• November 14, 2013

A Cougar Ready for His Closeup

Alexa Keefe

Steve Winter is famous for his photographs of big cats in their natural habitats, such as snow leopards and tigers, among others. His “Ghost Cats” story in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic opens with a surprising image of a big cat, not in the wilds of India, but in a location arguably as challenging for photographing his subject—downtown Los Angeles.

Winter’s task was to illustrate cougars—also known as mountain lions—in an urban environment. His research led him to biologist Jeff Sikich, whose work with a mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area on the outskirts of L.A. seemed promising. “Science-wise, this guy really knew what he was doing,” says Winter.

Winter knew that if L.A. was his city, he wanted movie stars. He had worked with big cats for many years and knew the importance of connecting these cats to something immediately recognizable. Having heard through the grapevine that a cougar was once spotted in Cher’s backyard, he quizzed Sikich about the particulars of the mountain lion population’s comings and goings.

Winter recalls saying to Sikich, “Wouldn’t it be great to get a photograph of a cougar with the Hollywood sign … ”

But it didn’t seem likely. So elusive that few people ever see them, many of the animals being tracked by Sikich would leave the Santa Monica Recreation Area only to turn around and go back. And even if they did make the trek, they would risk being struck by cars crossing two busy freeways in between, the 405 and the 101.

Eight months later, Winter received an email from Sikich that said: “You’re not going to believe this, because when you said this to me I thought you were crazy.” A trail camera put in place as part the Griffith Park Connectivity Study to monitor passing wildlife had photographed a cougar that had crossed the 101 freeway by the Hollywood Bowl and gone into Griffith Park, home of the Hollywood sign. The game was on.

“I immediately call my editor Kathy Moran to tell her I’m going to go out and figure out how we can get a photograph of this cougar … with the Hollywood sign,” says Winter.

Above, Steve Winter on location in the hills of Los Angeles

Winter then faced the challenge of setting up—and securing—camera traps that he would use in this attempt. Despite being heavily chained and locked, three out of the four cameras he set up were stolen. The camera used to capture this photo was the only one that survived. “It was on an animal trail, not a human trail,” Winter says, “mostly all I’ve seen (on that trail) are prints of other animals. I see prints of cougar food.”

Fourteen months later, a photograph with the cougar and the sign was achieved. You might think that would be the end of it.

“Everybody was very happy, but I wasn’t happy. We are all our own worst critic or best critic. I went back to L.A. and changed the lighting so a shadow would appear around the cat’s neck so you would not see the collar [as much]. People were just happy that I got it, but then it’s like, we can do better. So I wanted to do better, and I knew I could.”

So Winter tried again, and this time got the lighting just right. When asked how it felt to have succeeded, he had this to say:

“This story was extremely difficult. The mountain lion is a very secretive animal. It has to be in order to show up in downtown L.A. and have no one ever see it but the scientists, and so it was a great relief when you have a picture like this that can become iconic. You talk about urban wildlife and, boom, there’s the picture.”

Steve Winter’s work with cougars has not stopped with photography. He is partnering with the Annenberg Foundation later this year for a fundraiser to help build a wildlife tunnel across the 101 freeway in Los Angeles.

Editor’s Note: The trail camera that recorded the initial sighting of the cougar was put in place as part of the Griffith Park Connectivity Study, not by the National Park Service. This post has been updated to fix the error.

There are 75 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dean Gebroe
    July 18, 2016

    I am a veterinarian in Culver City, grew up in the Hollywood Hills and would Love to display this picture with your permission in my waiting room for both artistic value and to bring attention to the need for increase genetic diversity to this beautiful indigenous animal. Although expensive I believe the two freeway crossing proposed offers a solution. I would like to be part of that process. Thank you for your consideration.

  2. yawer
    May 26, 2014

    every photographer should have courage like steve winter

  3. kathryn louyse
    April 18, 2014

    Sadly, this magnificent creature has been poisoned because of our usage of rodenticide and several other cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains have already perished…

  4. Rhonda Mc Camey
    April 18, 2014

    Thanks to all who’s helping p22 in it’s recovery. My blessing to all of them.

