COUGAR TOWN: OF P22, MAGGIE THE CAT, AND ROOM AT THE INN

Image: National Geographic photographer Steve Winter

By Deanne Stillman

An animal whose name, whose type I should say, is used to malign women of a certain age, is now holed up in a home in Los Feliz. That is to say a cougar, aka a mountain lion, has found refuge in a dwelling for humans who live near Griffith Park, his most favored address, according to his tracking collar.

As this story broke, many questions came to mind. Why did P22 as he is known decide to spend time in a crawl space in a home on the 2700 block of Glendower Avenue? Did he feel comfortable there? Was he drawn to the three housecats who live there, members of his tribe, distant though they may be, in the area that is his (for he is one of the last of his kind in the region called Los Angeles and that is why he is tracked)? Has it come to this – he found his family, in, yes, a house? As officials from various agencies closed in, as newsfolk hovered and said “A very large houseguest is in the neighborhood” and other things of that nature, I wondered if he was making some kind of stand, a last one (I hoped not, as he was prodded and poked and blasted with bean bags and tennis balls – tactics which have moved “troublesome” mountain lions away from people in the past), and there was an undercurrent of fear and bloodlust, as there always is when a wild thing is cornered. Would he leap out from the crawl space and attack somebody? Would there then be a killer on the loose? Would he have to be taken out?

Like many in Los Angeles, I was well aware of P22. He had been tracked for three years, moving from the Santa Monica Mountains on the west side to Griffith Park on the east, crossing freeways without incident, photographed at various moments in his life, with mange for instance – thought to be a result of ingesting rat poison – and soon thereafter he was lucky enough to be captured and given a remedy, and then again later, when the remedy took and he looked healthy, and then yet again, later, becoming a celebrity when a camera placed in Griffith Park caught his image at night with the Hollywood sign just behind him. It was a beautiful picture of a beautiful animal, a song of praise for the glory that lives just beyond our doors and patios, and in our hearts, and this, the picture told us, we must treasure and keep if we are really permitted to camp here in the firelight of the ancients.

I found myself drawn to P22, after the news broke that he had been sighted in the house on Glendower Avenue when workmen were preparing to install a security system. Understand that such a sighting would be startling at the very least; the mountain lion is the largest wildcat in the West, and spotting one inside a crawl space could lead to a reaction – screaming or shouting possibly – that might have resulted in a deadly attack. But the workman who found him simply ran, blood draining from his face, appearing ashen several seconds later when he reached a neighbor and reported his discovery. Being sighted must have been startling for P22 as well, though he remained calm and did not react externally. It is to the credit of both human and animal that both responded to the moment in a way that did not lead to carnage, and that was very much on my mind as I began following the cougar’s story on twitter. As dusk fell, I continued doing so, and could not sleep, and check on the latest throughout the night, planning to make a pilgrimage across town in the morning.

It wasn’t just the name “cougar” that drew me, or because he was one and people have conflated his and my kind, though that was a factor. He was beautiful, trapped, threatened. Of course, he wanted to be free. Although I hated the idea of a baby-in-the-well-like spectacle outside his hideaway, and did not want to become part of such a thing, I feared for P22 and wanted to be near him. He had survived the initial sighting in a place which he would have to vacate, and once that kind of thing is in play, the odds are generally against wild animals. I had to witness whatever happened, not avert my eyes. Perhaps I could do something to dispel any negative energy, I thought, believer that I am in such things, woman of a certain age that I am, one who can cast spells (or so they said in the Middle Ages and some tell me now) and one who believes that she has indeed cast one or two, though she is not sure how long they lasted or if in fact they accomplished anything that might not have happened on their own.

Would it surprise you to know that I’ve had cats? And oh how much I have loved them and their wild and domestic ways. There was the beautiful Cisco, whom I found in a humane society shelter in Manhattan. He had been left there, according to the notes on his cage, because he “disturbed elderly neighbors.” I wondered what that meant; did he play the trumpet late at night? What was the nature of his meow, exactly? And why was he named Cisco?   He seemed to respond to that name as we got to know each other that day at his shelter, so Cisco it remained and somehow I knew that he wanted to come home with me and he did. He was a good judge of character, as cats always are, leaving the room when he didn’t like certain boyfriends and approving of them in his own way when he did, and they liked it, and him, very much.   Soon he was joined by another, a kitten who followed me home one night during a blizzard, rushing out of an alley right before my footsteps as the wind gusted and the flakes fell, and she was mewling mightily. I picked her up and put her in my pocket. It would take a few months before she and Cisco came to accept each other; Cisco was jealous but she stood her ground and I named her Buster and one day they became best friends.

