Hollywood’s most reclusive star, cougar P22 was first seen in Griffith Park in Los Angeles almost two years ago. A radio collar tracks his moves, but residents see scant sign of him. stevewinterphoto.com
Hollywood’s most reclusive star, cougar P22 was first seen in Griffith Park in Los Angeles almost two years ago. A radio collar tracks his moves, but residents see scant sign of him. stevewinterphoto.com
Photograph by Steve Winter

Ghost Cats

Masters of stealth, they seldom step from the shadows. But cougars are quietly reclaiming lost ground.

It’s a warm winter day in southern California, and busloads of tourists are pulling into an overlook above Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. As their guides point out movie studios and the mansions of stars, Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, directs my gaze toward a thin ribbon of woods in the distance. At least ten months earlier a young male cougar from the Santa Monica Mountains set out, following that trickle of green through the vast human hive. After somehow crossing two of the world’s busiest roads, including the ten-lane Hollywood Freeway, he settled in at Griffith Park, the huddle of hills rising just behind us, recognizable worldwide by the giant HOLLYWOOD sign partway up.

Homing in on signals from a radio collar on the animal, Sikich leads the way along the famous slope. He pinpoints the cat’s current location; then we hike on to check sites where it lingered to feed on a kill. We discover two mule deer carcasses dragged into tangles of scrub oak and manzanita. Remains of a third lie in a ravine next to the manicured lawns of a cemetery where deer often graze. We pass dog walkers, bird-watchers, hikers, joggers, bicyclists, horseback riders, and scores of graveside mourners. If any know they’re sharing this landscape with an invisible but potentially deadly predator, they show no sign of concern.

“There’s only room in our Santa Monica Mountains for ten to fifteen cougars,” Sikich says. “The average territory of an adult male there is around 200 square miles. With older, stronger males defending all the available space, this young one had to leave to claim a home of its own. Griffith Park takes in less than seven square miles, but our guy seems to be finding what he needs to survive here.”

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