‘The Cat That Changed America’ Spotlights Famous Mountain Lion P-22

As three recent incidents sadly illustrate, survival is an uphill battle for mountain lions that live in the Los Angeles area. In December, the mountain lion known as P-39, who’d given birth to three kittens six months earlier, was killed as she tried to cross the busy 118 Freeway. One month later, one of her orphaned kittens was killed trying to do the same thing on the same stretch of freeway. Last week, another of her kittens was also killed trying to make it across those eight lanes of traffic.

Along with the freeways blocking their migration routes, mountain lions in the Santa Monica mountains can also suffer from rat poisoning and death threats from humans who share their environment.

To call attention to the plight of these mountain lions and what we can do to help them (like building a wildlife bridge over a freeway), filmmaker Tony Lee has produced the documentary, “The Cat that Changed America.” It focuses on P-22, a male mountain lion that lives in Griffith Park and became famous after appearing on a cover of National Geographic magazine in 2013.

“The Cat that Changed America” will have its world premiere Feb. 10 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Lee recently answered my questions about the documentary to share with Care2 readers.

"The Cat that Changed America" documentary poster

Photo courtesy Tony Lee

What inspired you to make a documentary about P-22?

P-22 is such a great Hollywood story – a big cat living in the middle of L.A.! His story is so relatable to Angelenos and to anyone who has experienced the pressures of urban living. As Beth Pratt, the California director for the National Wildlife Federation who is spearheading its Save LA Cougars campaign, says, “Who can’t relate to being dateless on a Friday night and stuck in traffic?”

P-22 has moved the dial about where it’s acceptable for wildlife to live, yet he’s likely to die a lonely bachelor in Griffith Park because he is hemmed in by freeways and the lack of connectivity. His story had to be told, and the more I delved, the more I discovered how fascinating his life is. Miguel Ordenana, a wildlife biologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, was the first person I spoke to about the story, which is appropriate, as he captured the first photograph of P-22 in one of his camera traps in Griffith Park.

Were you able to film P-22?

P-22 is incredibly elusive and secretive, so having enough footage and photographs of him was the most challenging part of making the film. Mountain lions are called ghost cats for good reason, as they blend into their environment, they are mainly nocturnal, and if you see one you can count yourself as being incredibly lucky.

I knew that trying to film P-22 within my time frame would be impossible, so I concentrated on filming the people connected with the wildlife crossing and studying P-22. For actual mountain lion footage, I relied on existing film captured by Miguel Ordenana and Matthew Whitmire, who were part of the Griffith Park Wildlife Connectivity Study, as well as the National Park Service and NPS Biologist Jeff Sikich, who had footage and photographs of P-22.

Did you learn anything new about P-22 or other mountain lions while making this documentary?

I didn’t know that mountain lions are so territorial and need large home ranges – around 200 square miles. They need to be connected to open spaces; otherwise, males will fight to the death over territory. This even includes males that are related to each other, which is very sad, as it just highlights the huge pressures these big cats are facing just to survive.

Mountain lions have a weakness – you could say that freeways are their Kryptonite, and it is humans who have created these problems for them. The recent deaths of P-39 and her kittens on one of our freeways is becoming an all-too-common occurrence. It’s our responsibility as Angelenos and considerate neighbors to ensure mountain lions have enough space to thrive. Otherwise, they suffer from the effects of road deaths, inbreeding and intraspecific mortality.

Besides film festivals, how will people be able to see “The Cat that Changed America?”

I’m currently talking to distributors and channels about broadcasting after the film festivals. I’m hoping that the popularity created by the festivals will stir interest as it has with other environmental films, such as “Blackfish” and “Racing Extinction.”

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be working in documentaries because of the multiple platforms and the impact of social media.

What fuels your passion about this documentary?

The integrity of wildlife documentaries is much in the news, with the debate about “Planet Earth II” and whether the impact of such series can stir the conservation movement. I’ve been making wildlife documentaries for 25 years, and I know how hard it is to make conservation programs and have them broadcast. This is why I feel so passionate about “The Cat that Changed America.”

P-22 is such a great ambassador for urban wildlife, because his story is so engaging and relatable, and he has such great charisma. I know that the world will fall in love with the cat who can’t find a mate.

To find out more about this documentary, visit the official The Cat that Changed America website.

Photo credit: YouTube


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Marie W
Marie W2 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Melania P
Melania P2 years ago


Sierra B
Sierra B2 years ago

I wonder what happened to p-39's third kitten.

Telica R
Telica R2 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Stella G
Stella G2 years ago

Already signed and shared. Thank you

Stella G
Stella G2 years ago

Already signed and shared the petition.
Thanks for sharing

Hent catalina - maria

petition signed

Jennifer H
Jennifer H2 years ago

Agreed that this should have been done years ago. I hope that people watch this and realize that these special lives must be protected or they will be gone. Thanks for sharing.

Cindy M. D
Cindy M. D2 years ago

Petition signed. This problem should have been resolved years ago. I hope this adorable mountain lion with such cool charisma shines a light that starts a movement.