on the page magazine

issue no. 1, winter 2000–2001
outsiders & community


Oh, Give Me a Home

by Samantha Schoech

Let's get a few things straight. First, they are American Bison, not buffalo. Second, despite the satyr-like bulk of their massive chests and comparatively diminutive hindquarters, bison can be quite dainty. Their tapered black hooves look like the pointed toes of ballerinas, and the way they pick their way across the bison paddock in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is, if not exactly graceful, at least not clumsy. Finally, they look about as much like a cow as a hyena looks like a basset hound, which is to say, not very much.

On any given Sunday, when John F. Kennedy Drive is closed and the park is populated with biking families and roller-disco enthusiasts, you can find about a dozen people watching the bison in their paddock. Tourists will be taking video. Small children will be squealing. But the bison themselves will be doing very little. They stand around a lot. Sometimes they sit. Very occasionally, one will lumber from field to corral. They graze, of course, which seems to be their raison d'être.

They're in a strange position, these animals. One herd or another has been in the park since 1890, when concerned naturalists transported the then-endangered originals, a girl bison, or cow, named Madame Sarah Bernhardt, and a bull called Ben Harrison, from the plains of Wyoming and Kansas, and installed them there for their own safe keeping.

San Francisco is a young city. To have been a part of it for 110 years makes you one of the oldest landmarks around. Older than Coit Tower, older than the Golden Gate Bridge, way older than the Transamerica Pyramid. And yet, these creatures don't quite have the cachet that the other San Francisco originals have. Maybe that's because they are not exactly originals.

They are, like most of the city's population, transplants from somewhere else. Like an insular ethnic community, the herd of bison in Golden Gate Park is seen as part of the broad landscape of San Francisco, but not intimately known or celebrated. They are, and will always be, outsiders.

The twelve cows currently residing in Golden Gate Park are descendents of a group given as a birthday present to then-mayor Dianne Feinstein by her husband, Richard Blum, in 1984. The descendents of Sarah Bernhardt and Ben Harrison contracted tuberculosis in 1980 and were deemed too scruffy for the park and were exiled. They now reside at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, where, like the inmates, they are pretty much ignored by the general population.

The newer herd, many of its members born in San Francisco, is well looked after. Cared for jointly by the San Francisco Zoo, the San Francisco Zoological Society, and the Recreation and Park Department, the animals also have a troupe of volunteers and their own advocacy agency. The Watchbison Committee organizes various educational events and, one Saturday a month, work parties to help weed the paddock. In 1993, the committee held a reclaiming and renaming ceremony in which a Native American group gathered to give each bison a Native American name and reconnect with the species that has meant so much to them historically. Talk about a community of outsiders—Lakota Sioux drumming and dancing in a contrived wilderness in the middle of an urban center for an animal as misplaced and abused as they. But somehow, there's nothing remotely depressing about it. In fact, the entire concept seems hopeful in a way that only the displaced can be hopeful. If you are an outsider, you have nothing to lose by being yourself. Not quite belonging, and never hoping to, can be liberating.

When you go to places that still have a lot of open space—Montana and Wyoming and the big, gaping Dakotas—you see a lot of buffalo stuff. Buffalo T-shirts and Frisbees molded to look like buffalo pies. Mugs, belt buckles and wind socks all bearing the image of the buffalo. The hulking, prehistoric silhouette of the American Bison has become a symbol for places with a lot of open space. The wide, red dirt vistas of the American West and the image of the bison are synonymous, and they both mean freedom. Not freedom in the Second-Amendment-go-USA kind of way, but freedom in a wind-in-your-hair, free-to-travel-the-open-road kind of way. Freedom to leave, freedom to arrive.

Which makes our penned-up, coddled little herd a bit ironic. Not only are these bison outside their rightful geographic location, but they are outside their symbolic one as well. Northern California is one of the few places in North America where prehistoric bison did not roam. Dig as deep as you care to, you'll never find fossilized bison bones beneath the crust of San Francisco. These guys may still conjure an idea of freedom, but they bear no resemblance to the real thing. They are captives, born and raised. And their captivity removes them from everything they were or are supposed to be.

Yet they are very much a part of something. They are a community in and of themselves. They have a history and a legacy and a home. And they are part of a larger community. The herd has become a landmark of sorts; its image will never replace the crab or the cable car as the quintessential image of San Francisco, but they are, as a group, officially and forever woven into the fabric of the city. Like many of the residents of this place, they are not from here, but they'd probably tell you they belong.

Samantha Schoech is an editor at On the Page.

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