I took them with me to Los Angeles when I moved, giving them tranquilizers – the smallest dose – and placing them in a large shipping crate for the five-hour flight. At the airport, I bid them good-bye and safe travels as the agent took the crate and disappeared. With some trepidation, I boarded the plane, having closed up a life in New York and now heading for a new beginning in California with just some favorite clothing and my animals. As I recall, the plane was almost ready for take off – the doors had closed and the flight attendant was giving her safety talk – when I looked out my window and saw my cats in their cage on the tarmac, just outside the plane with the engines revving!  Horrified, I interrupted the stewardess and, created a scene (this was before 9/11), explaining that my cats were supposed to be on the plane, and demanded that they be placed on board.  The flight was delayed as word was delivered to workers on the ground. Within minutes, I watched them lift the crate and take Cisco and Buster off the runway, placing them on a ramp that led to a rear cargo door – out of my sight line but a stewardess assured me that they were now passengers on our journey. Soon we were heading for LA, an ancient basin I would later learn, “valley of the smokes,” the Indians called it, for the steam that rose from the faultlines, home to the LaBrea Tar Pits, where saber-tooth tigers once roamed.

Many years later came the Northridge earthquake and the cats vanished – in my apartment.   Everything was upended, shelves and dressers overturned, bookcases toppled, possessions scattered everywhere. I called and called for them and thought perhaps they had left through a screen door even before the quake hit, for cats are seismologists, often leaving in advance of shakers as the early vibrations are felt in their paws, long before the rest of us get the message. It was a couple of days before they emerged, crawling out from under a jumble of books, having made nary a sound, hungry and frightened.

We all settled back into our routines and the years passed and one by one they passed away, although as Buster was dying of cancer, my next door neighbor’s cat Zoe – a tabby who looked like Buster’s twin – sensed an upcoming vacancy and began visiting daily, jumping up on the bed, hanging out with both of us, waiting for Buster to leave this mortal coil. No one knew exactly where Zoe had come from, but the story went like this: there had been a period of winter rains, maybe a few years prior to her arrival at my neighbor’s apartment; it was a long period and it rained and rained and no one had ever seen anything like it. Zoe disappeared from her dwelling nearby. It was said that perhaps she was flooded out of a return, trapped somewhere, somehow.

But return she did months later, only to find that her guardian had moved and she was locked out of her home. So she took up with my neighbor, who herself needed company. Although Zoe retained a wild streak, sometimes disappearing for days on end, she returned when she felt like it for brief visits or long, occasionally overnight, sleeps. And then one day she sensed that others had a greater need than the one she was currently filling, and she made my address her own.

Buster’s illness was incurable, though there were a couple of surgeries along the way. When it was time, I took Buster to the vet and then Zoe fully moved in, doing what cats do – coming and going as she pleased, assessing visitors, responding accordingly – generally accurate – comforting my ailing mother, climbing up on the roof at night, haunting the crawl spaces under my building at other times, bringing small critters and birds back to her (our) den, serving as an avatar to the thing that is wild and lives in us all – and right there over yonder in the mountains and canyons.

Again the wheel turned and it was Zoe’s time to cross over. I took her to the vet and we said our farewells and her ashes were sent to me in a canister several weeks later.   I scattered them around the apartment grounds which she had called home for who knows how long, and the ashes of my other cats were there too, and now those garden apartments are gone, replaced by a corporate monstrosity that looks like a Carnival cruise ship, a giant tombstone on top of one more layer of Los Angeles. They had to rip out all of the trees to build it, pines that were forty or fifty years old, a delight for the eyes, provider of shade to all of us who lived in their understory, homes to squirrels and migrating and local birds, now elsewhere or gone, along with the feral cats that used to ply the by-ways of local alleys.

It’s funny how we name things after animals that we wipe out or place in zoos. Or because we want to appropriate their traits or assign them to people we fear. I went to a high school where the team was the Tigers, but we never gave that much thought beyond the mascot logo of the tiger with bared fangs which possibly gave our team an edge; I really have no idea. Some of my friends drove a muscle car called a Cougar and the name was cool – but we never gave that much thought either, not even to consider how the power of the car was associated with the power of the animal, although I’m sure that test marketing determined some sort of subterranean connection that would lead citizens everywhere down the money trail. And here we are years later when women of a certain demographic have a drink with men of another and are then named for the characteristics of an animal that is barely hanging on, and yes, happens to eat. Ultimately this type of woman is played by Courtney Cox on television in a never-ending series entitled “Cougar Town.”

