The first bison, named Ben Harrison, was purchased by Park Superintendent John McClaren on February 26, 1891. His arrival in San Francisco coincided with the historical nadir in bison population, a time when the species’ risk of extinction loomed large.
A female mate by the name of Sarah Bernhardt soon followed, and the two bison began one of the longest-running efforts to breed bison in captivity. Over the last 120 years, more than 500 bison have been born into the Golden Gate herd, and due to efforts throughout the country, the animals are no longer at risk of extinction.
If the animals’ names, Ben Harrison and Sarah Bernhardt, seem strangely delicate for the hulking beasts, the tradition of the time dictated that the bison receive the monikers of their political contemporaries. The original herd included superstars such as Grover Cleveland, Bill McKinley, and Bill Bunker.
Recent years have brought changes to the bison’s naming practices. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, the animals had borne royal Shakespearean handles. As of 1993, the bison have been reclaimed and renamed with Native American names bestowed by the “Watchbison Committee,” a Native American Advisory Committee, and one of their current caretakers, the San Francisco Zoological Society.
In 1980, seven elderly buffalo contracted tuberculosis and were subsequently exiled from their Golden Gate haunts to a paddock at the San Bruno county jail by 1984. As the Democratic convention approached, then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, “didn’t want these buffalo out in the park, so she bought some new ones and sent the mangy ones down [to the jail].” The irony was not lost on the other simian inmates that their new, albeit entertaining, cellmates only included more of the same: Feinstein’s “rejects.”
Among the transplanted animals were King George, Lady Di, and Romeo. Despite having been, quite literally, put out to pasture for a non-contagious, non-life-threatening affliction, the relocated bison were treated well. The guards took pleasure in feeding the bison treats, inmates gawked at the creatures, and the bison didn’t seem to mind as it was reminiscent of the attention at their previous home.
A new herd consisting of twelve American Bison were given to Mayor Feinstein by her husband Dick Blum in 1984 as replacements, and following the death of two of the female bison in 2011, seven new female bison have arrived at the park, also assisted by Blum.
The bison seen today in Golden Gate Park are well cared for by staff from the San Francisco Zoo, the aforementioned Zoological Society, Recreation & Parks Department specialists, and have two separate advocacy groups dedicated solely to their well-being.