Sadly we don’t have an actual photo of the real P-22. Gaze upon the majesty of this other mountain lion instead.
The term “spirit animal” has a complicated lineage, and to see the spirit of your entire personality made manifest in a single creature is, let’s say, a rarity. But a new documentary hopes to unite a man and his actual spirit animal—for better or worse.
P-22 is a mountain lion. Mountain lions are cool, right? You don’t spend that much time thinking about them, and neither do I, but like… cool. What makes P-22 a mountain lion worth putting on your 30 Under 30 Mountain Lions list is that P-22 is hunting the crème de la crème of Hollywood culture. And the odd koala. Let me explain.
Griffith Park is a place in LA where all of the city likes to go for a nice mid-day hike. You’ve seen it in a dozen movies but also you haven’t seen it in a dozen more—as the actors retreat to walk off their carbs and get high. What few of them realize is that they are being hunted by nature’s perfect killer. What even fewer of them realize is that the city of Los Angeles made a strong choice to keep that murder monster stalking them in the Hills. Like you, I have so many questions about what lead to this.
Back in 2011, somewhere in Malibu, there were a bunch of mountain lions. An alpha lion took control and a different lion ran to find a new place to live. Lesser Alpha ran across the 405 in the night and found himself stuck in a much smaller area. But as the only cougar in town, he made this homestead into a home. This area might not be the best place for a big cat to live, but it offers so much potential for survival. From the back of Hollywood restaurants, to the lawns of Hollywood’s upper crust, to the trails where folks from all walks of life try to burn off Five Guys, P-22’s world is built upon the fat of the land.
That’s where Brendan Smith comes in.
The 49-year-old comedian was the writer and producer behind four seasons of the TBS comedy My Boys and has spent 15 years being one of those Griffith Park hikers—thanks to his Australian cattle dog companion who needs the great outdoors. While traveling these dustry trails, Brendan became obsessed with the story of P-22.
“P-22 is a bachelor who doesn’t probably belong in LA,” Smith tells me. “I’m a fifty year-old writer with no projects and a bachelor who probably doesn’t belong in LA. At this point, I see a lot of parallels between us. What are either of us doing here?”
And that’s why Smith is now putting together a documentary that traces that parallel struggle, even if one side is the struggle to survive and the other side is more #struggle.
From the description for Looking for P-22:
“Really simple, people. I’m producing a documentary called Looking for P-22, all about the mountain lion that lives in Griffith Park. Yes… there’s a mountain lion in Griffith Park! Just feet away from the Hollywood sign and the fancy homes of Los Feliz… there’s a damn mountain lion, and I want to tell his story. So it’s a very straight-forward project: It’s about the lion… what’s his deal, where does he go, what’s his usual day like, how many deer will he go through in a week?”
And it is that straight-forward. There is a fascination in watching a world too caught up in itself and what’s happening inside of phones existing just feet away from a natural life-and-death balance in the form of a cougar trying to reclaim territory from the modern world. Surprisingly, that modern world has had to work to save P-22 on several occasions now.
A few years back, P-22 got mange from rat poisons someone in one of the fancy neighborhoods near the park was probably using on their backyard, which resulted in the cat getting visibly sick to a frightening degree. P-22’s first spotting came via cameras in the park, so when park rangers saw the much thinner and shaken P-22 in 2014, they moved in and tranquilized him. For a cat that wandered into the wrong park and wound up trapped there, you’d think the park service would use this chance to transport him back across the freeway. Instead, they gave him medication and stuck a tracking collar on him, preferring to let him resume his new Hollywood lifestyle. Now, you can watch him patrol the park cat route images published in the Los Angeles Times. He makes the 8-square mile trek every day, patrolling and hunting.
“I was speaking to a P-22 specialist at the Sierra Club,” Smith tells me, “and she asked if I had ever seen P-22. I said that I’ve walked Griffith Park a lot, and she said that means that P-22 has definitely seen me. That’s kind of spooky, right?”
P-22 has been known for some spooky behavior that the city has helped resolve. A year before the mange incident, he became trapped under a house in Los Feliz. Or, at least, wouldn’t come out from under the porch. Smith explains that police and news helicopters circled the house all day and P-22 wouldn’t leave… so everyone just went home. “They realized that if they left him alone, he’d probably come out,” Smith explains. “The next morning he was gone. So that worked.”
P-22’s home also includes the Los Angeles Zoo where, on one tragic occasion, P-22 made a meal out of one of the residents. Smith explains that the nine foot barriers were no match for the cat’s jumping prowess, and that’s what resulted in one of the koalas being mauled and dragged to the edge of the park. “The Zoo knew they couldn’t do anything about P-22,” Smith says, “so they just built the walls higher. But around the same time some hawks made off with one of the smaller monkeys in the Zoo and they took much more serious action to get rid of those hawks. Everyone just knows that this is P-22’s world now and they let him have it.”
Still. Sorry about that, Mr. Koala.
But there are bigger questions about how long P-22 will choose to stay in this area, which is much smaller than the normal hundreds of square miles that a cat of his size would normally patrol. As biologist Jeff Sikich told the Los Angeles Times, “He’s in this small park. When he was a young adult male, it was great because there was no competition for hunting. Now that he’s an adult and there are no females, you’d think the desire to mate would bring him out of there.”
Smith recognizes this too. “Back to him and I both being bachelors, he’s about to hit the teen years. What happens when he enters Pon farr [the Star Trek Vulcan mating ritual] and his blood begins to boil? What happens when I realize I need to move somewhere to find a mate? We’re in this together.”
The story of the park itself is even bizarrely complicated. Griffith J. Griffith donated the land where P-22 now lives after shooting his wife in a Santa Monica hotel. Smith thinks that an animated recreation of Griffith donating the park to reduce his prison sentence to only two years is an important part of explaining how Hollywood operates the way it does. Ah, the fertile comedic ground of turn-of-the-century wife murder attempts!
Smith and his producing team are still raising funds to create Looking for P-22 and they promise the end result will be an exhaustive exploration of everything that makes this a singularly Los Angeles story. “I want to ask the park rangers what P-22’s favorite kind of coyote is to eat,” Smith says, “but I also want to know what that park ranger’s favorite place to get tacos is.”
In the words of LA Story: “LA is trying to help you.” Smith sees himself helping tell the story of a cat, and the cat will help tell the story of Brendan Smith. Here’s hoping that P-22 hasn’t headed for higher ground before the film comes out.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.