By now, the story of P-22 — the mountain lion also known as the Hollywood Cat — has spread far and wide, especially since his demise in mid-December. This cool cougar’s fame, enflamed by years of Los Angeles media coverage, has resulted in a sure-to-be-crowded memorial service this month on Feb. 4 at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater in Griffith Park, where he prowled for roughly a decade. In fact, P-22 is just the latest emissary from nature to be informally adopted by a city or town, including a certain humpback whale that first captured the imagination of the Bay Area in the mid-1980s.
In case you don’t know the details of P-22’s life and times, he was part of the lion population in Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains, somehow made his way across two major freeways (the 405 and the 101), and about 10 years ago he became a most unlikely resident of Griffith Park, roaming a small plot of nature amid one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the country.
P-22’s journey was tracked by the National Park Service, and, as word got out about his urban residence, he won over many L.A. locals now mourning his death. It’s been an outpouring of love for a creature from the wild that is comparable to the affection showered upon Humphrey the humpback whale who became lost in San Francisco Bay during his annual migration from Mexico to Alaska in 1985 and 1990. On both occasions, Humphrey required rescue by Marin County’s Marine Mammal Center, the Coast Guard, and scores of volunteers to get him back on track.
TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
Although Humphrey found his way back to his migratory route with human assistance, his time navigating the Golden Gate so resonated with people that he became an unofficial mascot of San Francisco, inspiring books, songs, and even a documentary movie, Humphrey the Lost Whale. By contrast, P-22 had a tougher time of it. At one point during his city sojourn, he left the confines of Griffith Park and was cornered by authorities when he crawled under a house in the nearby Los Feliz neighborhood. And as detailed in news accounts, he was accused of killing a koala bear in the Los Angeles Zoo.
Recently, it was reported that P-22 had attacked pet dogs in the vicinity of the park, suggesting that the lion was in a bad way. In response, wildlife experts captured him. He was found to be suffering from various injuries and exceedingly anxious. Considering his troubling condition, it was decided to euthanize him on Dec. 17. Despite the groundswell of public affection for P-22, there are surely those who feel no great love for him. For instance, you might find it difficult to be very sad at his passing if he happened to have snacked on your Chihuahua. Nonetheless, there will be eulogies, music, and dancing at the Greek to honor P-22.
As noted above, other municipalities besides Los Angeles and San Francisco have embraced beasts of their own as civic talismans. A little research revealed quite a number of intriguing examples — not including Philadelphia’s Phillie Phanatic, whose strange countenance has yet to be found in any respectable zoological guide. Some of the animal mascots that have inspired specific locales are quite intriguing, some are charming, and some are downright wacky.
BLESS THE BEASTS
The international renown achieved by the late Berlin Zoo-based polar bear Knut was never accompanied by the sort of drama that attended P-22 and Humphrey, Still, Knutmania was a thing for some reason — perhaps the advocacy of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who took a shine to the bear. A feral cat named Tama grew up wandering the alleys of Kinokawa, Japan, eventually settling at the Kishi train station and being blessed with the title of honorary station master. Fungie — a gregarious bottlenose dolphin living in the waters off the coast of Dingle, Ireland — became known for greeting boaters and frolicking with swimmers, becoming a genuine tourist attraction.
In the land down under, a New Zealand farming community had a certain recalcitrant sheep, and an Australia nature preserve nurtured a giant wombat, with each creature boasting a fan base of its own. Meanwhile, the Scottish town of St. Andrews erected a statue of its designated pet kitty, a fluffy fellow named Hamish McHamish, and maintained Facebook and Twitter accounts to beguile the feline’s eager followers.
Even if those examples pale next to the triumph and tragedy of P-22 or the feel-good escapades of Humphrey, there is something special about any nurturing connection between human beings and their animal neighbors. When we lose such a relationship, it can sting. A few weeks ago, Blanche the swan — the most recent of her elegant breed to grace the lagoon at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts — passed away. Whether or not she’s succeeded by another swan on the grounds, her loss leaves a palpable emptiness within those of us always cheered by her presence. Maybe a trip up Telegraph Hill to watch the omnipresent parrots flocking to and fro can ease the pain. Maybe not.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on The Mark Thompson Show, via YouTube, and on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, and iTunes. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.