The tragic history of the Bay Area’s forgotten zoos

The Mountaineer Museum, run by John Capen Adams, aka Grizzly Adams, was perhaps San Francisco’s first zoo – “zoo” in the broadest sense. According to a contemporary news report, the 1850s museum boasted the “largest collection of wild animals ever brought together in California,” including grizzly bears, eagles, elk, a lion, a tiger, and a “enormous HOG, 800 pounds, from Monterey.”

Adams was a failed gold miner-turned-animal trainer whose antics with wild bears sound like something out of a 1970s television show (which they were). He captured a mother bear’s cubs after shooting her in the wild and trained them to walk on leashes and carry his packs. Visitors to the Mountaineer Museum could watch Grizzly wrestle and ride around on top of his bears for 25 cents. In a karmic twist, bears brought him down – he was mauled so badly that his brain tissue was exposed, and he died in 1860 of suspected meningitis.

“Grizzly Adams was trying to make a buck any way he could with his interests, and this was one way to draw people in,” says Christopher Pollock, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s historian in residence. “These were live animals – inside a basement – and it just seemed like the most inappropriate place in the world to do this stuff.”

We now know, more than a century and a half later, that riding the animals like show ponies is not the best way to run a zoo. Conservation is one of the many priorities.

The birth of a southern white rhino this year is being celebrated by Santa Rosa’s Safari West as a step toward helping to restore the global population. The new African penguin chicks at the California Academy of Sciences are part of a species-survival plan. At the Oakland Zoo, they’re working to restore a historic Blackfeet Nation bison herd by bringing Montana bison in to breed with Yellowstone bison, then returning the mothers and babies to the Blackfeet.

While looking at the Bay Area’s 19th-century zoos for best practices isn’t practical, it is fascinating. The zoological gardens of the time were part amusement park, part vanity project for the wealthy and powerful. They provided hours of entertainment for families who might not have seen an Asian elephant in Golden Gate Park otherwise. And as for the animals, their lives were not ideal, but the experience taught our society what not to do.

Woodward’s Gardens was a sprawling Mission district complex run by wealthy hotelier Robert B. Woodward. It had a sea lion pond, a grizzly bear grotto, an aviary, and reportedly the country’s largest aquarium when it opened in the 1860s.

“There are three particular places in California that have acquired worldwide fame, and these are the Yosemite Valley, the old Cliff House and Woodward’s Gardens,” a reporter at the time wrote. “Possibly the latter is more generally known than either of the other two.”

Visitors entered through Woodward’s home and conservatory, where they could admire his fine art and precious minerals, including a nearly 100-pound gold nugget from the Sierra Mountains. They’d then walk through a tunnel into a zoo that offered camel rides, sailboat rides on a lake, and circus shows featuring the likes of Chang Woo Gow the Chinese Giant, the world’s tallest man.

Despite a prohibition on alcohol, the gardens drew thousands of visitors on weekends, at least until they fell into disrepair following Woodward’s death. According to one observer, the decaying zoo was riddled with “pulmonary monkeys and rheumatic lions.” Its last ruins were destroyed in the Great Earthquake of 1906.

The chutes in San Francisco offer even more animal-carnie fun. These were water rides popular on Coney Island around the turn of the century that spread out West – you’d get in a boat and ride at incredible speeds down a 350-foot slide before crashing into a lake. The Fulton Street Chutes, one of the city’s three chute parks, featured a mirror maze, an airplane swing, and Wallace the Lion, who was rumored to be untamable (and who proved it by bloodying its keeper’s scalp).

A 14-foot alligator, a black-bear “brigade,” leopards, kangaroos, and orangutans trained to act like a human family – “father” smoked a pipe while “baby” played with a doll – were also on display. “The hyena proved to be a major disappointment; the melancholy beast never laughed,” writes James R. Smith in “San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks.” And the “Chutes Museum” displayed a depressing collection. It included all of the stuffed zoo animals that died in captivity!”

(As an aside, Wallace was not the city’s last famous lion. Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, kept a pet lion named Togare in his home in the 1960s. The big cat drew complaints from neighbors and eventually ended up staying with and sleeping in the bed of Tippi Hedren of “The Birds” fame. And Hedren went on to become a vocal animal rights activist.)

But, eventually, city dwellers no longer had to pay to visit a zoo. A free one was taking shape in Golden Gate Park.

