Now Playing

The Oakland Zoo Is About to Double in Size, and the Animals Are the Winners

People don’t fare too badly, either.


New at the zoo: A gondola and 14 American bison.

(1 of 2)

A black bear mother and cubs.

(2 of 2)

Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

The 14 American bison
, acquired from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, arrived via livestock trailer on April 11—a dark, wet, windy night that may have reminded them of Alberta, Canada, where they were born. But when dawn broke and they rumbled out of the chute that had kept them dry all night, they were greeted by a sight that had to seem astonishing to their big-sky eyes: a vast, rose-tinted human settlement; a sparkling blue bay; and, far away on the horizon, a metropolis with peaks as soaring and unreachable as the Rockies themselves. Welcome to Oakland, buffalo.

Once they shook off the shock of their new vista—which they will soon share with four grizzly cubs, two gray wolves, three young mountain lions, four black bears (a mother and three cubs), a jaguar, two bald eagles, three condors, and roughly a million Homo sapiens visiting the new California Trail expansion of the Oakland Zoo every year—the buffalo seemed content. As captive animals go, they are extremely lucky. They have the run of one of the zoological world’s most lavish spreads, a 12-acre hillside expanse filled with native grasses, live oaks, a pond, dust wallows for itching and scratching, and, to keep things super weird, Austrian-built orange gondolas that float overhead every few seconds, delivering up to eight human occupants to the 650-foot-high hilltop above.

Whatever you envision when you think of the Oakland Zoo—perhaps a leafy little sanctum in the East Bay hills with some semi-naturalistic African animal habitats and a cute children’s area—you need to revise the image. When it debuts its $72 million expansion on July 12, the zoo will have more than doubled in size to 100 acres, making it as large as both the San Diego and the San Francisco Zoos. It’ll have doubled down, too, on its longtime conservation mission, making its main priority to preserve and protect animals and plants that are native to California. (Buffalo once ranged in the northeast corner of the state, while jaguars roamed the south, until both were eventually extirpated by ranchers.) And it’ll tell essential stories that often get lost in the excitement of ogling exotic critters. “We’ll be able to talk about the biodiversity of California, about the natural history of the San Francisco Bay Area, and—a very important theme—about how humans can live with wildlife,” says Joel Parrott, the zoo’s director for the past 35 years.

The last of these priorities is made manifest in the animals’ stories. The black bears came from Kern County, where they were found raiding an elderly woman’s kitchen (the zoo talked authorities out of euthanizing them); the mountain lion cubs are orphans whose mothers were likely hunted or killed by cars (a fate that usually means death for young cougars). The California Trail offers testaments to the last century of human encroachment. Here, the animals can teach us what we’ve been missing.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Jon Steinberg at
Follow us on Twitter
Follow Jon Steinberg at