mountain lions live in the Greater Los Angeles area between the Simi Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains. Of the 10 mountain lions that have been collared and are tracked, three are dominant males.
“If one or two males get taken out by a car or rat poison, it's game over,” Pratt-Bergstrom says. In March 2014, scientists captured P-22 to replace the batteries in his collar and discovered that he was suffering from a form of mange that's been connected to the ingestion of rat poison, which travels up the food chain from pests to animals of prey. He was treated with medication donated by Pfizer and is believed to have recovered.
And then there's P-45, the mountain lion who recently made news when he killed some alpacas in Malibu.
“P-45 is an example of this precarious situation,” Pratt-Bergstrom says. “He recently killed some penned livestock, which to a mountain lion resembles their natural prey and are easy to catch. As a result, the livestock owner applied for a depredation permit to hunt the cat. Fortunately, she has since stated she will reconsider killing the cat, and will take measures to protect her livestock better. But repeated access to unprotected domestic prey may in the future doom P-45 and, if we don’t ultimately solve the access problem, other cats as well.” (The permit that would have allowed the livestock owner to kill P-45 expired on Thursday.)
Mountain lion conservation has become synonymous with the Liberty Canyon wildlife crossing project, but the crossing will benefit all wildlife that lives in the Santa Monica Mountains: bobcats, bears, coyotes, foxes, even insects, reptiles and birds.
But it's not just a matter of helping animals cross roads, Pratt-Bergstrom explained. The location of the proposed wildlife crossing is part of a critical corridor that will reconnect a large, strained ecosystem.
“Freeways are hurdles and barriers. We've created islands where wildlife is getting less and less genetically viable because animals are stranded and can't mate outside of their family,” she explains.
Park Services wildlife biologist Dr. Seth Riley estimates that mountain lions may become extinct within the next 50 years if nothing is done to alleviate the lack of genetic diversity in the current population. Luckily, Angelenos have consistently rallied to protect P-22 and his less famous kin.
“We are really focusing on private dollars, not public dollars that are earmarked on fixing bridges and road safety,” Pratt-Bergstrom explains. “That's why we are asking for the philanthropic societies to step up.”
A private fundraising initiative, Save L.A. Cougars, is raising money for the wildlife crossing. The scheduled completion date of 2021 can be achieved if the project moves forward without delays.
“I think it's the most marvelous thing in the world that L.A. has said yes to mountain lions,” Pratt-Bergstrom said. “They just feel better knowing they can coexist with wildlife. I think Angelenos embrace P-22 as an extension of the Hollywood dream that anything is possible here, even for a mountain lion. And L.A. appreciates its celebrities, even the animal kind.”
Beth Pratt-Bergstrom is the author of When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors. Proceeds from the sale of this book directly benefit the NWF's wildlife conservation work in California.