How this photo turned a reclusive mountain lion into a Hollywood icon

“There’s no cat like him,” says Nat Geo photographer Steve Winter, whose image of P-22 helped make the cougar a celebrity. After recent irregular behavior, the aging cat has been captured for further evaluation.

Published December 14, 2022

6 min read

When Steve Winter first floated the idea of photographing a mountain lion walking under the Hollywood sign, the biologist he was working with “looked at me like I was crazy,” Winter recalls with a laugh.

That was in 2012. Eight months after that conversation, the photographer got a text from Jeff Sikich, a biologist with the National Park Service, saying simply: “CALL ME NOW.” Sikich had unexpectedly captured a photo of a mountain lion on a camera trap right across from the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park, an 6.5-square-mile urban preserve in Los Angeles.

It was P-22, a young male who had miraculously managed to cross two major highways from his birthplace in the Santa Monica Mountains to the tourist-filled Hollywood Hills. His name, P-22, reflects he was the 22nd puma to get a tracking collar as part of the National Park Service’s research.

Winter spent the next 15 months putting up camera traps in Griffith Park until he caught the now-famous photograph of P-22, which appeared in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine. (Read more about how Winter captured the incredible image.)

In addition to attracting nearly 20,000 followers on his Facebook page, which is maintained by the nonprofit Save LA Cougars, P-22 has made more headlines over the years. He likely killed a zoo koala at night in 2016, and in 2014 he survived a serious bout of mange, a disease that’s almost always fatal to the big cats—even when scientists intervene to treat it.

“I don’t know of any individual cat anywhere in the world that has made such a great impact on people like P-22,” says Winter, who is also a National Geographic Explorer.

The feline has also brought attention to the need for wildlife corridors to connect animal populations through highly urbanized southern California. Such sprawl isolates pockets of mountain lions, which can lead to inbreeding. In 2021, the state of California began building the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, an overpass that will allow animals to cross 10 lanes of busy Highway 101 by 2024.

But for P-22, it’s the end of an era. At 12 years old, the predator is considered elderly, which may explain why he’s been seen recently in dense human areas and attacking pets instead of mule deer, his native food. 

On December 12, Sikich and other park service biologists captured the radio-collared animal to evaluate his health. On December 14, wildlife officials reported that P-22 was severely underweight, with an eye injury likely caused by a vehicle strike. The animal is living at an undisclosed veterinary facility until a complete health analysis is performed in the next few weeks. But officials said it’s unlikely based on his current condition that P-22 would return to the wild, and may live out his days at a wildlife sanctuary.

We talked to Winter about his remarkable photograph, and the legacy that P-22 leaves behind for Angelenos and beyond.

What did you think when you heard wildlife biologists caught P-22 to evaluate his health?

It pulls at the heartstrings. He changed my life. When I talked to Jeff Sikich last April, he was saying P-22 is spending too much time in urban areas. When P-22 took that dog, I knew something was going to happen, so I was somewhat prepared for this. There’s been no cat like him. He’s giving people hope just by the fact that they have a wild cat in downtown L.A.

Tell me more about what led to the now-famous photo under the Hollywood sign.

For my National Geographic assignment, I had to have something that said urban wildlife. I had cameras set up above the Golden Gate Bridge, and I got nothing. So I turned my sights on Griffith Park. What better to say urban wildlife than the Hollywood sign? I’m just happy P-22 walked in front of my camera a few times. It’s also important to note that not every crazy idea that comes into my head comes true [laughs]. (Read how wild animals are adapting to city life.)

The great thing about P-22 was he was like a regular cougar. They’re very secretive animals, and very few people actually saw him. You should see P-22 Day, a yearly festival organized by Save LA Cougars. So many people come out. He’s a mountain lion celebrity. You have this whole world of make believe in Hollywood, and they’re all falling for a cougar.

What do you want people to take away from your photo? 

As our cities expand, we’re moving into the homes of animals and sharing space with them, especially in Griffith Park. This photo shows we can, and do, live with wildlife without a problem. I had no idea it would have such impact; it shows people’s desire for nature. There’s 24 million people a year who visit Griffith Park, and it makes it a bit wilder to have a mountain lion there.

What will be P-22’s legacy? 

I always say there may be only a small group of cougars that live in L.A., but they changed the face of cougars everywhere. The fact that P-22 lived for 10 years in downtown L.A. and brought about a whole community of people who are now pushing for more corridors between the green areas is amazing. He birthed a wildlife movement in L.A. that is only going to grow and grow—all because of one cougar named P-22.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Steve Winter and his work with big cats since 2006. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.

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