P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male mountain lion:
After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little — a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.
Rickards, who has short blond hair and a cheerful manner, grew up on the ranch and runs a cat rescue there. She and Phillips have horses and dogs and, until recently, had alpacas. Then one night P-45 jumped into the alpaca pen, killing two of them. When it happened again last spring, and three more died, Phillips gave away the rest of the herd and turned his attention to pursuing the culprit. To Phillips, P-45 is a sociopath, a freak — “the John Wayne Gacy of mountain lions.”
The Santa Monica Mountains extend from the Pacific Coast through the Hollywood Hills, to end in Griffith Park. Urban though Los Angeles is, its mountains are furrowed with densely vegetated canyons full of deer and coyotes, cactuses, live oaks, wheeling hawks — a patchwork of public and private holdings claimed both by top carnivores and by their human counterparts.
The real estate is increasingly contested. At some two hundred and forty square miles, the range is the perfect size for one or two dominant males and several females, along with their young. The National Park Service study is currently tracking ten mountain lions in the area, including three breeding males. There is also an unknown number of uncollared lions. Living at such close quarters intensifies the lions’ natural territorialism; in this population, the leading cause of death is conflict with other lions. But adolescent lions who set out in search of their own hunting grounds often come to an impasse. The range is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) to the north, and bisected by the 405 between Brentwood and Bel Air. Just as the roads keep native lions in, they also keep outside lions from entering, and first-order inbreeding has become common. Lush but confined, the mountains are a cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators, whose future is threatened by a double deficiency: not enough space for a group of lions with not enough genetic differences among them.
As a result, the mountain-lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is in danger of entering an extinction vortex, a downward spiral in which everything starts to fail. “They could be in the process of genetic flatlining,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says. “Without our assistance, the Santa Monica Mountain pumas are likely to go extinct.” This is what nearly happened to the Florida panthers, in the mid-nineties, when intensive inbreeding caused physical changes that hindered reproduction. According to Riley, who recently published a paper on the subject, if similar problems occur and no new lions enter the area the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in fifty years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation — in Florida, where the population was larger, it took just six females from Texas to reverse the spiral.
From this point of view, Los Angeles can’t spare a single cat, and certainly not one matching P-45’s profile. According to a preliminary genetic analysis done at Wayne’s lab, P-45 comes from north of the 101: he is an outsider, a lion who successfully navigated the freeway and miles of suburbs to introduce his precious DNA to the Santa Monicas. Under threat, P-45 has inspired a committed following. In November, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Save P-45” defended his behavior as entirely natural. “Killing P-45 is not the answer,” the editorial said. “Surely there is a better way to manage the conflicts that arise when humans and their domestic animals move into areas that have long served as habitat for wildlife.”
P-45’s alien provenance aggravates the unease that Phillips and his neighbors feel. “I know P-45 is not indigenous to here,” Phillips told me. “I think he was a killer someplace else.” He added, “I’m not too happy about P-45’s genes getting passed down.” Though the young generally travel with their mothers — mountain-lion fathers are more likely to kill their kittens than to train them — he saw the potential for P-45 to accustom his offspring to a life of theft and slaughter. Besides, he said, “I’m tired of living inside a biology project.” If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the state’s mountain-lion population, or the National Park Service, which he blames for protecting P-45, refused to solve the problem, he warned that vigilante justice would prevail.
“Somebody’s going to shoot him soon,” Phillips said. “They’re just not going to report it. They’re not going to call N.P.S., not going to call Fish and Wildlife. They’re just going to shoot him, pound the collar off with a hammer, put it in a lead box in a bucket of water, and bury P-45 ten feet deep. That will be the end of that story. He will pass from reality into legend.”
Puma concolor, an evolutionary adept that, unlike the sabre-toothed cat, survived the Late Pleistocene Extinction, is found from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Yukon. Until successive extermination campaigns largely eradicated mountain lions from the Midwest and the East, they ranged throughout the United States. Now, as urbanization in the West encroaches on their remaining habitat, some are making audacious attempts to reclaim ceded lands. In 2011, a cat from South Dakota travelled more than fifteen hundred miles, to Greenwich, Connecticut, before being struck and killed by an S.U.V. on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.
Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Though there have been instances of mountain lions targeting people in California — between 1986 and 2014, there were three fatal attacks — it has never happened in Los Angeles County. (Since the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, there have been fewer than thirty fatal attacks in North America; it is an often cited fact that vending machines kill more people than mountain lions do.) “They’re called ghost cats for a reason — they’re very elusive,” Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist with the National Park Service, who manages the field work for the mountain-lion study, told me. “We’ve seen with our data that they do a great job at avoiding us.” But, he said, “in this urban, fragmented landscape, they see us almost every day.”