  5. Robert S Taylor
    April 14, 2014

    In terms of simple geography, Griffith Park IS most certainly in downtown LA. A glance at any regional map show this. But it is certainly no concrete jungle. This great city has a history of people who cared enough about open space preservation to set aside and protect some great big natural areas as parks for all to use. Wealthy philanthropist Griffith J. Griffith gave the park that bears his name to the people of LA as a Christmas present in 1898 in order to make the city in which he had prospered a happier, cleaner, better place. The reason why P-22 is so unusual is that Griffith Park is in yher middle of LA, completely surrounded by miles and miles of very urban land use. It was very hard for a young puma to get there from anywhere else pumas can live. Many others have died on the freeways and streets of LA as they tried to disperse and find a place of their own.

    After Griffith’s parkland gift, it took another 80 years of concerted effort by many dedicated people to create the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. State and Federal agencies now preserve and protect natural values in larger and more contiguous areas of open space to the west where P-22 was born and to which he may someday return.

    Great cities deserve great parks. I, for one, feel some civic pride about the fact that LA has viable habitat for something as big and wild as a puma so close to downtown. Pumas have been hunted out of the entire eastern USA. No big east coast (or Midwest) city has anything like this. I love LA!

    P-22’s story is so engaging that I wrote a theme song for him and the real life reality TV show that is his life. View it here:

    Go Puma 22!

  6. julie Scharfe
    February 24, 2014

    I admire the magnificence of this regal wild animal. Look at the muscles flexing all the way thru toward the spine just from him picking up his R. foot. Beautiful speciman. I love you P22. One of your loving admirers.

  7. Raoul
    February 24, 2014

    Goldy Kent — not an Iberian Lynx…those only live on the Iberian Peninsula. It’s a good ol’ bobcat:

  8. Those Who Squirm
    December 18, 2013

    Most impressive picture. However, it needs to be said that there’s no way you can say Griffith Park is in downtown L.A.; even calling it “urban” is highly doubtful. Although it is contained within the city limits, GP is its own world. You could get lost and die in there if you tried to cross it at night–if the cougar doesn’t get you first!

  9. Ivaylo Nachev
    December 16, 2013

    She is great…))

  10. Ashraf
    December 11, 2013

    Appreciable work by team and well done. I need to ask how to know about behavior and how to make these animals, specially cats user friendly.

  11. Sivakumar Arumugam
    December 10, 2013

    Hi what is the Camera Trap you have used here?

  12. Tarun Suri
    December 10, 2013

    Awesome click.

  13. mohamed
    December 9, 2013

    i want to work in ( National Geograpic

  14. Kym Illman
    December 9, 2013

    I share your excitement. I bet you’re still revelling.

  15. Michael Geoghegan
    December 8, 2013

    Some years ago one cougar was corned in downtown Victoria BC Canada, in the underground parkade for The Empress Hotel which is right near the legislature.

  16. Krish Pillai
    December 8, 2013

    Amazing picture! Its unearthly to see something so majestic adapt to the craziness we have created around it. I just hope it doesn’t try to cross the expressway and get hit. Thanks Steven!

  17. Vilma
    December 8, 2013

    Me encantó la foto, gracias desde La Plata, Argentina

  18. irene
    December 8, 2013

    I so didn’t see the collar when I first saw the picture. Not until I read about it in the article did I notice it. Amazing lighting!

  19. Goldy Kent
    December 8, 2013

    Is this an Iberian Lynx at 1.30 in the video?
    If so, being so rare in downtown it’s awesome.

  20. Greg
    December 8, 2013

    This cat is in those hills and mountains for sure. Nice picture even if people say It is “touched up”. Hello ! It is professional photo. I’m sure original would be plain and boring and not worthy of a magazine or article. Black and white or infrared would be better to you? Boring!!! Look at the videos of this cat on the trails. Also those hills and mountains are huge. Years ago there was a cat in the hills of Monterey Park. P22 is not the only one in Los Angeles. As another poster has said, there are others not tagged. Very elusive animals. There is coyotes foxes and Deer running the hills of Whittier why is it so hard for people to believe the cat is in the Griffith Park area. I agree with it not being Downtown. It’s Hollywood, Glendale, Burbank really. I hope it mates with one of your cats

  21. Mary Ellen
    December 8, 2013

    Thank you for this stunning photograph Mr. Winter. I’m a resident in these hills and have seen evidence of our resident puma on the hiking trails but have never sighted her. I’m wondering if it’s possible to get photographs of her with the Griffith Park Observatory or one of the jetliner views of the city from the Griffith Park hillside? Having seen this, one take is not enough. Please, after all it is Hollywood!

