Unconfirmed sighting of mountain lion near Griffith Park recalls L.A.'s favorite big cat, P-22

For the record:
1:52 p.m. May 22, 2024: An earlier version of this story said the National Park Service had tracked or collared 121 mountain lions since 2002. It has tracked, studied or collared 120 mountain lions in that time.

The mountain lion was caught in the Tesla’s headlights. Vladimir Polumiskov moved both quickly and slowly, not wanting to draw unwanted attention.

He put his 2-year-old son back in the car seat and got behind the wheel and quietly closed the door. His wife, Anastasiia Prokopenko, was in the passenger seat; she couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

“No way. No way,” she said. “Get in the car. Get in the car.”

The family, just back from a sushi dinner on Tuesday night, had pulled into a parking space at their apartment complex off Barham Boulevard in the Hollywood Hills. Living on the western edge of Griffith Park, they were accustomed to seeing wildlife — coyotes, bobcats, deer, foxes — wandering into their backyard. But a mountain lion was extreme.

“We’re not getting out,” Prokopenko said.

Less than 13 feet away, the cat was sitting on the low-angled trunk of an oak tree, partly hidden by weeds, his blond coat set off by the bright lights. Polumiskov, 30, reached for his phone and started shooting video.

“This guy was huge,” he said.

Though the sighting has not been confirmed by the National Park Service, which oversees the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and has also studied wildlife in the 4,000 acres of Griffith Park, the possibility of a mountain lion making its home in this island wilderness may give many Angelenos a sense of déjà vu all over again.

The mountain lion king of Griffith Park — a cat known as P-22 — roamed these hills for 10 years. Captured in December 2022, he was euthanized after a team of doctors determined that because of internal injuries and infection, he was too sick to return to the wild.

A few months before, Polumiskov said he had seen P-22 skulking through the same parking lot before running off. “I had the same reaction then,” he said. “That doesn’t change. It was shocking.”

“Los Angeles misses P-22,” said Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation, perhaps his most ardent champion.

In February 2023, Pratt helped organize at the Greek Theatre a sold-out celebration of his improbable life in Griffith Park, drawing more than 6,000 people wanting to pay their respects to the charismatic cat who, surrounded by development, freeways and cemeteries, lived peaceably in the center of Los Angeles.

Seven months later, the eighth annual official P-22 Day festival drew 15,000 attendees.

When Pratt first heard of this new sighting, she felt slightly overcome.

“It does my heart good,” she said . “It felt like P-22 had sent someone back to us — just to keep the hope alive that we hadn’t entirely banished the wildness in our lives.”

The National Park Service, which has reviewed Polumiskov’s video, is taking the claim seriously, according to spokesperson Ana Beatriz Cholo.

The park service has been studying the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains since 2002, when it collared its first puma, which was given the name P-1 (P is for puma). Since then, it has tracked, studied or collared 120 of the animals throughout the park.

Park Service researchers are conducting interviews and combing through footage from wildlife cameras positioned throughout Griffith Park.

“We obviously want to make sure we confirm this is the real thing,” Cholo said. “Hopefully we’ll get that in the near future.”

But hope aside, she added, there is no guarantee that the mountain lion will stick around. Pumas need up to 200 square miles of habitat, and Griffith Park offers a little more than eight.

After shooting the video, Polumiskov put the Tesla in reverse and found another parking space far away from the mountain lion. Two hours later, he returned with a friend, and the cat was still there.

“He was still sitting in that tree, looking at us,” he said. “He is a beautiful, beautiful animal, young and healthy, perhaps the biggest mountain lion I’ve seen in my life.”

Four months earlier, Polumiskov had seen — while driving — what he believed was also a mountain lion. But without evidence, his family and friends doubted him. Now he had something more tangible.

The next day, he got a call from Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist and mountain lion specialist with the park service, who asked him a few simple questions — where and when — and reminded him to play it safe.

“He definitely educated me,” Polumiskov said.

“While it is exciting to see a wild animal,” said Cholo, “if you see a mountain lion, give it space. Don’t follow it. As tempting as it might be, this is a big cat and its behavior can be unpredictable.”

The total number of mountain lions in California is estimated to be between 3,200 and 4,500. About a dozen of the cats are said to live in the Santa Monica Mountains, and they are at risk for extinction because of low genetic diversity.

The current construction of a wildlife corridor over a 10-lane stretch of the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills promises to be a critical lifeline for the endangered species. When completed in 2026, it will be the largest — 200 feet long and 165 feet wide — and most expensive bridge of its kind in the world.

"The Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing is critical" for the survival of the species, Pratt said . "But Griffith Park also needs safe routes for its wildlife trying to navigate the city."

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.