P-22, Movie Star

Will  P-22 be the cat that changed America?

Filmmaker Tony Lee thinks so.

“The ball is starting to roll,” says Lee about his latest flick “The Cat That Changed America,” a documentary about Griffith Park’s beloved lone bachelor mountain lion. Kicking off with a  world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival earlier this year, the movie is reaching new audiences at local showings around Southern California. The momentum is mounting with screenings at various locations slated for this summer – including Ojai, Santa Cruz and Pasadena, and an August showing at Grauman’s Chinese Theater complete with red carpet and celebrities.

The documentary has been entered in other film festivals including the prestigious Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

Filmed last year, the documentary introduces audiences to P-22, born in the Santa Monica Mountains and his near-impossible crossing of two of the busiest freeways in America before making his way to the park. “P-22 basically changed the traditional way of thinking how big animals can live alongside humans,” says Lee.

SOCAL LANDSCAPE — For Tony Lee’s documentary, filming took place in a natural setting.

Through on camera interviews with key players in P-22’s life – the biologists who study him, wildlife advocates, homeowner associations, etc. – the multi-layered documentary also sheds a light on the need for a wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon and raises the issue of rodenticides that has made its way up the food chain, sickening and killing animals other than mice.

“The first half of the film you fall in love with P-22 and then the other half is a call to action,” says Lee.

A wildlife and science filmmaker for 25 years, Lee’s discovery of  P-22 was more than uncovering a typical animal narrative. The mountain lion’s saga illustrates a bigger picture of the delicate balance between wild things and urban civilizations. It’s a heavy subject, but the film – especially through people passionately working behind the scenes – offers positive possibilities and way toward human/wildlife coexistence.

“I see this is an impact film and would love it to bring about changes much like “Black Fish” did for the theme park industry,” says Lee who’s “always looking for a story to film in California. The celebrity cat of Los Angeles is a perfect story because of all the different aspects this one cat brings.”

READY FOR HIS CLOSE-UP: P-22’s story is changing the traditional way of thinking regarding large animals living near humans. PHOTO: NPS

Lee’s first job was in 1992 researching the David Attenborough’s series “The Private Life of Plants” for the BBC. Since then he has directed films on  puffins, bats and other critters for National Geographic, Discovery Channel, PBS and Animal Planet.

Splitting his time between Los Angeles and London, Lee vaguely knew about P-22, recalling seeing Steve Winter’s iconic pix of the big cat with the Hollywood Sign in the background. Lee was intrigued about the apex predator and the more he delved deeper into P-22’s existence, the more fantastic the story became.

But learning about P-22’s bout with rat poison in 2014 was a big impetus for Lee to start his cameras rolling. “The fact that this lion almost died made me physically sick,” says Lee. It was clear that P-22’s story was not just about one lion; a bigger picture was emerging, one that shined a light on the practice that has been affecting big predators that rely on smaller prey, especially rats and mice, for sustenance.

NOT A GOOD DAY — P22 after being treated for mange he contracted from ingesting rat poison. PHOTO: NPS.

While the film advocates for alternatives to rodenticides, it also addresses wildlife connectivity. Santa Monica Mountain lions are struggling against inbreeding and a lack of physical territories; P-22 did manage to find a space to call his own, but the small size is not the typical mountain lion territory. The proposed wildlife bridge over Liberty Canyon would help alleviate inbreeding and disease, reduce freeway mountain lion deaths and provide a flow back for all critters in the last remaining wild spaces in Southern California.

Current plans have the Liberty Canyon wildlife bridge completed in 2021, but $10 million still needs to be raised this year to start construction and development. Over $55 million needs to be raised overall. The public can contribute by visiting Save L.A. Cougars or clicking here.

TAKE THE HIGH ROAD: Proposed wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon could be completed in 2021 with enough funding.

Lee says wildlife conservation groups around the world have contacted him with stories of similar big cat issues: loss of habitat, connectivity, human encroachment and poaching. P-22 shares a strikingly similar tale of urban big cats with the leopards of Mumbai; in this heavily populated area of India, these “Ghost Cats” are learning how to survive and thrive alongside humans.

“Coexist is the world,” says Lee who points to the fact that many big cats – like cheetahs – are in serious danger of extinction in the wild. “We can’t lose mountain lions, they are the only American lions we have. There are ways we can share this environment, especially here in Los Angeles. I have discovered through making this film how many passionate people there are who want to make that a reality here.”

To learn how to set up a screening of “The Cat That Changed America” for a school, organization or other group, click here.