San Francisco is a city of immigrants representing a staggeringly diverse array of creeds and cultures from across the country and around the world, perhaps none so singularly unique, so unchanging as the group that has maintained just a single residence since they first arrived in the late nineteenth century. They have had little impact on the lives of their fellow citizens; they represent no voting block, have popularized no new cuisine based on their diet; they are not active in the commercial life of the city. They keep to themselves, being in no position to mix with anyone outside their group even should they be inclined to do so. Installed at 1237 John F. Kennedy Drive on the North side of Golden Gate Park—accessible from the park entrance at 36th Avenue—a herd of American Bison has called the city of San Francisco home for over a century, and as neighbors go, you could do a lot worse.
Often referred to as Buffalo, American Bison are part of the same family but an entirely different species, one native to North America. The first to arrive in San Francisco were a pair from the great plains of Wyoming and Kansas named for iconic actress Sarah Bernhardt and 23rd American President (1889-1893) Ben Harrison, joining a veritable menagerie of wild animals that lived in Golden Gate Park several decades before the San Francisco Zoo was built.
Another joined them in1902, an erstwhile performer from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which had been performing at Ocean Beach, that was acquired through the efforts of Park Commissioner Reuben Lloyd. Three more came from Yellowstone Park in 1905. By the time the San Francisco Zoo opened in the 1930s, they were a long established presence in the park. More were given as a 1984 birthday present to then Mayor Diane Feinstein by her husband Richard Blum. The current population numbers just half a dozen, a second benefaction from Bloom in 2012.
A tragic incident in 2013 in which a six-month-old calf died from injuries sustained when a small dog loose in the enclosure frightened it should serve as a reminder to visitors not to interfere with the animals or let their pets do so, but visitors are welcome so long as they don’t disturb the residents. The current all-female herd may be big, hairy, and have no use for lavatories, but these Buffalo Gals like their peace and quiet just the same.
J. Eric Miller is an animal lover and has spent the better part of his life studying San Franciscans in their natural habitat. Follow his work at: theupsanddownsofsanfrancisco.tumblr.com.