SBIFF Movie Spotlight

2017 SBIFF Movie Spotlight: "The Cat That Changed America"

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - In just the last two or three years, reports about wildlife like bears, coyotes and mountain lions making it down to neighborhoods in Santa Barbara County seem to be more frequent. Sometimes, we catch a glimpse, a quick photo, of these animals, but many times they elude us and disappear in a blink of an eye. But what if I told you that there's story of a mountain lion that has been living in the Los Angeles/Hollywood urban area for years, and there's photographic proof?

I remember the day I was sent out to shoot video for news of a mountain lion trapped in the backyard of a Santa Barbara family's home. It was the first time I had seen a mountain lion up close and always wondered what a creature like that would be doing in such an urban area. "The Cat That Changed America," gives voice to not just all types of wildlife, that have increasingly become intertwined with our urban lives, but documents the journey of America's most famous mountain lion, P22.

Watch this film and you will leave with a better understanding of mountain lions, and whether they really pose a danger to humans or not. Be prepared to learn new things and dispel old notions. This is a film that will educate and entertain. So grab that popcorn and soda pop, and take the whole family to watch "The Cat That Changed America." Your kids will love it!


P22 is the most famous mountain lion in the world, living in Griffith Park, right in the heart of Los Angeles. He was born in the Santa Monica Mountains, and crossed two of the busiest freeways in America, the 405 and the 101, before he settled in the park. Yet P22 is now trapped, hemmed in by freeways and the urban sprawl, with little chance of ever finding a mate.

Now a new documentary film will explore his plight and the development of the wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon in Los Angeles. Angelenos and local conservationists alike are battling to help P22 and the mountain lions of the Santa Monica Mountains, as they try to raise $50 million dollars, while facing resistance from public ignorance and the spread of rodenticide.

Q&A with Filmmaker Tony Lee

What motivated you to want to tell this story? And how did you first learn about P22?

I was looking for compelling wildlife stories in California, particularly around LA and Santa Barbara, as I have always been interested in urban animals. I knew of P22 because I had seen the famous National Geographic photo of him in front of the Hollywood sign, but I was unaware of his incredible journey to get to Griffith Park. It was only after talking to wildlife biologist Miguel Ordenana, who captured the first photo of P22 in one of his camera traps, did I uncover the extent of his amazing story.

How is this story different than other nature-type documentaries?

The film is linked to an existing campaign and conservation movement – that of building a wildlife crossing over ten lanes at Liberty Canyon over the 101 freeway. It’s films like this one which motivated be to become a wildlife filmmaker in the first place; films that make a difference, educate, entertain and inspire people at the same time.

What were the challenges you and your crew faced making this film?

Having enough photographs and footage of P22 to tell his story was a big challenge to fill a 1 hour documentary film. Luckily I was able to call upon the generosity of Miguel and Mathew Whitmire, another biologist from the Griffith Park Connectivity Study, and also that of the National Park Service who gave me access to all their photos of P22 on file.

Did you ever get a chance to meet P22 face-to-face?

Unfortunately not, P22 is incredibly shy and elusive. Mountain lions are called ghost cats for good reason, as they are mainly nocturnal and secretive and can blend in with their surroundings. Miguel has footage of P22 in front of one of his camera traps, and 30 seconds later a jogger runs past and P22 is nowhere to be seen. He avoids people and confrontations, which is part of the reason he has been able to make Griffith Park his home.

What was something you learned about P22, and the process of filmmaking, that you didn’t know before you started?

I didn’t know that Mountain lions needed such large territories. A male mountain lion typically needs about 200 square miles, otherwise they will fight other males to the death over territory. That’s the reason why young males like P22 have to disperse and find territories of their own. Unfortunately many are killed on our freeways, which is a somber and poignant part of the film’s story.

What was your most memorable moment making this film?

I enjoyed filming around P22’s territory – the Hollywood Sign, outside Griffith Park and the Observatory. It’s still incredible to think that one of America’s largest carnivores can survive in such an urban setting and in the second largest city in the United States.

What does it mean to you to have your film screen at the 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival?

I can’t think of a better venue to have a World Premiere than in Santa Barbara. It’s a city where the residents care about wildlife. Many travel the 101 freeway every day between Santa Barbara and LA, and will pass through P22’s birthplace and the proposed site of the wildlife crossing. Watching this film will give them pause for thought how crucial it is for animals to have connecting habitat in order for them to survive. The number 1 problem facing wildlife today is loss of habitat.

The film does a great job raising awareness of just how important it is to preserve nature and wildlife, but if there’s one or two things you really want audiences to leave with after watching this film, what would that be?

Think about our wildlife neighbors and be considerate; don’t use rat poisons as it will travel up the food chain and affect all wildlife, including mountain lions. P22 had a lucky escape as he was diagnosed early after ingesting too many coyotes and raccoons, which had eaten poisoned rats. I truly believe charity begins at home, which is why people should watch this film and either donate towards the wildlife crossing or learn about the devastating effects of rodenticides from campaign groups like Poison Free Malibu and the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

You can find out more about my film by logging onto the website and donate to the wildlife crossing by visiting


  1. Friday, February 10 - 4:20 p.m. - Fiesta 5 Theater, Screen 2
  2. Saturday, February 11 - 1 p.m. - Fiesta 5 Theater, Screen 1


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