There are things you expect to see on a trip to San Francisco: you might root for the Giants at Oracle Park, you might browse the stacks at historic City Lights Books, you might climb so many of the city’s historic staircases that you’ve done your cardio for the whole year. What you wouldn’t expect is to stroll through SF’s massive Golden Gate Park and catch a glimpse of… a herd of bison? But that’s exactly what people have seen since 1891: giants of the Great Plains wandering happily through an urban park on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
San Francisco’s urban bison herd has overcome the species’ near-extinction, a 1980’s brush with disease, and a whole bunch of escape attempts, to become an unlikely and beloved institution.
Today, bison are the national mammal of the United States, but they weren’t always so admired or protected. When English colonists first arrived in North America in the 1600s, it’s estimated that as many as 75 million bison roamed the continent. In the 1800s, though, bison were aggressively hunted for trophies, hides, and meat, and as part of a military campaign by the U.S. government to dispossess Native Americans of their land. By the end of the century, there were likely fewer than 1,000 bison left in the wild. It was under this threat of extinction that Golden Gate Park Superintendent John McClaren decided to bring bison to San Francisco.
The park’s first bison arrived in 1891. The bull, or male bison, was named Ben Harrison, after the president at the time. When Ben Harrison (the bison) arrived in the park, no one was sure what would happen. After all, the bison is the largest land mammal in North America. It can weigh a ton (that’s over 2,000 pounds) and run 35 miles per hour. Would Ben charge out of his crate and immediately go on a rampage? What ended up happening, according to an article in the San Francisco Examiner, is that Ben Harrison stepped into the paddock and “calmly took a drink, like a good American.”
Soon a female bison arrived, and next year the first bison calf was born in Golden Gate Park. Thus began a program to repopulate the bison population; more than 100 bison calves have been born in the park since, which, along with similar programs, helped save bison from extinction.
Originally, the bison shared their land with other animals. According to San Francisco Recreation and Parks Historian Christopher Pollock, the original paddock was shared with “Mr. and Mrs. Jim,” a pair of deer. Pollock points to an 1894 park guide that noted “five buffalo (‘the parents and three children’), reindeer, and two emus lived in the ‘buffalo pasture.’”
For many decades, the Golden Gate Park bison were named after public figures: there was Grover Cleveland the bison and Bill McKinley the bison. Later, the bison were named after characters from Shakespeare and after members of the British royal family; after that, they were given Native American names.
Bison in the wild eat mostly grasses, using their shaggy heads to clear the snow in the winter. The bison in the park had everything they needed, but this didn’t keep them from breaking out semi-frequently in the 1990s. One San Francisco Chronicle headline called the bison “chaotic escape artists.” Twenty-five escaped on July 23, 1924, when a large male named Portland charged the fence. The herd scattered and wandered around the city for almost an entire day, trampling on yards and eating flowers. One woman called the police to report a herd of elephants had broken loose. According to a contemporaneous article in the Scranton, Pennsylvania Time-Tribune, “It was a great night for the children.” Don’t expect the same kind of excitement today – there hasn’t been a reported escape attempt since 1995.
The bison herd struggled in the early 1980s, when some elderly bison contracted tuberculosis. In 1984, the herd was entirely replaced with twelve new bison from then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, who received them as a birthday gift from Richard Blum, an investor in Ringling Brothers Circus. The sick buffalo were moved to a new paddock about 12 miles south, at the San Bruno County Jail. There they were treated well, had a bunch of new babies, and became something of jail mascots.
Since adult male bison can be aggressive, the herd at Golden Gate Park has been all-female since the 1990s. There are currently ten bison in the park, cared for by staff from the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens. According to one zoo animal care staff member, “Herd management of the bison in the park is a little more hands off than how animals in a zoo setting are traditionally managed.”
The bison spend most of their day grazing, walking around, or resting. “A typical day for the bison consists of waking up to the famous San Francisco fog,” the zoo staff member said. When it’s time for a meal, the zookeepers ring a cowbell – they’ve trained the bison to come from all across their 11-acre paddock to eat when the bell rings. Zoo staff provide orchard hay and a specially formulated pellet grain to supplement the bison’s diets of natural grasses and weeds that grow in the paddock. “For special occasions,” the staff member says, “they may be offered seasonal produce like pumpkins around Halloween!”
Visitors to Golden Gate Park might catch a glimpse of the bison wallowing. No, this doesn’t mean the bison are sitting around feeling bad for themselves – when applied to bison, this word refers to rolling in mud or dust, an activity that repels insects and helps regulate body temperature.
The most surprising thing about these bison, on top of their presence here, is – according to the San Francisco Zoo animal keeper, “That our bison LOVE Christmas trees!” Tree lots from around the city donate trees left over after the holidays, which provides the bison extra enrichment. If you visit during the winter, the zookeeper says, “you might see them chewing on the leaves, scratching their chins or even tossing them in the air between their horns!”
Today, because of the Golden Gate Park bison herd and other herds like it, healthy bison live in many National Parks. But nowhere is glimpsing a group of these ferocious national mammals quite so shocking and delighting. “Getting the chance to work with a national animal, an iconic and successful conservation story is a real joy,” said the zookeeper.