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Bison in Golden Gate Park

by Susan Saperstein

Although often referred to as buffalo, it is American bison that live in Golden Gate Park. The name buffalo is thought to be derived from what the French fur hunters called these animals in the 1600s, but they are related to bison and not buffalo.

Bison were brought to the park in 1890 as a living memorial to the old Wild West days when thousands roamed the western plains of North America. But by 1890, the only existing wild bison herd was at Yellowstone Park - population of 400. A few years later, Congress passed a bill to ban bison hunting in Yellowstone. The first two of the San Francisco herd were named Sarah Bernhardt - after the famous stage actress who had appeared in San Francisco at the Baldwin Theater a few years before - and Ben Harrison, after the President of the United States.

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The paddock once also had elk, sheep, deer, and goats as shown in this photo from 1944.

The first bison home in the park was the stables located where Kezar Stadium is now. A year later they were moved to the area east of the present day Academy of Sciences. This location was next to Deer Glen where deer, elk, geese, and an assortment of other animals grazed.

The current area, created in 1899, is located off John F. Kennedy Drive, just east of 41st Avenue. The Recreation and Parks Department maintains the meadow they live in, and the San Francisco Zoo provides care for the animals.

When Buffalo Bill Cody brought his Wild West Show to Ocean Beach in 1902, Park Commissioner Reuben Lloyd decided to negotiate with Cody to bring new blood lines into the San Francisco herd. The Golden Gate Park herd and the Cody herd each had a troublesome bull that the two wanted to unload, so they swapped animals. Cody’s bull was put in the bison paddock, promptly jumped the fence and ran toward the Affiliated Colleges (now University of California Medical School located on Parnassus Avenue).

This bull terrorized the other animals and chased them around the paddock, which delighted spectators. This was far more entertaining than normal bison activity. (Bison graze most of the day, and lie down within 15 minutes of eating. They are in the standing position for most of the day.) Bison are herbivores, and can weigh up to 3,000 pounds.

The herd has had bouts of various diseases over the years, including bovine tuberculosis and bluetongue virus disease, when members of the herd had to be quarantined. Sick bison were transferred to a pasture at the San Francisco County jail in San Bruno in the 1980s.

In 1984, Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, purchased a new herd as a birthday present for his wife. The bison in the paddock today are descendants of those animals.

Currently and sadly, there are only five bison remaining. They are all females and not in the best of health. Park Section Supervisor Joe Giammattei told GuideLines that Richard Blum offered to buy another herd. The Zoo indicated at the time that they did not want to care for the number of animals needed for a herd, and did not want bulls. Bulls can be very dominant and hard to handle because they spar with each other. The Zoo is also concerned about transferring diseases and had a number of regulations regarding new animals coming into the Park.

GuideLines was not able to confirm as of this printing the status of the talks on getting new animals. When there was a large herd, Joe says, calves were born in the spring, and you could see them bounce as they ran in the paddock. (Joe is a former City Guide from the days when Judith Lynch was the Director, assigned to the Fire Department Museum.)