A Game of Cat and Mouse Turned Upside Down

LA's Famous Mountain Lion Becomes a Poster Child for Rat Poison

You may have already heard of the famed mountain lion in Griffith Park, near central Los Angeles. Dubbed "P-22,"(Puma number 22) by researchers who are tracking the young male. This internationally-known wild cat has become an icon for the plight of urban wildlife, and the issues facing wildlife managers along the urban fringe.

The media's love affair with P-22 began when a snapshot of the lone lion was taken by a remote camera set up for the Griffith Park Natural History Survey's (GPNHS) Wildlife Connectivity Study. The picture was the first solid evidence of a mountain lion in the Park. Now, this Park is not a grandiose part of the National Park System, but rather its the kind of park that contains merry-go-rounds, a museum, a concert venue, 5 golf courses, and of course the iconic Hollywood sign. 

When compared to the size of a "normal" mountain lion range (roughly 250 square miles), the park comes up short. Its a small island of open space measuring about 8 square miles (merry-go-rounds included) that is situated in the 2nd largest city in the U.S, Los Angeles. Given its size, proximity to mass urbanity, and the roughly 10 million visitors to the park annually, all the odds were against this park being host to mountain lions, that is, until P-22 made it his home.

Less than two months after the initial photos were taken, biologists with the National Park Service captured P-22 and fitted him with a favored modern wildlife tracking device, the GPS collar. These researchers have been tracking lions for well over a decade, documenting the dramatic saga of the remnant population of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. They didn't expect P-22 to stay in Griffith Park long, and assumed he would "disperse," or in layman's terms, head out in search of bigger, better, more suitable habitat, even a mate. Perhaps he would be better off if he had....

P-22 is still roaming the hills, staying out of sight, and keeps to the "wildest" parts of the park during the day, when visitation is highest. Mountain lion experts and wildlife officials agree that he's been acting like a "normal" mountain lion, preying mainly on deer and rabbits and avoiding humans. But the attention his presence has generated is anything but normal. P-22 has become an internet sensation, a photographer's delight, and a film star. 

Steve Winter, a renowned photographer for National Geographic magazine, tracked P-22 with remote cameras for over a year before he got the majestic photo that went viral across the world, P-22 with the Hollywood sign. But this charismatic cat's film career began with remotely triggered video cameras recording videos of his activities, some of which have been posted on YouTube, including this gem, where P-22 adorably sniffs the camera....

Its remarkable that P-22 been able to do so well against the odds, well, that is, until now. During his last "check up," when biologists captured him to replace the battery on the GPS collar, they didn't like what they saw. The King of the Hollywood Hills once regal body appeared thin and mangy. Test results confirmed that P-22 has been exposed to anti-coagulant rodenticide, commonly known as rat poison, and is suffering from mange. 

Researchers in southern California are still studying the link between pesticides and mange—parasitic mites which burrow into the skin or hair follicles causing bald spots, scabs, and sores.  Left untreated, mange has contributed to the death of many wild and domestic animals. This rat poison-mange correlation has become an epidemic, affecting countless bobcats, coyotes, foxes, birds and more... In fact, two of the mountain lions tracked in this NPS study have already died as a result of it. What about P-22? Wildlife biologists gave him some topical treatment for the mange, and dosed him with some vitamins that may help him fight it off, but whether or not he will overcome the disease remains up in the air. 

How did he get poisoned? The rodenticide he was exposed to traveled up the food chain and accumulated in his body over time. He is the victim of a toxic environment inadvertently created by humans.

You see, anti-coagulant rodenticides are commonly used by people to control pests including gophers, ground squirrels, rabbits, and woodrats. But they don't stop there. The poison indiscriminately kills not only the animals that come into contact with the baited traps (by thinning the blood, preventing clotting, and eventually causing the animals to bleed to death internally), but also the animals that prey on those animals. And the animals that prey on those animals. And so on. In larger animals like mountain lions, it becomes lethal as it accumulates in their bodies over time.

These poisons are widely available for purchase for home use, and relied upon heavily by pest control companies.  When people place baited traps around their homes or businesses, they're probably ignorant of the fact that the poison spreads throughout the environment and works its way up the food chain.

The poisoning is occurring on a massive scale. In a place with over 18 million people living in one area, like greater LA, the scale of the impacts of the rodenticide use is....well, unpredictable. In our attempts to keep our homes, yards, shopping malls, and golf courses "pest" free, we are creating a toxic environment, and we don't know how far the effects will travel if mass rodenticide use persists unabated. In fact, while doing a little research on the dangers of rodenticides, I found that thousands of children are poisoned by them every year in the U.S., and even more pets. 

Sadly, what's happening on the urban fringe of LA is a microcosm of the macro. The issues facing wildlife here reflect a pattern that will spiral out to areas where wildlands and urban areas meet everywhere. But you don't have to let this happen in your neck of the woods. Already, several local municipalities in California have placed preliminary restrictions on the use of rat killers. San Francisco, Calabasas, and Malibu have passed resolutions to urge residents and businesses not to purchase or sell anticoagulants, and Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department is considering a ban on rodenticides. Concerned groups encourage people everywhere to seek out more eco-friendly alternatives (such as those available here http://saferodentcontrol.org/site/).

Its my hope that P-22's international fame will be an asset in shedding a giant spotlight on the effects of the widespread use of rodenticides. Poisoning our environment is not okay.

1 comment:

  1. Great story,well written. Thanks Emily. The wildlife advocate in me got excited about P-22 being in "the hood". My 20 years in wildlife conservation, including working on issues of animal control and poisons, movement corridors, and charismatic megafauna (always liked that term), gave cause to my not being surprised when I read the end of your tale. Dang it if it isn't often some "hip bone connected to the leg bone" relationship in nature, attributed to the cascading effects of our human activities, that can put a buzz-kill on the sort of excitement I felt when being introduced to P-22. His story is a great rallying point for a public education campaign to promote a sustainability strategy when contemplating if, and if so, how, we are going to be able to co-exist with our brethren of the furry-fanged in urban environs.