The situation did not look good: Inside the Los Angeles Zoo, a koala enclosure was missing one member — an elderly female named Killarney. Outside, mutilated marsupial parts lay in a bloody heap.
And, on surveillance footage from the zoo’s trap cameras, there were black and white images showing the likely killer right near the scene of the crime: the seven-year-old, sandy-haired mountain lion P-22.
Sure, the evidence was circumstantial — no one saw P-22 attack the koala. But it would have been enough to convict Los Angeles’s most famous feline resident, and the sentence for koalacide can be severe.
Luckily for P-22 and his fans, the zoo has declared it will not seek the death penalty — or even a restraining order — despite weeks of debate over whether the mountain lion known for prowling majestically past the Hollywood sign should be allowed to roam free.
“It is the zoo’s hope that P-22 remains in Griffith Park,” spokeswoman April Spurlock told the Los Angeles Times. “This is a natural park and home to many species of wildlife. We will continue to adapt to P-22 as he has adapted to us.”
The zoo is right at the edge of P-22’s home range, in the rugged, 4,000-acre expanse of L.A.’s Griffith Park (sometimes referred to as “the Central Park of Los Angeles”). And while koalas aren’t exactly natural mountain lion prey — 8,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean pretty much take care of that — an older, feeble marsupial makes for pretty appealing cat food. Even more so now that the best the city dumpsters have to offer is gluten free cupcakes and half-drunk kale smoothies.
“The attack on the koala, although sad, is normal predatory behavior – essentially a lion being a lion and eating,” Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for California Fish and Wildlife, told the L.A. Times.
The state agency has jurisdiction over California’s 5,000 or so mountain lions, many of whom live in the Santa Monica Mountains around Los Angeles. P-22 himself came from there. When he came of age and needed territory of his own, he crossed Interstates 405 and 101 — two of the biggest freeways in the country — until he got to the (relatively) lion-friendly landscape of Griffith Park in 2012.
And there he’s remained ever since — excepting occasional excursions into the city to chill under a porch and rile up the neighbors (he is a cat, after all).
Since mountain lions are a protected species, no one, not even the government, can kill one without a “depredation permit,” and those are only issued in extraordinary cases.
But the March 3 attack on Killarney — a 14-year-old Australia native — was such a case. All the evidence seemed to line up against P-22. There were the surveillance photos. There was the fact that only a powerful predator could have jumped the 8-foot wall around the koala enclosure. There were the pings from P-22’s GPS tracker, which put him in the vicinity of the zoo on the night in question.
Plus, talking about the allegations on Twitter might not have been such a good move (it never is).
I'm not talking, but pfft, pfffftt,
dang that ear fur is hard to get out of one's teeth. https://t.co/eCBovrO0lr
— P22 (@MountainLionP22) March 11, 2016
“It was possible that it could be a mountain lion, a bobcat, potentially a coyote,” National Park Service spokesperson Kate Kuykendall told KPCC. “But that was probably a little less likely.”
Even if the zoo didn’t call for depredation, there were other, less-severe sentences it could seek. Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who chairs the committee that oversees the zoo, suggested that maybe it was time to kick P-22 out of the city.
“Regardless of what predator killed the koala, this tragedy just emphasizes the need to contemplate relocating P-22 to a safer, more remote wild area where he has adequate space to roam without the possibility of human interaction,” he told KNBC.
Others, like councilmember David Ryu and Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, the California director for the National Wildlife Federation, jumped to P-22’s defense: “That we have a mountain lion living in the second largest city in the country is something to celebrate,” Pratt-Bergstrom said in a statement. “When the number-one threat to wildlife worldwide is loss of habitat, we can no longer think of our cities or towns or neighborhoods, or even our backyards, as exempt from the natural world—or as off limits to wildlife. For wildlife to have a future in this world where they are running out of room, co-existence is essential.
In the end, zoo officials decided they couldn’t blame P-22 for being what it is. Though that doesn’t mean they’re going to give him easy access to their animals again: the koalas have been taken off public display and the zoo’s small, vulnerable creatures will now be locked in indoor enclosures at night.
As for P-22 — well, researchers will be keeping an eye on him.
“The mountain lion is a wild animal,” Hughan acknowledged to the L.A. Times, “so there may come a point in the near or far future where we have to revisit that determination.”