  22. Brian
    December 5, 2013

    This is real…. This is what the guys does for a living. He is a very well known and realected photographer of big cats. Get a clue you skeptics.

  23. Steven
    December 4, 2013

    A four second exposure at high ISO will expose the hill and sign sufficiently to make it appear the sign is lit up. The strobe flashes for a fraction of a second illuminating the lion mid stride. The lion did move during the exposure but this was not captured by the camera because it was completely dark except when the strobe flashed.

  24. Leslie Fisher
    December 4, 2013

    Who really CARES if this was photoshopped or not! It’s a GREAT shot, captured by a very talented and patient photographer.

  25. NRK
    November 23, 2013

    Just Enjoy the TALE guys..
    Thank u Mr.Winter & Alexa

  26. Heath Holden
    November 23, 2013

    So many skeptics… It’s totally possible for the Hollywood sign to be exposed like this, 4 seconds at a high ISO will get the job done easy. You can even see the glow of the light pollution in surrounding the hill.

  27. Mary
    November 22, 2013

    For all who suspect the photo was Photoshopped – despite the repeated explanations: There’s a reason that Mr. Winter is a photographer for National Geographic – and you aren’t. He has the expertise.

  28. Emily
    November 21, 2013

    WOW. Just wow. This article is so amazing. It was so cool. How did you find a cougar in urban L.A.? I mean seriously, I would have given up on the project just because I couldn’t find that one cougar. This article is amazing. Steve Winter is a photography genius!

  29. Fred Dizon
    November 21, 2013

    There is way too much dodging on the Hollywood sign. I’m surprised that Nat Geo is okay with that.

  30. Kathleen L.
    November 21, 2013

    I agree with everybody else who has pointed out, the sign is not lit at night. I live right in the neighborhood, and I see it all the time. I have no trouble believing that a mountain lion could be living up there, but it does look like some retouching had to have been done.

  31. eli
    November 21, 2013

    as crazy as it may sound. this very mountain lion crossed my deck twice. 2nd time watched by two people. i live on the edge of the park just below the sign.

  32. Martin
    November 21, 2013

    Three cameras stolen! by those other animals in the park! who smoke/litter/graffiti

  33. James
    November 20, 2013

    Hollywood sign isn’t lit at night . It’s not possible to have it lit with 4 seconds exposure with city light and fog .

  34. Glen
    November 19, 2013

    We have them 3 miles away in the hills behind Burbank too. Them and the coyotes are coming down into Burbank and eating peoples pets even though there are a ton of deer in the hills.

  35. Jason Klassi
    November 19, 2013

    I had an encounter with a likely cousin of P22 just above the Palisades Highlands community near the juncture to Skull Rock on Santa Ynez trail. I’ve been hiking and biking these Santa Monica Mountain trails for years. It was late afternoon on a sunny January day. The sun was glistening off the Pacific Ocean. Out of the calmness, this magnificent creature came walking out of a side trail about 20 feet in front of me. He sensed my presence, turned around and stopped. We stared at each other for almost a minute. I tried to pull my camera out but then he sauntered off down another trail. It was clearly a mountain lion with a long tail, brownish coat, weighing at least 100 lbs with the unmistakable face, ears and eyes that stared right at me. I have since found paw prints, scat and trail scratching all indicative of the mountain lion. It looked very similar to P22 but I did not notice a tracking collar. It was a rare and special encounter.

  36. zoso1
    November 19, 2013

    i hate that he keeps referring to Griffith Park as ‘downtown LA’. that gives the image of a lion walking down Broadway, dodging cabs. Griffith is a pretty big park, with lots of remote, forested, hard to access areas. still, it is LA, and it’s pretty crazy to see such a big beautiful kitty living so close to the city. amazing work and photo!

  37. David Johnston
    November 18, 2013

    I guess this is why they have signs up that say no hiking after dark

  38. Cliff
    November 18, 2013

    Fifty years ago seeing a lion in the park was not common but not so rare people made a big fuss. Rumors of a black bear were never verified as I recall.

