Discover The 19-Million-Person City Where Mountain Lions And Humans Live Side-By-Side

Written by Patrick Sather
Updated: June 16, 2023
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Los Angeles is the largest city in California and the second most populous city in the United States. Known as the entertainment capital of the world, the city is home to the Hollywood film industry. Its sprawling metro supports a diverse economy with a GDP of over $1 trillion per year. Millions of people live on its hills and within its valleys, and millions more visit every year. But did you know it’s also a city where humans and mountain lions live side-by-side?

Visitors to L.A. don’t realize that wild predators lurk within the shadows of Tinsel Town. Just outside the million-dollar mansions prowl a small but stable population of mountain lions. L.A. is one of the few megacities in the world where big cats and humans live side by side. This begs the question, “How do mountain lions survive in this urban sprawl?”

In this article, we’ll explore the history of Los Angeles and its ecology. We’ll also examine the state of the mountain lion population inside Los Angeles County and where you can find them. Finally, we’ll discover one of the city’s most infamous big cats and cover what you should do if you encounter a mountain lion!

History Of Los Angeles

Beautiful sunset of Los Angeles downtown skyline and palm trees in foreground

In the 1870s, around 5,000 people lived in L.A. By the early 1900s, the city’s population ballooned to 100,000.


The history of human occupation around Los Angeles began around 5,000 years ago. At this time, the Hokan-speaking people first occupied the L.A. region. However, the Hokan was eventually replaced by the migrants from the east who spoke the Tongva language. By the early 1700s, around 5,000 Tongva people resided within the L.A. basin. They primarily lived along the banks of the L.A. and San Gabriel Rivers as well as several islands just off the coast. 

The first Europeans arrived in southern California in 1542. However, it wasn’t until 1781 that a group of 44 settlers from New Spain established a permanent settlement near present-day downtown L.A. The town grew quickly as more settlers and soldiers arrived and stayed in the area. In 1821, Mexico declared independence from Spain, and California became a Mexican territory. This new chapter in L.A.’s history saw an explosion in the area’s population and economy. Farming, ranching, and trade flourished under the new Mexican leadership, which was comparatively more liberal than the Spanish monarchy. However, this period was short-lived, as the United States invaded California during the Mexican-American War. By 1847, California was completely under U.S. control. 

The first few years under U.S. control were rough. The city descended into lawlessness, as the absence of a strong legal system allowed criminal activity to thrive. However, order was soon restored, and the area continued to boom. In the 1870s, around 5,000 people lived in L.A. By the early 1900s, the city’s population ballooned to 100,000. The discovery of oil in the area and the construction of railroads connecting the city to other parts of the country facilitated additional expansion. With the development of the Hollywood film industry in the early 1900s, L.A. cemented itself as one of the premier cities in the United States and worldwide. The next few decades saw continued growth as the city further diversified its industries and population. 

Ecology And Geography Of Los Angeles

In total, Los Angeles encompasses an area of 502 square miles, including 34 square miles of water. Most of the city lies within a desert basin bordered by the San Gabriel Mountains to the north. Meanwhile, the Santa Monica Mountains divide the city in half. The mountains stretch from downtown L.A. to the Pacific Ocean. On the west side of the mountains lies the L.A. Basin, while on the east lies the San Fernando Valley. The Los Angeles River provides the city with much of its freshwater and acts as the primary drainage channel in the region. It starts in Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley and empties into the Port of Long Beach to the south of the city. 

While primarily a desert, L.A. contains a diverse array of habitats. Within its boundaries, you can find wetlands, beaches, mountains, and shrubland. Today, the areas with the greatest population density in L.A. lie along the Los Angeles River. Perhaps not surprisingly, these were also the areas that the Tongva people tended to inhabit for thousands of years. 

With so many people living in Los Angeles, it’s easy to forget that the area is a hotspot for biodiversity. Over 4,000 plant and animal species call Los Angeles County home. Represented animals include federally Endangered species such as the Pacific pocket mouse, Southern California steelhead trout, and Arroyo toad. The area around L.A. is also home to a small population of mountain lions. 

Mountain Lions And Los Angeles

Mountain lion stares into camera

Before the arrival of the Hokan-speaking people, mountain lions ranked among the top predators in the area.


Mountain lions (Felis concolor) or cougars have lived in the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles for thousands of years. Before the arrival of the Hokan-speaking people, mountain lions ranked among the top predators in the area. A single mountain lion could control a territory ranging anywhere from 25 to 785 square miles. The big cats feasted on the plentiful prey in the area, including deer, elk, badgers, rabbits, and squirrels. 

