Tracking the Mountain Lion That Ate a Chihuahua

The wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich talks about the famous cat, its habitat, and how to keep yourself—and your pets—safe.

A photo illustration of the wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich using a radio antenna to track an animal
Marcus Yam / Getty; The Atlantic

America’s most famous mountain lion lives—as so many celebrities do—in the hills above Los Angeles. For more than a decade, P-22 (P for puma, 22 because he’s the 22nd tagged in a local study) has prowled the mountains bordering the city, occasionally dipping into more populated areas. Like any bona fide star, his movements are meticulously monitored, by both the park and the public. He wears a radio collar and is sometimes captured on local home-security cameras.

Last week, the big cat appears to have been caught on camera snatching up a pet Chihuahua being walked by a dog walker in the Hollywood Hills. Despite the National Geographic spread and comparisons to Brad Pitt, P-22 is very much still a wild animal, one that happens to have captured the imagination of the sprawling city he calls home.

I spoke with Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist who monitors the lion’s whereabouts, to discuss tracking the famous cat and its contemporaries, as well as the issues that mountain lions face in urban environments. (When pressed to tell me which local lion was his favorite, Sikich declined to name one, saying only that P-22 was “up there.” He spoke much more tenderly about a female named P-19.)

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: So tell me: How long have you been tracking P-22 personally?

Jeff Sikich: I’m a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. And I’ve been here for 20 years, working on our long-term mountain-lion study. I manage all the fieldwork. I’ve been responsible for finding where these mountain lions are, capturing them, placing GPS radio collars on them, collecting biological samples, and then doing plenty of other fieldwork.

We have been following P-22 for 10 years. March of 2012 is when we first captured him and placed a GPS radio collar on him.

Nyce: So you captured P-22 back in the day?

Sikich: Yes.

Nyce: Did you know you had a celebrity on your hands?

Sikich: (Laughs.) I’ve captured him a total of six times to replace the battery in the GPS radio collar. P-22’s home range in Griffith Park is roughly nine square miles—a very small habitat patch for a large carnivore. The home ranges of the adult males we have studied in our area average 150 square miles. So he’s been trapped in this small little island, completely surrounded by intense urbanization and major freeways.

Nyce: And how has that been for him?

Sikich: In March of 2012, when he was first discovered there on remote camera, he was a subadult, so he was a young male. And he had recently dispersed from his mom. Based on genetics, we know his father was actually P-1, the first lion we ever captured in our study. His mother was unknown. He was likely born in the Santa Monica Mountains.

You can think of the Santa Monica Mountains as this island of habitat. It’s roughly 300 square miles surrounded by the ocean to the south and major freeways to the north and east, agricultural fields to the west. We can only fit around 10 to 15 adult and subadult lions in this area. So that’s only around two adult males. When subadult males disperse from mom, they’re looking for an area outside that because adult males will kill subadult males. And that’s what we’ve definitely seen. Most males born in the Santa Monica Mountains don’t live past the age of two. They either eventually run into the adult male and get killed or attempt to cross a freeway and get killed, for example.

P-22 did find a way out. He crossed two major freeways to get to Griffith Park. He crossed the 405 freeway, navigated through the Hollywood Hills, and then crossed the 101. Griffith Park was probably a nice spot for him as a young male subadult, because there was no competition. He was the only mountain lion in there. And there seems to be plenty of prey in there for him.

When we captured him, we were very excited to learn: How long does he stay here? What is he eating? What habitats is he going to use?

Nyce: What have been the interesting things you’ve learned? How well do you feel like you know P-22 at this point?

Sikich: He’s acting like lions in other parts of our study area. His main prey base is deer. Roughly nearly 90 percent of his diet is deer—similar to all the other lions we have studied—followed by coyotes and raccoons. Even living in Griffith Park, which has so many people surrounding it and using it, he still stays elusive and out of sight for the most part.

But it is also interesting because he has the smallest annual home range of any other mountain lion ever studied, to our knowledge. So he’s living in this area of nine square miles. I thought as he became an adult that he might want to leave to look for breeding opportunities. But these freeways are acting as major barriers to his movement.

Nyce: Do you think he’s trapped?

