Photographing P-22, L.A.’s Cougar

This is the story of one of my most successful images – two images, actually.The one seen below, and that of the same cat with Los Angeles in the background, seen midway through this post.

A remote camera captures a radio collared cougar in Griffith Park.

The photo of cougar P-22 I photographed in Griffith Park.

After these images were published, they sparked a movement that continues to grow—and could help save cougars and other Southern California wildlife.

[Learn more about the #SaveLACougars Campaign here]

While I was planning shoots for my cougar story with my editor (the great Kathy Moran, Senior Editor of Natural History at National Geographic Magazine), we spoke of the need to document an “urban cat.” It was important to illustrate the fact that as our cities expand and we look for homes outside of the city, we move into the homes of animals and predators. Then we live beside them – if they decide to stay and the landscape is not totally changed and the prey removed.

So I’d heard about a cougar project in Los Angeles in the largest urban park in the US, the Santa Monica National Recreation Area. It’s run by National Park Service scientist Seth Riley and biologist Jeff Sikich. I contacted them and explained what I would like to do with the story and learned that I’d be seeing Jeff in person at an upcoming mountain lion workshop in Bozeman, Montana.

Jeff gave a presentation there, and afterwards we went to bar at the Holiday Inn where we were staying to talk about his project—and the cats. I asked Jeff if he had a cat that walked any of the trails that overlooked LA. I had heard that he had captured and put a satellite-tracking collar on a cat that walked through Cher’s backyard – and I was excited! He said that no, there weren’t any cats on those trails: The cats were more intelligent, more secretive, wary. And if young cats ventured out of the protected area at night to try to find their own territory in a new location, they soon found there was no prey for them to eat – just people and houses and for the most part, they headed back home by morning.

Just before I parted ways with him that night, I asked, “Wouldn’t it be great to get a picture of a cougar with the Hollywood sign?” He gave me an odd look. “Sure it would, but there are no cougars in Griffith Park where the Hollywood sign is.” I told him to keep me in mind in case something changed.

A bobcat comes across a camera trap I placed on a  trail in Griffith Park used by P-22. P-22 eventually came down this trail once during the time my camera trap was set up.

A bobcat comes across a camera trap I placed on a trail in Griffith Park used by P-22. P-22 eventually came down this trail once during the time my camera trap was set up.

Eight months later as I sat in my dentist chair my phone vibrated with a text. It was from Jeff. It said “Call me now!” which I did as soon as I stepped out of the dentists’ office. He told me that his ongoing bobcat study, which used small “trail cams” to document their presence in the park, had gotten a photo of a cougar across from the Hollywood Sign – in Griffith Park. He then proceeded to tell me that he thought I was crazy when I asked him about getting a photo of a cougar with the sign, but as he is a polite Midwesterner, he hadn’t said so.

Then my job began. I had to learn where this cat, named “P-22”, walked so I could set up cameras to get the two images I wanted. Cats tend to walk along some of the same trails within their established territory.Biologist Jeff Sikich fitting a sedated cougar with a collar in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

So first off, Jeff wanted to capture and place a tracking collar on the cat, but the only one he had was old and was not functioning properly. So I wrote a grant proposal to the National Geographic Expedition Council for funds to purchase equipment for the project, including a collar—so that everyone involved from National Park Service, and the City of LA to the Griffith Park authorities would know where P-22 was roaming. And I got the grant!

But some big questions remained, and high on that list was security. How do you place remote cameras in Griffith Park without them being stolen?

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.

A photo posted by Steve Winter (@stevewinterphoto) on

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