  39. Miguel V.
    November 17, 2013

    Having grown up in the Griffith Park area I am not at all surprised at what lives in the more inaccessible areas of the Park.
    Now that I have lived in a more rural part of California I have learned in the wild if there is food, Deer, there is something to eat the food, Mountain Lions. Normal and Natural.

  40. Art Eck
    November 17, 2013

    Please note the correct name of the NPS unit is “Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.”

    • Alexa Keefe
      November 18, 2013

      @Art Eck,

      Thank you for your comment. I have made the correction.


  41. linda glaser
    November 17, 2013

    why does this couger have a collar on?

  42. John
    November 16, 2013

    Thanks for your reply, Alexa. Wow. I guess I should apologize for the accusation and say nicely done!!

  43. cary
    November 16, 2013

    One of these magnificent cats crossed right in front of my car as I was driving up the Oregon coast on highway 1 in august. It was mid-day & my girlfriend & I had just been hiking in the redwoods and were proceeding up the coast. Two does crossed in front of us and 5-minutes later these enormous cat comes loping across the 1. Not five minutes later did we pass a golf course. I wonder if the golfers know that when they’re chasing their ball in the rough, these cats are sizing them up!

  44. Ahmed salman
    November 16, 2013


  45. Jay C
    November 16, 2013

    ( @John,

    Thank you for your comment. The light on the Hollywood sign is the result of a four-second exposure and fog reflecting the lights of the city.

    Alexa ) Really?? I have photographed the sign many many times with 1 to 3 minutes exposure and could not get it lit the way it is the photo with the lion! Also I see no sign of fog near the sign the sky looks clear to me . give me a break! this photo has been manipulated .

  46. Jay C
    November 16, 2013

    The photo of the mountain lion and the Hollywood sign maybe photoshopped . The sign isn’t lit at night . Anyone agree?

  47. Gina Gypsy
    November 16, 2013

    Absolutely incredible photo I love it !!!! My husband and I grew up in Hollywood and find it so fascinating to see it with our own eyes. Thank you so much for capturing this sight really unbelievable ;’❥↜

  48. Monica Bey
    November 15, 2013

    The collar seems ridiculously large, which in turn means, I would guess, annoying and irritating to the cat? Can’t less obstructive collars be used?

  49. Chi Tran (Easternsailor)
    November 15, 2013

    It came to hunt the live stocks and even man in the the old days!

  50. Eric Beteille
    November 15, 2013

    If the Hollywood sign was exposed for 4 seconds, how is it the cougar’s not a blur?

    • Alexa Keefe
      November 15, 2013

      @Eric Beteille,

      Good question! The combination of the strobe and dark background eliminates any ghosting, or blur.

  51. Amy Rodrigues – Mountain Lion Foundation biologist
    November 15, 2013

    Mountain lions are surprisingly good at surviving on the urban edge, moving around mostly unnoticed and staying out of trouble. But I never expected to see a trail camera snap a photo of a lion with the Hollywood sign! Nice work, Mr. Winter!

    This Griffith Park lion highlights the continued need for connectivity. We must connect and protect our remaining wildlands if we want to give mountain lions a future in Southern California. Roadkill and inbreeding are major threats. To learn more about these issues in the Santa Monica Mountains and what we can do to help save America’s lion, visit the Mountain Lion Foundation’s website:

  52. Dora Herrera
    November 15, 2013

    As a Friend of Griffith Park I am happy to see the efforts of those that care about the park and its inhabitants, both human and wildlife, getting well deserved kudos. Miguel Ordeñana, Erin Boydston, Dan Cooper – you guys rock! I wish there was a way to put a chip on the puma rather than that huge collar. Hopefully soon.

  53. John
    November 15, 2013

    The Hollywood sign is not lit at night, so shouldn’t that manipulation of the image be mentioned?

    • Alexa Keefe
      November 15, 2013


      Thank you for your comment. The light on the Hollywood sign is the result of a four-second exposure and fog reflecting the lights of the city.


  54. Kathryn Louyse
    November 15, 2013

    If it hadn’t been for cameras placed by The Griffith Park Connectivity Study, this cougar may have gone unnoticed for quite some time… but once it was caught on film, there was a move to tag and track its movement in the Park. In fact, the first collar stopped working, so P22 was recaptured, retagged and re-released.