Sikich: Yes. He’s likely trapped in there. He’s been the only mountain lion in Griffith Park for 10 years.

Nyce: Has there ever been any discussion of relocating him?

Sikich: Definitely. A lot of folks have wondered, Why don’t we move mountain lions? That’s not our decision at the National Park Service. We have permits to conduct research. That would be the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who manages mountain lions.

But with that said, moving mountain lions, especially adult males, typically does not work, because you’re moving that adult male into an area he’s unfamiliar with—likely another adult male’s territory. Mountain lions are solitary animals. Adult males will fight with other males in their territory. And the few times mountain lions have been moved in the state, to our knowledge, they attempt to come back.

Nyce: How rigorously are you monitoring P-22? Do you monitor him over holidays? Is someone on call?

Sikich: That would be me. He’s one of 10 mountain lions we’re currently following. We have their radio collars programmed to take eight locations a day, so every two hours at night—from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.—and then one daytime location at 1 p.m. And then those locations will get sent to a remote server that we can view online. We don’t get real-time data. We’re always reviewing it after the fact. But yes. Every morning, I wake up—no matter if it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas—and look at where these lions are moving and what they’re up to.

Nyce: Is P-22 your favorite?

Sikich: I don’t necessarily have a favorite. There are definitely cats we have followed for a long period of time that stand out, P-22 being one of them. He’s really become this ambassador for urban wildlife and corridor needs in the L.A. area. And media coverage of him has really helped us to inform the general public about mountain-lion conservation and the many challenges that these wild animals face in the urban landscape.

Nyce: Why do you think he’s captured the imagination of so many Angelenos?

Sikich: I think it’s his story. Road mortality is the leading cause of death for mountain lions in our area. He’s been really interesting because he managed to cross two of the busiest freeways in the country. And he’s survived so long in this small park, staying elusive.

Nyce: It’s maybe not been his best press week, with news about the Chihuahua that he seems to have snatched in the Hollywood Hills. What do you say to people who are concerned about him creeping into the city or worried about their pets and kids?

Sikich: P-22 and other lions we have followed predominantly use open-space areas. We know that from the GPS collars. We’re really interested in whether they are using natural areas, urban land (like your backyard), or altered landscapes (like a park or a golf course or a cemetery). They will venture into urban areas occasionally, especially those that are at the edge of natural open space. So the location of P-22 was not unusual.

It is the first time we’ve documented him taking a dog on a leash before, and that was quite unusual.

Nyce: Is that concerning?

Sikich: It’s not unusual for mountain lions to attack pets and livestock. That’s been documented. P-22 has taken a dog in the past. It was one that was off leash and lost in open space. That this one was on a leash with a person close by—that is quite unusual. We know of two other mountain-lion studies that have documented—one case each—a mountain lion taking a leashed dog.

We don’t know what P-22 was thinking, of course, during that time. Did he have tunnel vision and just see the dog and not the person? Or did he notice the person? We just won’t know. He definitely noticed the person when the struggle happened. The dog walker was walking two small dogs that were behind him. P-22 grabbed the smaller dog. From what I understand, the dog walker felt the tug on the leash and turned around. And it happened so quick, just a few seconds pulling back and forth. P-22 grabbed the dog and ran away.

That said, there are several factors that indicate P-22’s behavior was not atypical during this incident. This happened when it was dark out. Mountain lions are most active from dusk till dawn. They are opportunistic hunters and will take smaller prey items. Also, P-22 is still continuing to use his whole home range. He’s not living in a smaller portion right where this incident happened.

Nyce: He’s not creeping into more urban areas?

Sikich: Exactly. Looking at his GPS points, he’s still using his whole home range. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I hiked in on a large buck he killed, so he’s still killing and eating his natural prey. Mountain lions largely avoid urban areas, and they’re fearful of humans. But they do sometimes travel through these residential areas.

Also, P-22 did not attack the dog walker or show any aggressive behavior towards him.

Nyce: So that’s maybe a good sign?

Sikich: Yes, that’s definitely a good sign.

Nyce: When you’re tracking him, if you wake up in the morning and you see he’s maybe dipped down into Los Feliz or something, do you call the police there and give them a heads-up?

