Prime Suspect in Koala’s Murder: Los Angeles’s Mountain Lion
LOS ANGELES — The murder was grisly. A koala disappeared from the Los Angeles Zoo one night this month. Its body, mangled and bloody, was found the next morning on a nearby hillside.
Suspicion immediately fell on the area’s most famous resident: a wild mountain lion, known as P-22, who has made a home in the rugged hills near the zoo in this city’s Griffith Park since wandering from a nearby national recreation area in 2012.
The big cat had been caught on video roaming the zoo on the night of the attack. Besides, who else could have hopped the zoo’s nine-foot fence? Certainly not a coyote.
The question of what will happen to P-22 has riveted the city for weeks now, as state officials conduct DNA tests to confirm that he is the culprit.
Mitch O’Farrell, a Los Angeles city councilman, suggested that perhaps it was time to remove P-22 from the park, an area popular with hikers, many of whom bring small children and even smaller dogs with them. Many here recall that in 2014, a mountain lion in Northern California attacked and tried to carry off a young boy.
But far from prompting an outcry about public safety, the koala’s death has revealed a city at ease with wildlife in its midst, even potentially dangerous specimens. Opinion pieces opposing any effort to remove P-22 have appeared in local newspapers. The zoo announced that it would not seek a permit to kill him.
Lisa Lampman, on a visit to the zoo this week with her 3-year-old daughter, was unperturbed. “I’m not worried about it at all,” said Ms. Lampman, 46. “We hike around all the time. I’ve seen bobcats and coyotes.”
Even officials at the zoo — which has spent a decade trying to rehabilitate its reputation after falling into disrepair during the 1990s when coyotes sneaked through a broken fence and snacked on rare birds — said they hoped P-22 would remain in the park. For now, the koalas are being taken inside at night, at least until the zoo can build a fence high enough to keep out a mountain lion.
“This is a natural park and home to many species of wildlife,” April Spurlock, a spokeswoman for the zoo, wrote in an email. “We will continue to adapt to P-22.”
The mountain lion has built a following that aspiring actors here might envy: Facebook and Twitter fan accounts, his photograph splashed across the pages of a major magazine, his face tattooed on the arm of at least one especially devoted admirer.
“He’s become kind of a celebrity, as will happen in L.A.,” said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Earlier this week, one of the P-22 Twitter accounts asked whether Mr. O’Farrell still wanted him removed.
Not anymore, as it turns out. In an interview, the city councilman said he believed P-22 should stay in the park for now, given that he had shown no aggressiveness toward humans. But Mr. O’Farrell remained wary. “I’m rooting for his survival,” he said. “He’s at the apex of the food chain there. And I have my doubts whether his life is sustainable there indefinitely.”
No one has suggested that the park is an ideal habitat for P-22. He is the only lion in the park (which makes his celebrity pretty useless for picking up females). Two years ago he contracted mange. And although he does occasionally come down out of the hills — like the time last year when he spent a day camped under a house in the Los Feliz neighborhood — the park is not a large enough territory for an adult mountain lion.
The problem, experts say, is that there is nowhere else for him to go. Male mountain lions fight to the death to protect their territory, and there is no suitable habitat left unclaimed in California. “It’s not like there is some mountain lion Shangri-La with no adult male lion,” said Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service, which has been tracking P-22 with a GPS collar since 2012. “Moving animals around generally results in their death.”
There are benefits to having an apex predator in Griffith Park, said David Ryu, the city councilman whose district includes the park. They eat coyotes, which are much more likely than a mountain lion to eat a pet dog.
“If we get rid of him, what next?” Mr. Ryu said. “Do we get rid of all the coyotes? They prey on raccoons. Then do we get rid of the raccoons? Where do you draw the line?”