The Phoenix Fund: A Legacy of Protecting Our Mountain Lions

Mollie Hugs Phe Mollie and Phoenix

As many of you know, our founding animal at the Nature of Wildworks was Phoenix the mountain lion. During his long life of 20 years, this large but gentle predator served as an ambassador for his counterparts in the wild - first at the Los Angeles Zoo and then here at Wildworks in the Santa Monica Mountains.

What many of you may not know is that back in 2003 a unique opportunity came his way through a creative young biologist named Eric York.

Working with the National Park Service (NPS), Eric was studying the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains. In nature, these large predators avoid people and are rarely seen. However, individual cats that are raised by people can be trained to accept the noise and activity of human environments. Our Wildworks mountain lion Phoenix had spent his early life at the zoo making television appearances and participating in educational programs with thousands of people in attendance. Upon learning that our mountain lion had been desensitized to all kinds of noise and activity, Eric had an idea. Why not recruit Phoenix for a personal appearance at the National Park Service Headquarters in Thousand Oaks? This would give people the rare opportunity of seeing a mountain lion up close. They then might form a connection with the species and their plight and be inspired to get involved with the NPS mountain lion project.

Eric and Phoenix at NPS Headquarters in Thousand Oaks.  Eric York's life ended suddenly in 2007 when he fell ill while studying mountain lions in the Grand Canyon.

Eric and Phoenix at NPS Headquarters in Thousand Oaks.
Eric York's life ended suddenly in 2007 when he fell ill while studying mountain lions in the Grand Canyon.

Needless to say, Phoenix was a big hit and that first appearance opened the door to a number of future programs presented in cooperation with the other wildlife organizations and the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. At that time, Wildworks was also home to mountain lions Sage, Envy and Pirate. These individuals played a part in the study also when Eric visited our site in Topanga to test scent lures used by biologists to attract lions in the mountains to specific areas so they can be monitored. Our resident cats, who enjoyed rolling and salivating on the stinky scents, began to associate Eric with this fun activity and would meow a greeting as his truck rolled up the driveway.

Since that time the tracking project has continued and thrived. NPS biologists have now made information on the status of our local lions available to the public and we learn more and more about their precarious position in our area. It's remarkable that so many people are surprised to hear that mountains lions still live in the chaparral-covered mountains so close to urban Los Angeles.

These large cats are known by many names. Commonly referred to as mountain lions, cougars, pumas and panthers, the individuals that are being studied in the Santa Monica Mountains are called pumas and they are numbered P1, P2, etc (P standing for Puma). There are currently 10 to 15 lions living west of the 101 freeway and most recently the project has enjoyed some new popularity through the discovery of P22 who was found to be occupying his own very small territory in Griffith Park!

However, the long term prognosis for the lions living in the Santa Monica Mountains is less than perfect. There is simply not enough genetic diversity within this small population to sustain it in a healthy manner.

©Steve Winter

P22 near the Hollywood Sign ©Steve Winter


So far, National Park Service biologists have monitored more than 30 mountain lions with GPS radio-collars, enabling them to learn a lot about the animals' ecology and behavior. The biggest threat to the lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is the loss and fragmentation of habitat by roads and urban development.

A single male mountain lion uses about 100,000 acres of natural habitat, about the size of the entire Santa Monica Mountains! If mountain lions cannot move between natural areas, their population will not survive.

ecological-corridorMonitoring the movements of mountain lions has helped scientists to identify natural wildlife corridors, areas that link the Santa Monica Mountains to other large natural areas and allow the lions to move between them. The ultimate goal and possibly the only thing that will save
the small population of lions living west of the 101 freeway is to create a wildlife corridor to assist these shy large cats (and other species) in crossing the 101 freeway. 3333In the ten years that scientists have maintained records, only one lion has survived the highway crossing. Park wildlife scientists recommend the creation of a wildlife corridor to assist mountain lions, bobcats and other species in crossing Route 101 at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills.

DSC_0072-aPhoenix's Legacy

When Phoenix passed away in May of 2009, The Phoenix Fund was set up in his memory to assist with the care of our resident mountain lion ambassadors, Envy, Pirate and Cliff. The Fund has been essential in our efforts to care for Envy and Pirate during their recent and on-going health challenges.

While our resident lions still need your support, we also recognize the precarious state of the wild mountain lion population and the challenges facing these top predators. So, with your help and the Phoenix Fund, we can all become a part of the bigger picture.

For 2014, 10% of all contributions made to the Phoenix Fund will be used to support the mountain lion project in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Please, join us as we look forward to realizing the goal of creating a wildlife corridor to ensure the longevity of our local lions. Doing our part to conserve the large predators of the Santa Monica Mountains is a key test for all of us who call southern California home.

_TSM1010-4x6Where to Next?

Donate to the Phoenix Fund here: Donate When given the option simply add a comment about the purpose of your generous donation.

Also, share this story with all your friends. Change is only possible after knowledge is gained.

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