“In the 1880s, it was realized by people in the growing city of San Francisco that in order to up our game with our metropolitan park, we needed to have an animal exhibit,” Pollock says. “That was happening in other cities across the United States.” They were using animals to entice people, similar to a Disneyland attraction.”

Wild animals arrived in waves, usually as gifts from bankers, industrialists, and other powerful people who wanted to be remembered for their generosity. Donations began with deer and progressed to include zebras, kangaroos, Persian sheep, and a peacock meadow, as well as kookaburras and bison, the latter of which is still in the park today.

“The bison reflect a growing sentiment in the United States that we are simply removing everything.” “There will be nothing left, so let’s save some of the species by putting them in captivity,” Pollock explains.

The Golden Gate menagerie would eventually lay the groundwork for the fledgling San Francisco Zoo. The elephants Baldy and Queen Jumbo did not enter the zoo because they were only in the park for one winter in 1891. They were loaned out by a traveling circus to perform for families at a children’s playground, which resulted in some interesting interactions.

“Children reached out to try to pinch the thick rolls of hide, and audacious youngsters pulled their tails with impunity,” one modern account says. According to another news report, the elephants lived next to a baseball field, and Baldy tried to eat balls swatted his way: “The ball went into that tireless mouth, and, after much chewing, was swallowed.” The boys who had lost the ball wept and threatened to thrash Baldy, but were diverted from their heinous plan by Superintendent Murphy, who advanced the ten cents required to purchase another ball.”

The elephants’ lives were indeed difficult. They were stationed out in the chilly, gloomy ocean weather, where their keepers kept “la grippe” at bay by providing them with quinine and quarts of Kentucky rye whisky. They were pulled into construction duty on top of having to give kids saddle-back rides all day.

“Queen Jumbo was responsible for moving a lot of heavy equipment out of Golden Gate Park pretty much on her own,” says Judi Leff, a historian and humorist from San Francisco.

“They used this super-heavy piece of equipment that had sunk into the ground.” “They had a team of Clydesdales trying to pull this thing out, and they were having no luck,” Leff says. “At some point, someone asks, ‘Wait, don’t we have an elephant somewhere?'” They approach the trainer, who says, ‘Sure!’ They put a pad between Queen Jumbo’s head and the equipment, and she simply moves it.

Few zoos can compete with William Randolph Hearst’s private collection in terms of sheer ambition.

“They’d catch them and let them go,” says former Hearst Castle historian Victoria Kastner. “One of the butlers grew tired of releasing the same mouse, so he tied a little red string around its foot and brought it to W.R. and said, ‘This isn’t working.'” W.R. simply gave him a name and kept him as a pet.”

The San Simeon property was designed to resemble an English country home, where guests could be entertained as well as livestock and other animals could be kept. The bizarre way Hearst interpreted that was revealed in a letter sent to him in 1925 by Julia Morgan, his famous architect.

“She wrote that the lions arrived safely,” Kastner said, “and that they were cubs, and they’re not tamed in the slightest, and it’s just amazing to see the level of antagonism or hostility these tiny creatures can foster.”

African antelope, Bactrian camels, ostriches, musk ox, and giraffes soon joined chimps, polar bears, cougars, coatimundis, an elephant, and a tapir named Squeaky. Hearst created two distinct zoo areas. The first was 2,000 acres of fenced-in land stocked with herbivores that his guests could admire on the long drive to his door, while the second was a menagerie of cages near the castle where they could watch carnivores being fed. And he was always thinking of new things.

“How about a maze in connection with the zoo,” he suggested to Morgan in 1926. “I think getting lost in the maze and coming unexpectedly upon lions, tigers, pumas, panthers, wild cats, monkeys, macaws and cockatoos, etc. etc., would be a thrill even for the most blasé.” (It was never built.)

There were incidents, despite the assistance of knowledgeable zookeepers.

“These animals don’t get along, do they?” “There were these emus just causing havoc with their fellow species,” Kastner says. “Another issue, which he was very upset about, was that they had these giraffes who wanted the salt in the gravel and ate a lot of gravel.” “I believe one or two of the giraffes died.”

The zoo’s demise began when Hearst began to run out of money. Some of the animals were sold or given away, while others were freed to roam the vast property in perpetuity. Some of their descendants, such as zebras, sambar deer, and aoudads, can still be found roaming the California hills like lost foreign tourists.

“So it’s still a zoo,” Kastner points out. “Just not in the traditional sense.”

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply