San Francisco's Most Notable Animals

Aug 27, 2013 at 6am

San Francisco has an incredibly diverse menagerie that have called our city their home, even if just temporarily. From an albino alligator with a jaunty name to the grizzly who appears on our state flag, here are nine notable animals:

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If San Francisco had official animal royalty, the kings would be Bummer and Lazarus. This pair of stray dogs roamed the city’s streets in the 1860s and were well known and beloved for their inseparable friendship and proficient rat killing – a skill that earned a dog’s keep at the time. Although it was rumored that the two were owned by self-proclaimed “Emperor of these United States,” Joshua A. Norton, no official records actually prove it. Lazarus was killed in 1863, possibly by poisoned meat. Bummer died in 1865 after a vicious attack by a drunk. A young Mark Twain wrote his eulogy with the most excellent title “Exit ‘Bummer.’” Both dogs were taxidermied, although their remains were eventually destroyed in 1910. Today a plaque memorializing the two historic canine buddies is installed at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid.

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Claude the Albino Alligator, is the California Academy of Sciences’ most popular and unusual-looking denizen. Born in 1995 on a farm in Florida, Claude, whose skin is the color of an uncooked chicken carcass, would’ve been someone’s lunch if he had been born in the wild. It turns out that alligators are green for a reason – their hue is camouflage in swamps! On top of that, like many albino animals, Claude has impaired sight. The 9½-foot, approximately 200-pound reptile was brought to the Academy in 2008, where he lives in the museum’s Swamp Gallery. Claude used to share his tank with a green gator named Bonnie, but she got the boot when she bit Claude’s right front foot. These days, Claude shares his habitat with less threatening roommates – several snapping turtles.

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San Francisco’s most recent animal celebrity is Sutro Sam, an adorable river otter who was first spotted at the ruins of the Sutro Baths in September 2012. Sam is the first river otter to be seen in San Francisco in almost 50 years, and experts believe he may have traveled from Marin, stopping to gorge on the big goldfish (former pets that were dumped by naughty residents) in the spring-fed pools at Sutro. He won the hearts of residents and tourists alike – along with tons of media attention – with his fuzzy cuteness and playful demeanor, but after five months, he moved on, possibly because he ate all the goldfish, maybe to get a little lady-otter action, or, very likely, because he was sick of all the gawking we were doing. Sutro Sam has revisited his old Ocean Beach stomping grounds, but never for as long a stint as his first stay.

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Back in the day, when San Francisco was a wild, western town, American bison freely roamed the land. In remembrance of these times, a few of these huge animals have been kept in the Buffalo Paddock (a confusing misnomer for the enclosure, as buffalo are from Asia and Africa, and bison are from the Americas) in Golden Gate Park since 1891. The herd grew to as large as 30 in 1918, when bison were transported from Wyoming and Kansas, and about 100 calves have been born in those fields. These days, the handful of bushy-headed beasts you’ll see are descendents of bison that were a birthday gift to former mayor Diane Feinstein from her hubby. On July 26, 2013, 30-year-old Tenny, the oldest of the Golden Gate Park bison, was euthanized when she could no longer stand up.

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One of the saddest San Francisco animal stories is that of Monarch the Bear, the majestic California grizzly that graces our state flag. Monarch was captured in 1889 in Ventura County and brought to San Francisco as a publicity stunt by arrogant newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who ran stories of the bear – the last California grizzly to live in SF – in the Examiner. But while bringing Hearst fame, the 1,200-pound bear was pretty miserable here. He first lived in a cage located at 8th and Brannan Streets, but his jail-like confinement was later moved to Golden Gate Park, where he spent 22 years in dismal captivity. Monarch died in 1911 and his remains were stuffed. In 1955 his taxidermied body became the model for the California state flag. Today an area next to the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park is called Monarch Bear Hill in memory of this amazing bear.

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You know which San Franciscans don’t hate hanging out at Fisherman’s Wharf? The big, blubbery, whiskered ones that Pier 39 has dubbed its “Sea Lebrities.” Our city’s sea lions crowd the docks, lazily sunbathing, shoving one another for the best space, and barking noisily in each other’s ears to the delight of tourists who crowd the pier to seemingly do the same activities as these famous pinnipeds. Even though we’ve come to think of the sea lions as SF long-timers, they didn’t actually thrive in mass here until the ’90s after the Loma Prieta earthquake, when droves of them took to the protected marina to feast on a buffet of bountiful herring and take a break from living the life of a perpetual episode of Shark Week out in the open sea. In winter, sometimes more than 900 sea lions bask on the docks at Pier 39. In the summer, most migrate to the Channel Islands, but some smarty-pants (or lazy-ass?) sea lions stay here all year long.

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One of the coolest and most celebrated stories of animal adaptation in San Francisco is that of the feral parrots who’ve managed to make a home in our very non-tropical city. A flock of these feathered transplants was featured in a book and documentary called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill about a man named Mark Bittner, who fed, observed, and interacted with the conures that live in the quaint residential area bordering North Beach. The film brought public attention to the parrots – most of which are cherry-headed conures that might’ve originally been wild birds imported from South America and released by accident or on purpose – and their intelligence, distinct personalities, and complex relationships with one another. The pretty birds have become a tourist attraction in their own right, bringing flocks of people to the windy steps of Telegraph Hill to gawk. If you’re a local, you know Telegraph Hill isn’t the only place to see wild parrots; they can be seen at Fort Mason, the Embarcadero, and Alamo Square Park. 

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A dog that’s friends with a cat that’s friends with a rat? Improbable! Or so you thought, until you saw animal odd-trio, Dog Cat Rat. Telluride, Colorado, native and street performer Gregory Pike could often be found panhandling on the streets of San Francisco with his furry traveling sideshow. Lab-Rott mix Booger, tabby cat Kitty, and white rat Mousey would lie quietly stacked atop each other as passersby snapped photos and threw dollars into Pike’s handout bucket. The peaceful threesome brought Pike about $100 day (some of which might’ve gone to some nefarious activities). Pike took Dog Cat Rat across the country until October 2012, when 13-year-old Booger passed away in Telluride, where she was cremated and her ashes buried on her favorite hill. 

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The Presidio Pet Cemetery dates back to the 1950s. Located near Crissy Field at the corner of McDowell Ave. and Cowles St., it was originally created as a resting place to bury fallen cavalry horses and World War II guard dogs. However, more than 2,000 military families lived in the Presidio at the time, and residents began to bury their pets in these grounds. In memory of hundreds of dogs, cats, hamsters, turtles, goldfish, and every other animal companion you can think of, pet owners dug graves and erected homemade headstones for pets with names like Trouble, Stinky, and SNAFU. In the ’70s, the cemetery fell into disrepair, but it remained, dilapidated yet charming. In 2009 construction began on Doyle Drive, located above the pet cemetery, and people worried that the spirits would be disturbed by the renovation. Fortunately, although the cemetery is closed to the public, but it will reopen in 2015 with a face-lift. The faithful residents of the Presidio Pet Cemetery continue to rest in peace. 


What other notable San Francisco animals should I have included in this story? Let me know who I missed in the comments section below.

And, if you love Bryan Lashelle's illustrations from this story, take note that you can buy the San Francisco Kingdom Animalia poster featuring all these notable animals in The Bold Italic's Shop!  

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