The Bygone Exotic Animals of SF’s Golden Gate Park

San Francisco’s steady, temperate climate affords it a certain rare niche in regard to animal keeping. Because there aren’t many egregious swings in the mercury, which is only bettered by the relatively regular levels of humidity and lack of any severe weather, zoological institutions are able to keep exotic fauna outside for extended periods of time without worry of overexposure to the elements.

(In my early twenties, I worked at the Dallas Zoo inside the facility’s reptile house. Though my duties were mostly funneled into the herpetological wings of the North Texas zoo, I occasionally helped out at the African Savannah and Asiatic exhibits. The Texas summer sun would get so intense — even for the African land mammals — that we’d have to “bring them in,” i.e. persuading them into air-conditioned corridors so they wouldn’t overheat, by 5 p.m. most days during the hottest season of the year. Humans being humans would, no joke, complain ad nauseum why we would do so and quote “rob their kids” of a “great day at the zoo.” Karens and Kens truly know no bounds.)

Back in the late-1800s and early-1900s, Golden Gate Park was teeming with strange animals taking advantage of San Francisco’s nexus of mild weather and sprawling urban greenery.

In an uploaded gallery from OpenSFHistory — a nonprofit program sponsored by the Western Neighborhoods Project that collects historical pictures and documents for public use — the Where the Wild Things Are energy that GGP exuded before the 21st century was absolutely bonkers. For one: Zebras were, at some point, commonly seen pulling uncovered carriages.

But that was just one of the faunal peculiarities that filled the 1,017-acre park during this time.

Photo: Courtesy of OpenSFHistory

Asian elephants — the second-largest land mammal on planet earth — could be seen balancing their 8,000-plus bodies on a large tree stump (which is a form of entertainment we, thankfully, don’t broadly tolerate in this current day and age). A young moose was once pictured just vibing, looking off into the distance. Sea lions were placed inside an aquascape back in the 1920s for passersby to gawk at in close proximity when compared to today’s wildlife theme park norms.

Photo: Courtesy of OpenSFHistory

Before the San Francisco Zoo opened, John McLaren, who was the then-superintendent of Golden Gate Park from 1890 to 1943, was privy to showcasing exotic animals to the public. During his half-century in the position, McLaren regularly held exhibits that featured everything from bears and emus, to beavers and kangaroos. (McLaren was also the individual behind establishing a now-permanent herd of bison in the park.)

At one point in his time overseeing Golden Gate Park, Mclaren was also responsible for building a two-acre aviary full of birds.

Photo: Courtesy of OpenSFHistory

But when the idea of hosting larger, more dangerous alien animals like lions, tigers, and great apes were brought up by other park officials, McLaren made it clear these animals would require special housing and care. The Golden Gate Park not only couldn’t meet these demands, but McLaren was adamant that the park should remain as naturalistic and pristine as possible — no matter what.

Photo: Courtesy of OpenSFHistory

It was that initial problem-solving that eventually that lead Herbet Fleishaber — the man who was mainly behind wanting to host those more dangerous animals and who, too, helped fund the Fleishhacker Pool in San Francisco, which remained the world’s largest outdoor saltwater swimming pool for many years — to purchase the Spring Valley Water Company’s 30-acre site at the southwestern corner of San Francisco in 1922. That site quickly grew to about 100 acres in size… and was later named the San Francisco Zoo in 1929.

The more you know, y’all… *the more you know.*

Feature image: Courtesy of OpenSFHistory

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