    We’re lucky this cat is here, and we’re doubly lucky it survived the trek from the Santa Monica Mountains as there are two major freeways separating Griffith Park from the SM range to the west… And because the Park is well-stocked with mule deer, this cat is extremely well fed, and very healthy.

    But, the really important part was not in your story… it was local biologists who first discovered the existence of this animal in this Park, and they in turn alerted the NPS who tagged the cat. Further, it’s activists who’ve brought attention to the value of Griffith Park, not just for people, but for large animals like P22 who use this Park as a cross-through to other areas. And, this is why areas like Griffith Park must be preserved.

  55. Robin
    November 15, 2013

    @Rebecca – the scientist in the article is studying them. That’s a tracking collar.

  56. Ruth
    November 15, 2013

    Rebecca, that’s a tracking collar.

  57. S. Paris
    November 15, 2013

    The collars are used to track wild cats. This cougar is wild, but has been captured and identified by the research team.

  58. Koushik Biswas
    November 15, 2013

    Job for me this chanel

  59. Sara MacDonald
    November 15, 2013

    Collars are used on wildlife to track them and monitor their movements.

  60. Chi Tran
    November 14, 2013

    Oh__oh! It just like the old days and here we go again!

    November 14, 2013

    So good! Great work Steve, as usual! You should see my Tasmanian Devil camera trap work here! http://www.heathholdenphotography.com/life-of-a-tasmanian-devil/ Keep it up!

  62. Wayne Wiechart
    November 14, 2013

    Welcome to Jungle! Nice get!

  63. Miguel
    November 14, 2013

    Hi Alexa. I have a minor correction to add to your blog post. I am the biologist who discovered the first image of P22. The camera traps were put in place as part of the Griffith Park Connectivity Study, which is not an NPS project. The Griffith Park Connectivity Study is a collaboration between myself and two other biologists (Dan Cooper, CEM, Inc. and Erin Boydston, USGS). The Friends of Griffith Park and the L.A. Zoo are the major supporters of the study. The point of the camera trap project is to identify possible corridors that may link wide-ranging mammals (bobcats, pumas, mule deer) to nearby open spaces. The image of P22 was very exciting because it was unexpected and proved that Griffith Park was a healthier and better not disconnected from larger open spaces nearby. We alerted Jeff Sikich and Seth Riley as soon as we discovered the image and Jeff successfully captured and collared P22 a few weeks later. P22’s apparent good-health and long stay in the park are also great indicators of the health of the Griffith Park ecosystem. This correction is important because people need to know this is not a park that is adequately-funded by the city or National Park Service or under the care of a team of biologists. Griffith Park is under the jurisdiction of the city of Los Angeles, which does not even have a biologist on staff. We came together because we identified a conservation and research need that wasn’t being met. We are happy that our camera trap results have brought the park and urban mountain lions more attention. Thank you for recognizing the significance of P22’s story and we are lucky to have him as an ambassador for the park and urban mountain lion conservation. Please let me know if you have any questions.


    Miguel Ordeñana (Griffith Park Connectivity Study)

    • Alexa Keefe
      November 15, 2013


      Thank you very much for your comment and clarification. I have made the correction in the post.


  64. Re
    November 14, 2013

    It is a wild Mountain Lion. The collar is a radio collar placed by trained wildlife scientists and personnel to track the animal without disturbing it.

  65. Patrick
    November 14, 2013

    Most likely it was tagged by animal control or some random biologist in the LA area.

  66. Denise
    November 14, 2013

    What a great shot! I used to play near the Hollywood sign when I was young! I had no idea the big cats were in that area! Especially Griffith Park.

  67. Darlene
    November 14, 2013

    The collar is so that scientists can monitor the animal and record its behaviors/whereabouts. It is a wild cat.

  68. Mike Pavey
    November 14, 2013

    Beautifull Animal

  69. Abhinav Suman
    November 14, 2013

    You know the thing that makes it look crazy, you guys went back to get shadows around the cat’s neck. Simply amazing!!

  70. Mary Longmuir
    November 14, 2013

    Simply Amazing !

  71. Rebecca
    November 14, 2013

    Did anyone find out why the mountain lion had a collar? The article sounds like it was wild..

Add Your Comments

All fields required.