However, over time people slowly drove the mountain lions out of the L.A. basin. This process intensified with the arrival of Europeans, particularly Americans, in the mid-19th century. By the mid-20th century, few mountain lions remained in Los Angeles. Those that did remain lived in scattered enclaves, mostly cut off from one another. Gone were the days when mountain lions ruled the Hollywood Hills. 

The National Park Service began to closely study the mountain lions around L.A. beginning in 2002. Since then, they have managed to tag and monitor over 100 different mountain lions. They fit captured lions with GPS radio collars and release them back into the wild. The collars provide NPS agents with detailed information about the cougars’ whereabouts, behavior, and health. 

Each collared mountain lion receives a nickname consisting of the letter “P” followed by a number. The first mountain lion studied by the NPS was dubbed P-1. It just so happened that the first cougar the NPS caught also happened to be the dominant male in the L.A. area. Also referred to as the “king of the mountains,” P-1 lived to be 13 years old and sired several kittens over his lifetime. In fact, many of the mountain lions alive in the area today are distantly related to P-1. 

Where To Find Mountain Lions Around Los Angeles

Most mountain lions live in the Santa Monica Mountains to the north of Los Angeles. In particular, most mountain lions live in one of three areas. The first and largest area includes the mountains along the coast between Oxnard and Santa Monica just south of Thousand Oaks. The second area consists of the land between Thousand Oaks and Bell Canyon. Finally, the third area is made up of the land north of Simi Valley and west of Interstate 5. 

Experts estimate that around 10 to 15 adult and subadult mountain lions live in the mountains around L.A. When you add kittens, around 20 cougars may live in the L.A. area at any one time. According to maps created by the GPS radio collars, these cougars often share territory with one another. Whereas most wild cougars control territories of hundreds of square miles, two or three L.A. cougars may share a territory of just 50 square miles. However, one cougar managed to blaze a trail and carve out a unique territory just for himself. Over time, he grew into a legend and garnered an intense amount of media attention for his antics. His name was P-22, also known as the “Hollywood cat.” 

Where Is Los Angeles Located On A Map?

Los Angeles is located in southern California on the west coast of the United States, between the San Gabriel mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It extends from the Santa Monica mountains to the San Fernando Valley in the north.

Who Was P-22?

The mountain lion P-22 in mid-December 2015

P-22s arrival in Griffith Park attracted the attention of media outlets, including National Geographic.

©Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area / Flickr – License

The son of P-1, P-22 was born in 2010 in the Santa Monica Mountains. However, before he was two years old, P-22 managed to accomplish what no cat before him had done before. Somehow, P-22 traversed several major roads and highways and made his way east into Griffith Park just north of downtown L.A. Experts learned of P-22’s arrival when a trail camera caught sight of him in the park. His arrival attracted the attention of media outlets, including National Geographic. National Geographic photographer Steve Winter spent 15 months trying to get the perfect picture of P-22. Winter’s photo of P-22 with the Hollywood sign in the background made it into National Geographic’s December 2013 issue. This photo catapulted P-22 to fame and launched a series of media projects, including books, documentaries, and television programs. 

During his life, P-22 got up to his fair share of antics. He liked to stalk the backyards of celebrities and once wandered into the neighborhoods of Los Feliz. At one point, people accused him of killing and eating a koala at the L.A. Zoo. Regardless, P-22 was adored as a symbol of the wilder side of Los Angeles. Here was a wild cat making it work in one of the biggest towns on Earth. Unfortunately, in late 2022 P-22 was struck by a car. Although the collision didn’t kill him, the injury caused him to suffer numerous injuries. These injuries greatly affected his quality of life and led P-22 to make several brazen attacks on pets in the area. On December 17th, 2022, agents of the NPS and California Department of Fish and Wildlife made the sad decision to put P-22 down. 

What To Do If You Encounter A Mountain Lion

Although they are apex predators, mountain lions have earned a reputation for being calm and reclusive. They prefer to stick to areas with few humans and tend to avoid direct confrontations. The chances of getting killed by a mountain lion measure significantly less than getting killed in a traffic collision with a deer. Still, while lion attacks occur rarely, they do happen and can sometimes prove fatal. 

The best way to avoid an encounter with a mountain lion is to not give the lion an excuse to attack you. Never walk alone in areas frequented by mountain lions. Always walk in groups and do not let children wander around unsupervised. 

If you encounter a mountain lion, remember to stay calm. Do not try to run away. Instead, face the lion straight on and slowly back away. Remain standing and try to make yourself appear larger by raising your hands above your head. In the event that the mountain lion advances on you, attempt to drive it off by throwing rocks or sticks. Lastly, if the mountain lion attacks, fight back with all your strength. Aim blows at its head, and make sure to protect your neck. Most likely, the mountain lion will back off if you manage to give it a run for its money. Once you’re safe, vacate the area and call 911 or your local ranger station. 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Warren Metcalf/

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