Celebrities and scientists mourn mountain lion P-22 at sold-out memorial

On a sunny Saturday in Los Angeles, a packed outdoor crowd of 6,000 people at the Greek Theater cried, sang and swayed together as they bid adieu to one of the city’s most treasured residents: a mountain lion known as P-22.

In a city more synonymous with billboards than biodiversity, an ageing bachelor puma made tracks into people’s hearts. When he was euthanized at the end of 2022 after being hit by a car, it stung.

Related: ‘He changed us’: the remarkable life of celebrity mountain lion P-22

The tickets for the celebration at the famed concert venue sold out – Taylor Swift-style – in just hours, and thousands tuned in to see the events on a live stream around the world. The event brought together scientists, politicians, celebrities and Indigenous leaders – a testament to how P-22 united a city. Even the DJ Diplo showed up, sharing the stage with a stuffed lion under his arm.

Warren Dickson, a hip-hop artist and environmental educator in Watts, performed an original song at the memorial. He said P-22 was his introduction to wildlife conservation, and eventually became a symbol of hope and inspiration. “Seeing how so many of us, from different backgrounds, came together because of him, creating unique friendships, made me feel like he was opening our eyes to what togetherness could look like,” he said. “People in the community of Watts feel like we lost a member of the community. I feel like I lost a close friend.”

P-22 was a fixture in the city of angels, and it loved him fiercely. Every part of his story was unlikely, and took on a mythic status: he successfully crossed the howling busy 405 and 101 freeways several times. He trekked 20 miles from his birthplace in the Santa Monica mountains to the city’s urban oasis, Griffith Park, where he was first spotted by a camera trap in 2012.

There, he lived for a decade in the smallest range ever recorded for a male mountain lion, preying on deer and small rodents, and made the occasional foray into a back yard in an adjacent neighborhood, where people would try to take pictures with him. Like many stars in the area, he eschewed the spotlight and chose to go out at night to live his life. Trapped in his small kingdom, he never found a mate – but his mere existence in such an urban area brought people together from all walks of life who took action to protect other lions like him.

Whenever she hiked to the Hollywood sign, “the wondrous knowledge that I could encounter P-22 always propelled me into a joyous kind of awe,” said Beth Pratt, the California regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, who has advocated for P-22 for a decade and bears a tattoo of his face on her left arm. “I’m not alone. His legions of fans hoped for a sight of Hollywood’s most beloved celebrity, the Brad Pitt of the cougar world, on their walks or their Ring cams, and when he made an appearance that video usually went viral.”

Steve Winter, a photographer who captured famous images of the lion in front of the Hollywood sign, called him the most famous animal since Lassie – “but there were nine Lassies and only one P-22,” he said.

The world may never know another lion like him, but his cousins are safer because of him: the $87m Wallis Annenberg wildlife crossing is currently under construction over a 10-lane stretch of the 101 freeway near Liberty canyon in Agoura Hills. The project will connect two parts of the Santa Monica mountains, allowing creatures to cross safely and mate with other populations (inbreeding is a huge problem for mountain lions, in addition to road deaths). To raise the funds for the project, Pratt and others relied heavily on P-22’s celeb status.

Help can’t come quickly enough: a new report from the UC Davis road ecology center shows that one or two mountain lions were killed every week on California roads and highways between 2015 and 2022 – faster than the species can reproduce. In late January, another wild mountain lion, P-81, was found dead from a possible vehicle strike on the Pacific Coast Highway in the western Santa Monica mountains.

P-22 was more than a celebrity, said Jeff Sikich, a biologist for the National Park Service who is taking part in an ongoing study of mountain lions, estimated to number about 10-15 in the area. “He was an ambassador for urban wildlife, and his science contributions are many,” Sikich said, adding that P-22 showed how lions coexist with humans in this complex landscape. “His legacy will live on and his contributions to wildlife conservation and also our heightened awareness of how to live in harmony with nature.”

Pratt, who at times was teary at the memorial, said that P-22 showed people what was possible. “He changed us – he changed the way we look at LA and his influencer status extended around the world,” she said. “He inspired millions of people to see wildlife as their neighbors. He made us more human and made us connect to that more wild place in ourselves.”