Thursday, September 6, 2007

Hearst's Monarch was a real bear

After our recent five-hour stroll through the San Francisco Zoo, husband Richard practically skipped out to the car. Granddaughter, Alyssa, 8, however, was dragging.

She whimpered, “Mommy, my knee pits hurt."

But that was at the end of our story.

Our latest family adventure was triggered by a wonderful 1889 tale about William Randolph Hearst’s stubborn streak, a California grizzly bear and a how-to for starting a zoo.

According to historians, media magnate Hearst and reporter Allen Kelly had a prolonged argument over the status of California grizzlies in the wild.

Hearst was convinced the bears were gone and challenged the reporter to find a grizzly in the state’s mountains. But to prove the point, Kelly had to bring the bear back alive.

Five months later, a triumphant Kelly returned to the city with an enormous caged grizzly, enchanting more than 20,000 people waiting at the train station.

There’s no record of Hearst’s reaction.

But what do you do with a big bear in San Francisco? If you’re banker Herbert Fleishhacker, you start a zoo.

Monarch the grizzly captivated the city for 16 years, but never made it to the zoo’s present location.

Husband Richard and I did, however, with Alyssa, her sister Caitlyn and their mother, Lori Tanner.

But first, there was the electric scooter. Now, Richard has no trouble walking, but long sessions of standing and gazing at this or that really magnify his aches and twinges into full-fledged pains in the … whatever.

Honoring his dignity surely would cut short the zoo visit. The scooter could embarrass him, but would also help him enjoy a longer day. No contest, honey. Swallow that pride.

I certainly wasn’t going to push a wheelchair up those hills, and the zoo only has two scooters to rent. So we arrived early. Side benefit: We got a good parking spot for our tailgate lunch.

Quickly, we learned how much the zoo has changed! Serpentine paths wind among spacious natural habitats laced with animals, plants, trees and ponds.

But it sure is easy to get lost. Distracted people constantly bumped into us and others, because each person had a camera in one hand, mandatory site map in the other, and a puzzled expression.

Lori said she was “surprised that the zoo was so hilly, so green and big, and that there were so many habitats rather than cages. The animals didn’t seem at all stressed out.”

Our favorites?

The stately giraffes posed for glamour shots. You could almost hear them say, “Get my good side, now. Focus, girlfriend.”

Ever watched a giraffe get up? From a spread-eagle position at the pond’s edge, the animal literally had to jump up and pull in all his legs at once.

From an elevated path, we were within a few feet of a giraffe’s head as he used a tiny branch for dental floss and, as Caitlyn put it, “picked his nose with his tongue.”

And we loved the Hearst Grizzly Gulch, funded by the Hearst Foundation.

Stephen Hearst, vice president/general manager of the Hearst Corp. and W.R.’s grandson, told the San Francisco Chronicle it was “the fastest million-dollar grant that ever went through the foundation,” taking a mere three weeks to arrange. “I called the president of the gift committee, who happens to be my father,” George R. Hearst, Jr., chairman of the corporation board.

Monarch would be so proud.

During our visit, grizzly sisters Kiona and Kachina wrestled, romped and chased each other around, climbing on a rocky, waterfall-enhanced hill.

Kachina frolicked in the pool like an otter, then cuddled up in the water near a glassed-in patio where we stood. At one point, she leaned her paw up against the glass, close enough so we could inspect her manicure!

Grandpa Richard frolicked, too. On that unusually sunny and warm day, he scooted around, giggling, taking pictures, quacking like an aoogah horn and captivating every other little boy in the place.

We left the zoo with overworked tootsies, sunburned noses and lovely memories of another family escapade.

A great day? You bet. After all, whether you’re writing about a grizzly bear named Monarch, a scooter ride or aching “knee pits,” every good story needs a good ending.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

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