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Hikers Celebrate LA's Famous Cougar P-22 By Following In His Pawprints

Beth Pratt starts under the 101 freeway, carrying her tracking collar around her neck, her cardboard cutout of P-22, and a new plush P-22 doll. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)
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For the third year in a row, Beth Pratt strapped on her mountain lion tracking collar before starting her 50-mile hike. The California director for the National Wildlife Federation stooped down in front of the Liberty Canyon trailhead and picked up her backpack and the cardboard-cutout she'll carry of P-22, Southern California's most famous mountain lion. Then she turned around and headed straight for the 101 freeway.

She and a few other brave hikers are participating in a three-and-a-half day, 50-mile hike that follows the cougar's famous car-dodging, freeway-crossing journey from the Santa Monica Mountains to Griffith Park.

And that journey started down a freeway underpass, sans sidewalk, through an Agoura neighborhood.

"That we make it without getting hit by cars is miraculous," Pratt said. "When you start looking at our human spaces through an animal's eyes, what they go through just to eat and survive, it underscores the importance of a wildlife crossing even more."

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It's not the distance that's impressive so much as the urban obstacles that P-22 overcame along the way. Freeways are especially problematic, since they can separate animals from their natural habitat. P-22 lives in Griffith Park, confined to 8 square miles, which activists say is an oversized zoo cage compared to the 200-square-mile territories mountain lions are used to.

The map shows the path hikers will take from Agoura to Griffith Park. (Photo courtesy of Save LA Cougars)

He's essentially cut off by the 101 and 405 freeways from his likely birthplace, potential mates and food.

"He really does demonstrate the plight of these urban cats. Our freeways and development are really limiting," Pratt said. "He's trapped by freeways. He stays in a very small territory and he has for six years."

Crossing these thoroughfares is dangerous. His compatriot, P-55, was killed in 2015 trying to do just that. That's why political and environmental groups have fought to build a wildlife bridge that goes over the freeway and connects the preserved land on either side.

John Luker, president of Sky Valley Volunteers, joined Pratt for the first leg of the hike. He said the bridge needs to be built. And it will, as soon as they raise the $60 million they need to build it.

"This is probably the most important habitat linkage in California," he said. "Without this connectivity and what this bridge will provide, the Santa Monica mountains will go through a slow-motion death spiral."

The humans following in P-22's footsteps will cross both the 405 and the 101 -- but they'll do it on bridges, unlike P-22.

Pratt said the most dangerous part for her -- and for P-22 -- is walking along Mulholland, where there are no sidewalks. But the most strenuous part is the backbone trail in Malibu Creek State Park, where there's a 2,000-foot gain with full sun exposure.

As for Pratt's collar, she said that's the easiest part of her load.

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"I'm wearing it to raise awareness for the research, but to also show that I hardly feel it," she said. "It just shows that if I can wear it, P-22 isn't having a problem with it."

The trek ends on Saturday at a free festival in Griffith Park, where you can, among other things, buy your very own plush P-22. Last year, thousands showed up. It's the culmination of Urban Wildlife Week, which aims to make humans more aware of the animals in our urban ecosystem. And P-22 fans can find updates from Pratt on her location and journey on P-22's Facebook page.

Elina Shatkin contributed to this story.

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