Since making his Hollywood debut two years ago, P-22 has kept a low profile, avoiding the cameras and surfacing only at night.
But this private celebrity is no movie star or pop icon—he's the resident mountain lion of downtown Los Angeles. (See National Geographic pictures: "Studying the Secretive Cougar.")
In late March, when scientists captured the famous feline to change the batteries in his radio collar, they found him suffering from mange, a painful skin disease common in wild animals. He had also been exposed to rat poison, and his condition seemed precarious. (Read about how scientists collar wild animals.)
But pictures released last week of the elusive cougar suggest he's making a Hollywood comeback.
Remote-controlled camera traps in Los Angeles's Griffith Park caught P-22, the park's sole mountain lion resident and unofficial mascot, next to a mule deer carcass. Judging by the photos, P-22 appears sleeker and stronger, said Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist for the National Park Service in Santa Monica, California.
"He looks healthy," says Sikich, who has studied P-22 since he first appeared in the park in 2012 and treated the big cat for mange this March. (Learn how to save big cats with National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)
"He killed a nice, big buck. He has a full belly."
Rat Poison Dangers
Since a photo of P-22 prowling in front of the Hollywood sign landed in National Geographic magazine in 2013, the mountain lion has become an ambassador for urban wildlife.
His wavering health also highlights the challenges facing wild cats who live so close to humans. (Read about how photographer Steve Winters captured P-22 on camera.)
Rat poison, for one, affects almost three-quarters of California's wildlife, often with lethal consequences, according to the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation. The human-made substance, which kills rodents by preventing their blood from clotting, makes its way up the food chain when animals eat poisoned rats.
By the time the poison reaches a mountain lion, the state's top predator, its impacts are more subtle.
"We've only had two lions die directly from rat poison," said Sikich. "When they die of other means—roadkill, mauled by adult males—we've found there's widespread exposure to these compounds, which may have made them weaker and more susceptible."
It's also possible ingesting the rat poison made P-22 weaker and thus more likely to contract mange, a link that's well documented in bobcats.
Sprawl is also a challenge for urban mountain lions, since it isolates the various cougar populations living in the Los Angeles area.
The biggest groups of mountain lions—in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Los Padres Forest, and the Simi Valley Hills—are penned in by roads, highways, and communities. ("Watch video: Chasing a Mountain Lion in Hollywood's Urban Jungle.")
Without the ability to mingle with each other, these populations may face inbreeding, which leads to higher chances of offspring defects and lower fertility.
Spread out over generations, the practice could decimate the mountain lion population in Los Angeles.
"If mountain lions never leave the Santa Monicas, we won't have them [in Los Angeles] in the future," says Sikich.
Uncertain Future for P-22
P-22, who crossed two major highways to travel from the Santa Monicas to his new home of Griffith Park, may soon feel the sting of loneliness too.
While there's plenty of prey and no competition from other males in his bachelor pad, there are no lady lions either.
Now in his prime, P-22 may try to make the dangerous trek back to the Santa Monicas in search of a mate.
But even if he suppresses his urge to breed, his fate remains uncertain. (See "Our Favorite Pictures of Cats You've Never Heard Of.")
"This [recovery] is great news for him," said Sikich.
"He's still in the park and staying elusive. But nothing has really changed in his environment. I have no idea what his future holds."
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