As the saga of P22 unfolded, I started thinking about the term “cougar” and how we had arrived at its current use. A quick exploration revealed that some trace its use to the book Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men, published in 2001. Others suggest that it entered the language in this fashion a bit earlier, in 1999, on the Canadian website, www.cougardate.com. One of the two women who founded that site had reportedly heard the term from a nephew, who said they were like cougars in search of helpless, small animals. The nephew had picked up the term from fellow hockey players – no slouches in the team name department.

Whenever I hear the term applied to women, I cringe and then my heart sinks. Often it is women themselves who refer to themselves in this way, and I wonder what brings them to such a state. Sometimes, I see them in their cars with the label on their license plates; I think it’s spelled COUGR so the letters can fit with the numbers. Such a self-proclamation is a far and boorish cry from, say, “Maggie the cat is back” – Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” as per the master, Tennessee Williams – and one that has only contributed to the misunderstanding of both women and the animal that the usage maligns.

Yet I must admit that P22 and I do have certain things in common. I often walk the trails of the mountains and canyons of Los Angeles. At night I sometimes pad the streets of my neighborhood, hunting perhaps but really waiting, for what I do not know – signs of God? my ancestors? stardust? – all of whom and which I see in the night skies, walking solitaire that I am, like the mountain lions of LA, tracked even, as are all females of a certain age (“15 Women Over 50 Who Look Great”), treasured by some, ignored by others, not seen and not heard for the most part, and not really given much heed, other than as a curiosity (“yes, ma’am”; “no, ma’am,” and “wait; what? no children?”).

Preparing to head for Los Feliz on the morning of April 14th, I thought about the plight of mountain lions across the land. According to a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Department of Agriculture and its little-known Wildlife Services division killed 305 mountain lions last year (nearly one a day), in the name of range management and other environmental tasks. This “take” as it’s called in bureaucratic circles was part of a staggering figure of 2.7 million wild animals eradicated in 2014, including bears, wolves, coyotes, prairie dogs, bobcats and others, killed via aerial hunting, bait-trapping, and with the use of poison. Since 1996, the tax-funded machine called Wildlife Services has whacked 27 million wild animals, and there are no signs of its stopping.

P22 would never be removed by this agency, and he was deemed protected in the National Park Service jurisdiction of Los Angeles. But there were so many other forces arrayed against him (for instance, in the Santa Monica Mountains, the mountain lion’s turf is constrained due to freeways and there is a danger of inbreeding.) As he continued to shelter in place, I thought about how it probably was for him, with news choppers outside the house where he had spent the night, and reporters uttering nonsense as he sat in the crawl space with apparent dignity (recall: he took many hits from the tennis balls and bean bags that were blasted his way, not moving or striking back at all), seemingly basking on a savannah, judging from the pictures and the look in his eyes in a close-up someone managed to acquire – perhaps using one of those sticks generally favored for selfies.

Clearly this lion was king of Los Angeles. But where were his subjects and would he ever find them, or again, I wondered, were they right here in the house on Glendower, in the form of the three cats whom he did not devour?

Such were my concerns as I picked up my coffee and made for the freeway, wanting to be in the presence of P22 before whatever was about to happen happened, checking twitter one more time for news. And there it was: he had vanished! Yes, sometime in the night, or while no one was looking, he had slipped out of the house on Glendower Avenue, and headed on down the road. The choppers peeled off and fast-tracked for other breaking news, and I myself headed back to my den, relieved to hear of his escape, having feared, like many who had been watching the drama unfold, that authorities might overreact and something would go irretrievably wrong.

I was tempted to end this piece by saying “I am P22” – but it’s not true, and that is nothing more than a cute line. I am not a cougar, though it would be an honor to be one. Sometimes we share some traits, as all of us do with animals at any given moment according to what comes forward and what may be needed. After all, as the Indians used to say, “We are all related.” Yet P22 is sovereign, and this we must remember.

According to his tracking collar, shortly after he disappeared from the crawl space in Los Feliz, the big Hollywood cat was back in Griffith Park. Maybe he and I will cross paths one night on the trails of Los Angeles. Or maybe we won’t. In any case, thank you, my friend, and long may you roam.

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