P-22, the mountain lion who roamed Griffith Park for more than a decade, was buried Saturday in an intimate tribal ceremony in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Members of four local tribes led the ceremony in honor of the beloved cougar, a symbol of the wilderness still present in Southern California. A small group of officials from organizations that had studied and defended P-22, including the National Park Service and the National Wildlife Federation, also attended.
P-22 was buried where he was most likely born and where other mountain lions still roam. The sacred ceremony was not open to the public and was not recorded. To protect the remains of P-22, the location of the grave is not being disclosed.
“We had one simple goal: to try to be as respectful as possible to such a magnificent animal,” says Alan Salazar, a tribal elder in the Fernandeño Tataviam and Ventureño Chumash tribes. “He was a leader. He was a chief.”
In one of the most powerful moments of the ceremony, a red-tailed hawk circled overhead and called several times, those in attendance said.
During the ceremony, tribesmen performed traditional songs and made offerings, Salazar said. Those present also formed a circle, and anyone “who wanted to say a prayer, or just say a few words, express their feelings, anyone was allowed to do so – native, non-native.”
“It was a beautiful, natural environment,” said Beth Pratt, a California regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation. “Knowing how beautiful he is to rest gives me some comfort.”
The private funeral, Pratt said, was in stark contrast to the public memorial for P-22 last month at the Greek Theater. That event lasted more than three hours and featured four dozen tributes, including songs and speeches, to the cougar sometimes referred to as the “King of Griffith Park.”
P-22 was euthanized in December after a battery of health checks revealed he suffered from several chronic conditions and suffered a skull fracture from a hit-and-run in Los Feliz. He was estimated to be about 12 years old.
The mountain lion surprised the world when it appeared in Los Feliz in 2012. Since he is believed to have been born in the Santa Monica Mountains, he made an improbable journey to reach Griffith Park, through the Hollywood Hills and over the 405 and 101 freeways.
Saturday’s funeral also marked the end of months of discussions about how to deal with the remains of an animal considered critical to scientific research but also considered sacred to local tribes who view mountain lions as teachers and relatives.
Before P-22’s death, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum was licensed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to preserve the mountain lion’s remains for scientific research. That alone was a departure from tradition; usually the bodies of wild animals are thrown away.
After tribal communities raised concerns about the plans for the P-22 body, the museum convened a panel with representatives from several tribes — including the Gabrielino-Shoshone Nation and the Gabrieleño/Tongva San Gabriel, Fernandeño Tataviam, and Barbareño/Ventureño Bands of Mission Indians – to develop a new plan with the NPS and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“There is no government agency that I trust,” Salazar said. “For us to sit down at the table, have a cup of tea, break bread and then make some important decisions that are going to set a precedent – it was very refreshing to see. It gives me hope.”
Salazar said the group was “democracy at its purest”. We discussed, debated, and then said, “Okay, let’s just vote on it.” They were majority rules, and that’s how we made all our decisions. “
After meeting for weeks, the groups opted for a private funeral. On Saturday morning, tribal pallbearers retrieved P-22’s body from the Natural History Museum, said Amy Gusick, the museum’s curator of anthropology.
A museum carpenter had been asked to build a box for the P-22’s final journey to the cemetery. He surprised the group with a special biodegradable box made of untreated pine wood that had been rubbed with orange oil and beeswax. At the request of the tribes, the museum is keeping the box for future repatriation of other animals, Gusick said.
The body of P-22 was buried in a shroud. To protect the grave, its location will not be disclosed, those in attendance said.
“As tribal people, our village lands have been desecrated and destroyed,” Salazar said. “If people find out there’s an old village site nearby, they’ll dig it up. It was a concern that not everyone respects a funeral. There are some people who – it baffles me – would like to have a tooth or a claw of such a sacred animal.