P-22, photographed in 2014 (Santa Monica Mountains National Park Service/Flickr)

Ten years ago the celebrity mountain lion known as P-22 came down from the Santa Monica mountains, crossed the multi-lane and heavily congested 101 and 405 freeways, and took up residence in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park. He lived there ever since, occasionally venturing out into the Los Feliz and Silver Lake neighborhoods. P-22 became famous when he was captured on camera by National Geographic photographer Steven Winters passing in front of the Hollywood sign in 2013. The image imprinted itself on the collective Angeleno consciousness. P-22 inspired the #SaveLACougars campaign, led by Beth Pratt, the California regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation—which organizes an annual P-22 Day Festival as part of Urban Wildlife Week. P-22 also sparked awareness of the need for wildlife corridors in urban areas, and this year, ground was broken on the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing. According to David Szymanski, superintendent of the National Park Service, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the crossing addresses the “biggest conservation challenge facing the wildlife of the Santa Monica Mountains…isolation by roads and development.” He said that “this forward-looking project will help to end the isolation and reconnect natural habitat.”

P-22 also inspired artists. Drive down Hyperion Avenue in Silver Lake and you’ll spot a large yellow mural with a black-and-white image of the famous cat’s face and the words “Peace Love & P-22.” The mural was unveiled this past year by local street artist Corie Mattie, who made it after P-22 showed up in her yard. Mattie said on an Instagram post that the cougar had “stared into my soul for a solid 30 seconds.” Angelenos have been fascinated with P-22: his visits into the city were shockingly out of place. When we sew him on the sidewalk or crossing streets, we felt that worlds had collided. His appearance sometimes also inspired awe, if not fear: P-22 was, after all, a wild animal.

P-22 looks small and fragile. He made me think of the infant Jesus, a small defenseless creature, and of the broken Christ, scarred and limp.

With old age his behavior became erratic. He wandered more frequently into homes near Griffith Park, and had been attacking pets. He recently killed a leashed chihuahua. Officials believe that this could have been a sign of distress. Just days after the decision was made to try to seize P-22 for a health evaluation, he was found in a Los Feliz backyard. Now the more famous image of P-22 is one of him lying tranquilized on a small green tarp, surrounded by authorities from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It makes for a stark contrast to the majestic figure seen striding past the Hollywood sign. P-22 looks small and fragile. He made me think of the infant Jesus, a small defenseless creature, and of the broken Christ, scarred and limp.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we reflect on the meaning of Emmanuel, God is with us. How terrifying it is to think of God, the divine, coming before us. I imagine that those who were surprised to find P-22 in their driveway got a sense of what might it be like to come into contact with the divine. Frozen in awe, curious, exhilarated, and frightened. It’s no wonder Mattie felt as if P-22 had stared into her soul—it was a kind of spiritual experience.

But God comes to us vulnerable, a newborn baby. The encounter with Emmanuel is softened for our sake. Although P-22 did not choose to be among Angelenos, and although rampant development has shrunken and isolated surrounding habitats, I think of the impact his presence made. The 2013 Hollywood photograph put his power on display, demanding reverence. The more recent image revealed a truth we might not have grasped before, that P-22 had always been vulnerable because he was with us, because he was sharing a habitat with humans. After the evaluation, biologists confirmed that his health had seriously deteriorated, and that he had suffered a skull fracture, injury to the right eye, herniated organs and a torn diaphragm—the result of being hit by a vehicle. This is the same creature that crossed two major Los Angeles freeways—a death-defying feat for which he is rightfully famous. On Saturday, December 17, 2022, when he was believed to have been twelve years old, P-22 was euthanized.

The Advent season prepares us to see the incarnation with the Passion in mind. God is all-powerful and in the incarnation is also all-vulnerable. Both things are true. God is with us in all God’s power and in all human vulnerability so that we may contemplate Jesus as a newborn child, asleep and helpless, and so that we may find within us a capacity to love tenderly, to respect profoundly, and to care for one another and all of God’s creation.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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