About the Zoo: History of the Zoo
The earliest "zoo" in San Francisco dates back to the Gold Rush days in 1856. It was located in a basement at Clay and Leidesdorff Streets. The "zoo" consisted of grizzly bears captured by the famed hunter, James Capen "Grizzly" Adams. As San Francisco evolved, so did the idea of a zoo. Robert B. Woodward, one of San Francisco's wealthiest men, owed his fortune to the Gold Rush and silver mining. He opened Woodward's Gardens in 1866 in the Mission District at Valencia and 15th Streets as a four-acre amusement park complete with menagerie. His animal collection included a sea lion pond, bear grottos, black swans, deer and an aviary. The garden closed in 1890 when the city allowed the property to be divided into building lots.
The San Francisco Zoo that we know it today was established in 1929, and was built in the 1930's and 1940's as part of a depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.
The Zoo was originally called The Herbert Fleishhacker Zoo, after its founder. The official name of the Zoo – The San Francisco Zoological Gardens – was adopted February 27, 1941, following the suggestion of Herbert Fleishhacker.
The Bear Beginnings
The San Francisco Zoo story began more than a century ago with one bear named Monarch. He was California's last captive grizzly, and he became an important symbol of the state's evolving relationship with vanishing wildlife.
Monarch's affiliation with the San Francisco Zoo began in 1889 when San Francisco Examiner media magnate, William Randolph Hearst, engaged one of his reporters, Allen Kelly, in a heated debate over whether grizzlies still existed in California. Hearst ended the argument by challenging Kelly to go out and find one. Photographic proof would not suffice; Kelly had to bring the animal back alive. Kelly wrote that William Randolph Hearst "wanted to present to the city a good specimen of the big California bear, partly because he believed the species was almost extinct," but also to give the people of San Francisco a unique and marvelous gift.
Kelly had great admiration and sympathy for the bears: "One of the most amiable and well-behaved denizens of the forest, Bruin has ever been an outlaw and a fugitive with a price on his pelt and no rights which any man is bound to respect. Like most outlawed men, he has been supplied with a reputation much worse than he deserves as an excuse for his persecution and a justification to his murderers. Every man's hand has been against him, but seldom has his paw been raised against man except in self-defense." Still, Kelly had an assignment. After nine months in the San Gabriel Mountains of Ventura County, Kelly and the Examiner party lured an enormous grizzly into a log catch pen baited with honey and mutton on Mt. Gleason. They named the bear Monarch, after the old San Francisco Examiner, the "Monarch of the Dailies."
Kelly described Monarch: "He stands four feet high at the shoulder, measures three feet across the chest, twelve inches between the ears and eighteen inches from ear to nose, and his weight is estimated by the best judges at from 1200 to 1600 pounds. He never has been weighed. In disposition he is independent and militant. He will fight anything from a crowbar to a powder magazine and permit no man to handle him while he can move a muscle. And yet he was not unreasonably quarrelsome, but preserved an attitude of armed neutrality. He would accept peace offerings from my hand, taking care not to include my fingers, but would tolerate no petting…he knew my voice and when I called him by his name, 'Monarch,' he would look up at me not unkindly and, if I had nothing for him, lay his head upon his paws again and go to sleep."
They transported the last and largest captive California grizzly through eastern Ventura County to San Francisco by sled, wagon and railroad, arriving on November 3, 1889 to joyous parades and front page fanfare. The Examiner claimed that twenty thousand people visited Woodward's Garden to see the "only California grizzly in captivity" on November 10, 1889.
Monarch lived more than 20 years in captivity — first in Woodward's Garden in the Mission District, then in Golden Gate Park. Although he never set paw in the Zoo's current location, he inspired Herbert Fleishhacker to pursue his dream of a San Francisco Zoo here. Monarch became a figure of strength and rejuvenation when he survived the great 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco.
After Monarch died in 1911, he was mounted and placed on exhibit at the DeYoung Museum's Natural History Museum. Monarch remained in storage at the DeYoung until the curator retired. The mounted bear was then given to the California Academy of Sciences. Sculptor Robert Schmidt made a clay model of Monarch for use in designs for the California emblem. In 1953 Monarch was sketched as the model for the state flag.
In his lifetime, Monarch delighted thousands of visitors, sired two cubs and is forever commemorated on the California state flag, so his spirit goes on to represent the city's commitment to sharing space with vanishing wildlife.
Early on, John McLaren, Superintendent of Golden Gate Park, was receptive to exhibiting bears, emus, beavers, sheep, kangaroos, moose, goats, elk and bison in the park meadows as well as a two-acre aviary full of birds. But when Fleishhacker began to speak enthusiastically of lions, tigers, great apes and – his particular fancy – elephants, McLaren strenuously objected on the grounds that these animals would require special housing and care, and that the Park should remain as naturalistic and undeveloped as possible.
In 1922, Fleishhacker had claimed the ideal setting for his zoo, purchasing from the Spring Valley Water Company a 30-acre site (now 125 acres) near the ocean in the southwestern corner of San Francisco. By 1925, he had added to the site the Fleishhacker Pool - the largest swimming pool in the United States, the Fleishhacker Playfield for picnics and recreation, the Mother's Building – a haven for women and their children, and an original Dentzel Carousel. The Zoo would be a wonderful complement to this recreational area.
