Photo Credit: National Park Service
It was drizzling and gray, late fall, on the old Rickards Movie Ranch, high in the Santa Monica Mountains, in rural, red-state western Malibu. Bleached skulls were tacked to the outside wall of a stage-set saloon; rusting wagon wheels leaned at angles. A hand-painted sign announced a “Public Hanging, 5PM.” Inside the saloon—the shooting location of TV Westerns and Gravy Train commercials and Playboy spreads—a secret meeting was under way.
“This cat is dangerous,” a woman said, her voice carrying tremulously over the saloon door. “He should not be part of the gene pool.”
“Absolutely! Get him out of here,” a man said.
“For years and years, I’ve lived like this,” another woman said. “Now I’m afraid.”
The saloon doors swung open, and Wendell Phillips beckoned me inside, where nine people sat around a large table, in a room crowded with memorabilia of the Old West: hides, brands, a full-mount coyote. Phillips, who is sixty-seven, with a bald head and a sizable mustache, is a former swat-team member and now has a law practice defending police officers. He and his wife, Mary Dee Rickards, were leading the meeting, for the victims of a mountain lion known as P-45.
P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male with golden eyes and mittlike paws who dominates the western swath of the Santa Monicas. After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little—a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.