The tragic history of early Bay Area zoos, from Hearst Castle to Golden Gate Park

Perhaps the earliest zoo in San Francisco – “zoo” in a very loose sense – was the Mountaineer Museum run by John Capen Adams, aka Grizzly Adams. Located in a basement in what’s now the Financial District, the 1850s museum boasted the “largest collection of wild animals ever brought together in California,” according to a contemporary news report, including grizzly bears, eagles, elk, a lion, a tiger and an “enormous HOG, 800 pounds, from Monterey.”

Adams was a failed gold miner-turned-animal trainer whose antics with wild bears sound like something from television (which it was, in the 1970s). After shooting a mother bear in the wild, he captured her cubs and trained them to walk on leashes and carry his packs. Visitors paying 25 cents to the Mountaineer Museum could watch Grizzly wrestle and ride around on top of his bears. In karmic turnaround, bears caused his downfall – he got mauled so much, it left his brain tissue 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, historian in residence for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. “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 the best way to run a zoo is not to ride the animals like show ponies. There are different priorities, such as conservation.

Santa Rosa’s Safari West is hailing this year’s birth of a southern white rhino as a step to help restore the global population. The California Academy of Sciences’ new African penguin chicks are part of a species-survival plan. And at the Oakland Zoo, they’re stabilizing a historic Blackfeet Nation bison herd by bringing Montana bison in to breed with Yellowstone ones, then sending the mamas and babies back to the Blackfeet.

While it’s not practical to look at the Bay Area’s 19th-century zoos for best practices, it certainly is fascinating. The zoological gardens of the day were half-amusement parks, half-vanity projects for the rich and powerful. They provided endless entertainment for families who might have never otherwise seen an Asian elephant – in Golden Gate Park, no less. And for the animals, well, their lives were not great, but at least the experience taught our society what not to do.

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

“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,” wrote a contemporary reporter. “Possibly the latter is more generally known than either of the other two.”

Visitors entered through Woodward’s home and conservatory, where they could ogle his fine art and precious minerals, including a gold nugget from the Sierra mountains weighing almost 100 pounds. From there, they’d pass through a tunnel into a zoo that offered camel rides, sailboats on a lake and circus shows featuring the likes of Chang Woo Gow the Chinese Giant, supposedly the tallest man in the world.

Despite a ban on alcohol, the gardens drew thousands on weekends, at least until their slide into disrepair after Woodward’s death. One observer described the decaying zoo as riddled with “pulmonary monkeys and rheumatic lions.” Its last remnants burned down in the Great Earthquake of 1906.

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

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

(Side note: Wallace wasn’t the last famous lion in old San Francisco. In the 1960s, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, kept a pet lion named Togare in his home. The big kitty drew noise complaints from neighbors and somehow later came to stay with, and sleep in the bed of, Tippi Hedren of “The Birds” fame. And Hedren went on to become an outspoken animal activist.)

Soon enough, though, city residents didn’t have to shell out money to visit a zoo. There was a free one 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,” says Pollock. “That’s what was happening with other cities around the United States. They were using animals to draw people in, like a Disneyland kind of thing.”

Wild animals arrived in waves, typically donated by bankers, industrialists and other powerful folks who wanted to be remembered for their generosity. The donations started with deer and grew to include zebras, kangaroos, Persian sheep and a peacock meadow, as well as kookaburras and bison, the latter of which still reside in the park today.

“The bison go back to this growing sentiment across the United States that we are just taking out everything. There’s going to be nothing left, so let’s save some of the species by putting them into a captive location,” explains Pollock.

The Golden Gate menagerie would eventually form the foundation of the nascent San Francisco Zoo. Two animals that didn’t enter the zoo, because they were only in the park for one winter in 1891, were the elephants Baldy and Queen Jumbo. A traveling circus loaned them to perform for families at a kids’ playground, which led to some interesting interactions.

“Children reached out to try to pinch the thick rolls of hide, and audacious youngsters pulled their tails with impunity,” relates one contemporary account. Another news story notes the elephants lived next to a baseball field, and Baldy tried to eat balls that children swatted his way: “The ball went into that tireless mouth, and, after a lot of chewing, was swallowed. The boys who had lost the ball wailed and threatened to thrash Baldy, but were diverted from their cruel purpose by Superintendent Murphy, who advanced the 10 cents necessary to buy another ball.”

Elephants, left, Baldy, and Queen Jumbo, right, perform at the Children’s Playground circa 1891 in Golden Gate Park. The elephants spent the winter away from their regular carnival entertaining in Golden Gate Park from November 21, 1891, to March 8, 1892, at the Children’s Quarter. They performed two shows a day and gave rides to the children under the supervision of their trainer ‘Professor’ H. W. Pett. (OpenSFHistory/wnp13.268) 

The elephants’ lives were indeed hard. They were stationed out in the chilly, gloomy ocean weather where their keepers staved off “la grippe” by giving them quinine and quarts of Kentucky rye whisky. On top of having to give kids saddle-back rides all day, they were pulled into construction duty.

“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 San Francisco historian and humorist.

“There was this one super-heavy piece of equipment they used that had sunk into the ground. They got a team of Clydesdales to try to pull this thing out, and they were getting nowhere,” Leff says. “Finally, someone says, ‘Wait, don’t we have an elephant somewhere?’ They go over and the trainer says, ‘Sure!’ They put a pad between Queen Jumbo’s head and the equipment, and she just moves it – no problem.”

For sheer ambitiousness, not many zoos could beat out the private collection put together by William Randolph Hearst.

One might not expect this ruthless titan of publishing to be an animal lover. But he had a soft spot for even the smallest of creatures. He forbade the killing of rodents at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, so his staff used live traps.

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