Sikich: Oh, no. We won’t get alarmed from a location. It’s the behavior of that animal. We know lions will navigate through urban areas. They can’t avoid them in this region. A mountain lion cruising through someone’s backyard or walking through an urban area isn’t cause for alarm. Looking at GPS points, we’re only looking at a location, and with a time and date stamp, we don’t know what the behavior of that animal was.

We did some detailed analysis on our first 15 years of following mountain lions. We were really interested in these GPS points: Are they in open space, urban areas, or altered landscapes? And when you combine all these points over 15 years of data—P-22 is lumped in here—and look at that on a map to learn about their landscape use, 97 percent of all those locations are in natural open space. So even among all this urbanization and all these people, they’re preferring the natural habitats.

Now, there are a couple of exceptions, one of them being P-22, who’s completely surrounded by development. He had a slightly higher percentage of urban locations, at 4 percent, and another 6 percent altered (land such as golf courses). But still, 90 percent of his locations the first five years we followed him were in natural habitat—even in Griffith Park, with only nine square miles of habitat.

Nyce: So he’s not public enemy No. 1?

Sikich: Griffith Park gets millions of visitors every year. And you have this one large carnivore, a mountain lion, living there. There’s been no aggressive behavior towards people. He’s predominantly using the natural open space, killing and eating his natural prey—acting like a mountain lion should be acting. But he is completely surrounded by urbanization, so he’ll occasionally wander through and take advantage of the prey resources that are near the urban edge as well.

Nyce: And there’s no indication that, for example, he’s been more in the urban areas in the past six months?

Sikich: We would have to go back and look at his data points and do some detailed analyses of that to get those percentages.

Nyce: But just anecdotally, are you noticing him more in such areas?

Sikich: Well, the past year, he did venture further south than he ever has. He went down into the Silver Lake area. We don’t know what is motivating any of these animals to really move where they do. But like I said, he’s still using all the natural areas of Griffith Park and killing and eating prey in the park itself.

One question I often get is, “Can you alert people or do you alert people when mountain lions are in a certain area?” And the answer is no, because we get the GPS data points after the fact. I’ll also ask people, “What would you do differently if I told you a mountain lion was in the area?” Because you should do that at all times, because we’re not following every mountain lion out there.

Nyce: Is there anything about the public’s perception of P-22 that frustrates you? Or that people get wrong?

Sikich: Nothing that frustrates me. It’s pretty amazing how many people have rallied around this animal. Our ultimate goal is conservation. We’re sharing this landscape with these wild animals.

Nyce: Why is it important to coexist?

Sikich: We don’t know all of the specific ecological roles mountain lions and other animals play. But they are our last remaining large carnivore in the mountains. We don’t want to lose any component of the ecosystem, but especially we don’t want to lose our last large carnivore. They provide an important food resource for many other species, including other mammals and birds and amphibians and reptiles and even tiny insects. Their kills are very important for a variety of animals; nutrients from the carcasses that they just have consumed help enrich the soil and benefit many plants.

If we didn’t have them in our local mountains anymore, it would be a sad day for many people. I like to think that having mountain lions in the environment helps keep these wilderness areas wild. And they play a spiritual role for many people as well.

Nyce: I do want to press you a little bit on a question I asked earlier. Do you have a favorite? You said P-22 might be up there, but it sounds to me like he is not your favorite.

Sikich: (Laughs.) He’s up there. Another one, though, is P-19, whom we are still following. We’re up to P-106, whom I recently radio-collared. We name these animals P for puma and then the consecutive order in which we capture them. P-19 is roughly 12 years old now. I captured her as a kitten at three weeks of age at the den. So we have followed her practically her whole life. I’ve been to six of her den sites through the years and have marked her kittens—and then been to those kittens’ dens and marked them. P-19 has been a survivor. She’s super cool. She hangs out in pretty much the western portions of the Santa Monica Mountains—very elusive. All of our lions are seldom seen.

I joke that, even as researchers, we know where they are—they have a radio collar; I have an antenna—and yet we rarely ever see them. They can be 20 meters in front of us, and they just blend in so well in our thick chaparral system. We hardly ever see them.