The Cat That Changed America

Director Tony Lee

Filming <em>The Cat That Changed America</em>.

When a mountain lion was discovered living in Griffith Park a few years ago, beneath the Hollywood sign and surrounded by the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, the world was captivated. This hour-long documentary tells the story of P22, as the male cougar became known, and reveals the efforts of wildlife biologists and conservationists to support the isolated population of puma that live in the Santa Monica Mountains.

How did you learn about this saga?

I knew of P22 through the famous National Geographic photograph of P22 in front of the Hollywood sign, but I wasn’t aware of his incredible journey crossing two major freeways, the 405 and the 101, until speaking to Miguel Ordenana, a wildlife biologist at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County. He was the first person to photograph P22 on one of his camera traps in Griffith Park, and after talking to Miguel I knew it was a saga that had to be told.

What is your wildlife and film background?

I’ve been making wildlife and science films for 25 years. My first job was in 1992, researching on David Attenborough’s series ‘The Private Life of Plants’ for the BBC. I now spend my time between London and L.A., and I’ve been living in California on and off since 1999 working for National Geographic, Discovery Channel, PBS, and Animal Planet.

Were the wildlife experts immediately receptive to having their story told?

Yes, they were all receptive and wanted P22’s story to be told. Finding good characters to tell P22’s compelling story was really important to me, so I spent time researching and speaking to everyone on the phone before we began filming last summer. I think the experts complement each other really well, as they all have a different area of expertise and perspective, whether it’s connectivity or rodent poisoning.

Why is telling the personal stories of the people who are supporting the lions an important part of this documentary?

Nature is all around us, and to be good neighbors, we have to like and respect each other, whether they are humans or animals. So I wanted the audience to get to know some of the key human characters in the film, understand their background, and share their passions. It’s through human empathy that we can change our behavior and our attitudes.

This is also a nice explanation of Griffith Park. Why was setting that scene crucial to the story?

Griffith Park is the adopted home of P22; we follow his journey to the park, so it’s a major setting in the film. One of the characters likens P22 to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, being a newcomer to the town, trying to make it on his own. So the visual imagery of Griffith Observatory was very important to connect the audience to P22’s home turf, which is actually only eight square miles of territory.

What is the latest on P-22 and the rest of the Santa Monica Mountains lions?

Miguel recently captured footage of P22 and he is looking really healthy. Now he’s about eight years old, but the sad fact is that he’s likely to die a lonely bachelor as he’s hemmed in by freeways and will never find a mate. The rest of the mountain lions have been making headlines recently, being killed on the freeways such as P39 female and some of her kittens. Or P45 which infamously killed some alpacas in a Malibu ranch. All these issues facing mountain lions stem from habitat loss and the intense pressures they are facing from a lack of connectivity.

How confident are they that the wildlife overpass will work?

2017 is a crucial year as $10 million needs to be raised to start the construction and development. The architecture of the bridge has all been thoughtfully planned out, and the overpass will benefit all wildlife, not just mountain lions. For animals to thrive, they need to be able to maintain a healthy gene pool otherwise they are vulnerable to inbreeding and disease.

Is there any opposition, or is the issue just funding?

It’s really just a question of someone writing a check. Over $55 million needs to be raised, but considering the wealth in the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara area, and that people are interested and appreciative of wildlife, we really think it’s possible. The plan is to have the crossing built by 2021.

What can people do if they want to help?

Come and support the film which has its World Premiere at the Fiesta Theater this Friday and Saturday. I will also be speaking on the wildlife panel on Friday at 11 a.m. behind the Lobero Theater, which is free to the public.

Log onto the film’s website to find out more information: thecatthatchangedamerica.com. And you can make a donation to the wildlife crossing through the Save La Cougars campaign by visiting savelacougars.org.

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