Betsy. Buttercup. Bambi. Those are not Disney characters but three of the eight female bison that live at the bison paddock in Golden Gate Park. Sarah King, the primary bison keeper, introduces me to them one afternoon. She works with fellow hoofstock fan, Jim Nappi, Curator of Hoofstock and Marsupials at the San Francisco Zoo. Nappi says he and King share a love for bison.
“They are kind of like your children,” he says, “You take care of them, and there’s a lot of pride in that.”
Like a family, each of these bison has a role. King explains, “Little Betsy here, she’s little but she’s pushy. Brunhilda is trying to be the top dog, but the older girls are keeping her in her place.”
While they might look friendly, these bison are definitely not docile. Nappi says, “I think people write these guys off like they’re just a bunch of cows. They’re still wild, and they act wild. These animals are extremely stubborn and very smart.”
So they’re not your average cow. And they’re not your average buffalo either, although the words are often used interchangeably. Buffalo live in Africa and Asia, but bison live in North America. They also have smaller horns and bigger humps and faces than buffalo.
“Their fur is so dense that snow can actually settle on top of it and not melt,” King adds. "So that’s why they are perfect for the Great Plains area.”
So what are they doing in the moderate climate of San Francisco? Nappi says the bison were brought to Golden Gate Park back in 1892. But to understand why, you have to go back even further. Before colonization of the New World, it is estimated that 30 to 60 million bison roamed the greater part of North America.
There were so many bison that when Lewis and Clark crossed the US in the early 1800s, they wrote that the “moving multitude...darkened the whole plains.” For the Native Americans, bison were central to their livelihoods.
But then the US frontier moved west. Bison numbers started dropping dramatically from over-hunting and disease. Businesses advertised bison-hunting competitions, and settlers intentionally killed bison to limit Native American resources.
Nappi says, “When there’s 30 million of one type of animal and within a hundred year period there’s only several thousand, there’s a problem.”
By the late 1800s, the number of bison bottomed out at about a thousand. It was then that independent organizations began placing small herds in zoos and private farms across the country.
“San Francisco was an area that was identified as a place that could house bison and that’s what they did,” says Nappi. “At that time they just offered big fields, big pastures and they just threw a lot of animals in there and said, ‘let’s let these guys breed, let’s improve their numbers, get the population up to help with the conservation effort.’”
Efforts like this, plus a commercial boom for bison meat, slowly brought numbers back up to about 500,000 bison today. Most of these bison live in captivity, except for a large, free-roaming herd in Yellowstone National Park.
Jim Nappi says the San Francisco bison contributed directly to the conservation movement. Overall, 100 calves were born in the bison paddock as people lined John F. Kennedy Drive to watch.
Today the bison in Golden Gate Park are no longer breeding, but don’t worry, they’ll be around for awhile. Six of the all-female herd were brought in as calves in 2011, the other two are in their twenties, and the herd’s matriarch died at age 30.
Over the years, these bison have come to mean many different things to San Franciscans. Like the high schoolers who would let them out as their senior prank, or the Native Americans who held their ceremonies here. To some, the bison are a cool tourist attraction. But for those who know their story, they are a reminder of this city’s role in preserving a character from our past.
Nappi says, “They’re part of the history of that effort and those efforts that we continue with other animal species. I think the park represents that with bison. It’s a good story.”
This story originally aired on January 23rd 2014, and features audio clips from the 1973 documentary Tahtonka. Click the audio player above to hear the story.