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The photographer who captured the famous L.A. mountain lion on P-22's legacy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We are saddened to report the death of a beloved Los Angeles celebrity, a noted advocate for urban wildlife protection. His name was P-22. The P is for puma. He was euthanized this weekend after suffering injuries following a probable collision with a motor vehicle. And, yes, P-22 was a mountain lion who became an icon after he was photographed in National Geographic in 2013. The idea came from photographer Steve Winter.

STEVE WINTER: You know, the way to really illustrate urban wildlife would be if we could get a picture of a mountain lion under the Hollywood sign. And Jeff looked at me like I was crazy.

SUMMERS: Crazy to National Park Service biologist Jeff Sikich - but Steve Winter remembered hearing about mountain lions in LA when he was growing up. Then, eight months later...

WINTER: I'm in the dentist chair in New York City, and I get a text in all caps going, call me now. And I did call him, and he said, you're not going to believe this. We just got a trail cam picture of a mountain lion in Griffith Park.

SUMMERS: Fifteen months after that, P-22 was on the prowl at night when he walked between Winter's remote camera and the Hollywood sign. Today, I asked Steve Winter how he's doing since he heard the news.

WINTER: Well, we knew that he was getting to be an old cat at 12 years old. But you're never prepared, are we? I became very close to this cat, and it was very difficult weekend.

SUMMERS: And this image - it isn't just important because it is this magnificent photo. It also played an incredibly big role in making P-22 famous and also for wildlife preservation. Can you talk about the impact that this image has had?

WINTER: Well, I was blown away when the Hollywood cougar was published. There was a groundswell of support. You know, Griffith Park has 24 million visitors every year. They come there at the end of the day or the weekend to be in nature, to get away from the noise. So this photo inspired Angelenos and people all around the world. I think it gave them hope because a lot of people don't know LA is one of the most biodiverse cities in North America and the world. So it really inspired people.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you, what do you hope that P-22's legacy will be?

WINTER: You know, it's my hope that California's endangered mountain lions are going to bounce back now and thrive. The groundbreaking was last Earth Day, April 22, on the world's largest wildlife overpass, over the 101, 10 lanes of freeway, in a location where a lot of cats try to cross. I think we owe it to P-22 and all California wildlife to build more crossings and to connect more habitat. That's what is needed. I mean, then now they're teaching wildlife and P-22 in the greater LA school district. And every October 22 is P-22 Day in LA. His legacy will live for years, if not decades, to come. No one's going to forget P-22. It just shows the power of photography that this one image could inspire so many around the world.

SUMMERS: That was Steve Winter. He's a contributing photographer for National Geographic. Steve, thank you so much for being here.

WINTER: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.