By Emily Rhodes
Many visitors and some locals delight at seeing a small herd of buffalo in Golden Gate Park. Seasoned San Franciscans and knowledgable visitors know the truth: the large, lumbering animals grazing in the enclosed meadow along John F. Kennedy Drive just west of Spreckels Lake aren’t buffalo. They are American bison.
Buffalo are indigenous to South Asia (water buffalo) and Africa (cape buffalo), while bison are found in North America and parts of Europe. Bison have thick beards; buffalo do not.
They are “pieces of history,” according to the Golden Gate Park website. “The bison have become a treasured tradition about the park, serving as a remembrance of the illustrious Wild West.”
The herd recently doubled in size with a donation of five yearlings (baby bison) in honor of the park’s 150th anniversary.
“Golden Gate Park welcomes five new bison!” the SF Recreation and Park Department announced on its Facebook page. “We are doubling the size of the herd with five yearlings, just in time for SF Rec. and Park’s sesquicentennial celebration. On April 4, Community Day, the bison will be introduced to the public. Join us for this special occasion!”
While the event on April 4 has been postponed until further notice – due to the statewide coronavirus shelter-in-place order – the new bison are getting acclimated to their new environment.
Bison first came to their home in Golden Gate Park, known as Buffalo Paddock, in 1891, brought by Park Superintendent John McClaren. The current bison are descendants of 1984 birthday presents given to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein by her husband, Richard Blum. The two have supported the bison over years, donating $50,000 for the addition of the five yearlings.
“My husband in 1984 donated 16 bison to the city as a birthday gift to me,” said Feinstein, now a U.S. senator. “He had visited the herd as a child and wanted to make sure their presence in San Francisco didn’t end.
“We donated five bison this year to keep the herd vibrant,” she said. “There are no male bison in the herd, so every so often we like to add some new faces to the group.
“San Francisco has been home to bison for 130 years. They’re a wonderful and quirky tradition, and they’re lucky to call Golden Gate Park their home. I think having these great thousand-pound beasts living in our city is a real point of pride for San Francisco,” Feinstein said.
Their presence in Golden Gate Park is more than mere spectacle. It began as an effort to save the American bison, which was nearly extinct in the United States by the time the animals arrived at the bison paddock. They faced years of slaughter by European settlers for their meat, hides and fur.
Through a successful captive breeding program, more than 500 calves have been born in Golden Gate Park. In 1998, this program – along with other national parks and private breeders – allowed the total number of bison in North America to surpass 200,000, according to the park’s website.
The first bison to arrive at the park in the 1890s came from an early conservationist by the name of C.J. Jones, who started a private breeding program on his ranch in Kansas in 1884. The bison bull was named “Ben Harrison” after the 23rd president of the United States, and he was purchased for $350, which is the equivalent of about $10,000 today. He was shipped to San Francisco and joined by a bison cow (female bison) from the plains of Wyoming that went by the name of “Sarah Bernhardt” (named after the famous French stage actress of the late 19th century). Within two years, the first calf arrived and after that, the herd thrived.
“One hundred years ago, the bison were named after public figures: Grover Cleveland, Bill McKinley and Bill Bunker were among the original animals,” according to the San Francisco Zoo, which cares for the bison. “The bison currently residing in the park were originally named after the royal family according to Shakespeare. In 1993, the bison relinquished their Shakespearean names in favor of Native American names at a special bison reclaiming and renaming ceremony sponsored by the Watchbison Committee, the Native American Advisory Committee, and the San Francisco Zoological Society.”
In the past, an assortment of animals, including bears, goats, and elk, also roamed about with the bison, though they were located in a free-range environment east of where the Academy of Sciences currently stands. As time passed, some bison were transported to where they can be found today.
For more information, visit www.GoldenGatePark150.com.
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