The first exhibits consisted of animals transferred from Golden Gate Park. An early inventory list records two zebras, one cape buffalo, five rhesus monkeys, two spider monkeys, and, of course, three elephants: Babe, Virginia and Marjorie, donated by Fleishhacker himself.
In 1929, while on a cruise around the world, Fleishhacker met animal collector and hunter George Bistany in Manila, and commissioned him to diversify the Zoo's collection. Bistany was soon hired as the Zoo's first Director. "We need a man who knows how to talk to these wild animals and who can tell when they need a bath or a dose of salt," said Park Commission Secretary Captain B.F. Lamb. Bistany applied his considerable knowledge of animal husbandry to build exhibits, shelters and corrals, and to chart paths and roads. He also carefully trained the keepers in the care and handling of wild animals and birds.
His management duties were perhaps the most challenging aspect of the job. The original keepers were known as "hayburners" because their responsibility was the care and feeding of hoofstock and hay-eating animals. When word reached San Francisco that Bistany had chartered a shipment of leopards, tigers, pig-tailed macaques, lions and elephants, panic erupted. The infant zoo had neither the facilities nor the expertise to care for these creatures.
Bistany himself saved the day by personally overseeing the shipment, improvising cages and delivering impromptu lectures about the care of each species. By the time Fleishhacker returned from his cruise, the animals were sheltered, tended and healthy.
Bistany considered the well-being of the animals his top priority and took pride in the success of his breeding programs. Cleanliness – in the kitchen, hospital and exhibits – was his watchword. He once wrote, "This zoo, although still small, has already earned for itself an enviable reputation for cleanliness and beauty of stock … Special stress is laid upon keeping the cages and corrals spotlessly clean at all times, and even the animals themselves are hosed off on warm days."
Bistany passed away in 1935 and was succeeded by Edmund Heller, the former Director of the Milwaukee Zoo. Heller was a noted zoologist with a strong history of field research. After a yearlong African safari, he co-authored with Theodore Roosevelt the reference book "Life Histories of African Game Animals."
The Zoo's first major exhibits were built in the 1930's by the depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) at a cost of $3.5 million. Fleishhacker, Heller and prominent San Francisco architect Lewis Hobart combined their talents to design the WPA exhibits. The animal exhibits were, in the words of Hobart, "ten structures designed to house the animals and birds in quarters as closely resembling native habitats as science can devise." These new structures included Monkey Island, Lion House, Elephant House, a sea lion pool, an aviary and bear grottos. These spacious, moated enclosures were among the first bar-less exhibits in the country.
Heller's contribution was significant, but short; he died only four years later, in 1939. In 1941, Fleishhacker suggested that the Zoo, which had been named in his honor, be renamed the San Francisco Zoological Gardens to provide the Zoo with a regional identity. That same year, the Zoo received several acquisitions from the William Randolph Hearst private collection in San Simeon, not the least being Zoo Director Carey Baldwin.
For 23 years Baldwin lived in the Zoo Director's house on Zoo grounds, overseeing the care of the collection, the growth of the facilities and the birth of the San Francisco Zoological Society. Baldwin is remembered as a warm, committed man who never lost his enthusiasm for the animals. With his encouragement, nine wealthy animal lovers determined to support and improve the Zoo founded the non-profit Zoological Society in 1954. The following year, Pennie the Asian elephant arrived at the Zoo, purchased with pennies donated by local school children.
Over the 40 years since its founding in 1954, the Zoological Society became a powerful fundraising source for the Zoo, just as Fleishhacker had hoped when he envisioned "…a Zoological Society similar to those established in other large cities. The Zoological Society will aid the Park Commission in the acquisition of rare animals and in the operation of the Zoo." True to its charter, the Society immediately exerted its influence on the Zoo, developing a master plan in 1956 and obtaining more than 1,300 annual members in its first 10 years.
In 1958, the Society took over the operation of Zoo concessions and was responsible for the development of several exhibits, including the African Scene in 1967, the temporary Panda exhibit in 1984, and Koala Crossing and the Primate Discovery Center in 1985. It also funded important projects like the renovation of the Children's Zoo in 1964, purchasing medical equipment for the new Zoo Hospital in 1975, and the establishment of the Avian Conservation Center in 1978.
From 1958 to 1968, philanthropist Carroll Soo-Hoo donated 40 animals including western lowland gorillas, orangutans, cheetahs, Siberian tigers, jaguars, zebras, hippopotamuses, spotted hyena, and wild dogs. These donations contributed greatly to the Zoo's collection. Carroll bought the animals with an understanding that he could visit with them. He continued to come to the Zoo until his death in 1998.
Although the Zoo has benefited from the many improvements in recent years, the original WPA structures had remained virtually untouched since the 1930's. Then, in 1977, a $2.5 million federal grant enabled the construction of Gorilla World, Wolf Woods, Koala Crossing, the Primate Discovery Center and Musk Ox Meadow. These exhibits replaced small, sterile enclosures with open, naturalistic habitats that reflect the Zoo's expanded purposes: conservation, education, recreation and research. The structures also conformed to Hobart's prescient vision of naturalistic habitats, where, from a normal distance, "it would appear that the animals were not confined at all."
The benefits of naturalistic exhibits to the animals were obvious. Bwana and Missy, the Zoo's first two gorillas, who had come to the Zoo in 1959, spent the first week in their new exhibit learning to pluck grass and climb real trees.
Evolution of the New Zoo
New Exhibits Built
Not All Changes On-Exhibit