Famous L.A. Cougar May Have Killed Koala

The young mountain lion, which beats the odds crossing busy highways, is the main suspect in the death of a zoo koala.

The famous cougar of Hollywood, P-22, has his first celebrity scandal: He's implicated in a murder.

A 14-year-old female koala named Killarney went missing on March 3 from the Los Angeles Zoo, which is located inside Griffith Park, a sprawling, urban preserve that is part of the mountain lion's home range.

A search of zoo grounds revealed portions of the elderly koala's remains. When zoo staffers looked back at surveillance footage, they saw that P-22 had visited the zoo the night before, according to a zoo statement.

While this provides pretty strong circumstantial evidence, it's possible that some other predator killed the koala, according to the Los Angeles Zoo and the National Park Service, which studies P-22. (See "A Cougar Ready for His Closeup.")

"It could be another native carnivore, like a bobcat," Kate Kuykendall, spokesperson for the National Park Service's Santa Monica National Recreation Area, told National Geographic. 

"The GPS collar that P-22 wears doesn't provide minute-by-minute info. At the time of the night this happened, it was true he was in the general vicinity, but that isn't particularly unusual"—Griffith Park is only 8 square miles (21 square kilometers), a very small area for a wide-ranging mountain lion. (See National Geographic pictures: "Studying the Secretive Cougar.")

"Whichever wild animal it was that took the koala, this is not an indication of abnormal or aggressive behavior," she adds.

Where else but in Los Angeles could a mountain lion eat a koala? Though California mountain lions prey mostly on mule deer, they're opportunistic animals—if they see an easy meal, they're going to go for it, Kuykendall says. Koalas, in their native habitat of Australia, often fall prey to dingoes and other wild animals, but never a cougar.

Most koalas sleep in trees, but zoo officials told the Los Angeles Times that his particular one liked to stay on the ground at night

Keeping Animals Safe

P-22 has been a star since a photo of him prowling in front of the Hollywood sign landed in National Geographic magazine in 2013.

The young male, which crossed two major highways to travel from the Santa Monica Mountains to the tourist-filled Hollywood Hills, has endured some tough times as a city cougar, including a bad case of mange. (Read about how photographer Steve Winters captured P-22 on camera.)

Now he may get some bad press with the mystery of the missing koala. 

But the "unfortunate" incident is a "good reminder of how important it is to safeguard and protect animals, whether there are exotic animals in a zoo or [pets] of residents who live in areas where there are wildlife," Kuykendall says.

"People need to either have safe enclosures or bring pets or animals indoors in the evening." 

Zoo staff is already on the case: They've started bringing in most of the animals inside at night. The ten remaining koalas have also been temporarily brought indoors, according to the zoo.  

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter.

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