Meet the Man Behind the Crocheted Animals of Diamond Heights

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An upside sloth, an orange cat and a black and white panda perch in tree branches around Diamond Heights.
Huib Petersen has been sharing his work with his Diamond Heights neighbors for six years—in the trees. (Huib Petersen/ Rae Alexandra)

In October, Huib Petersen stepped out of his home in Diamond Heights and found a rock with a face painted on it. Under the rock was a note that read, “Dear Neighvor, My name is Siena. I am 7 years old. I am in 2nd grade. I was wondering if you can help me with a school project. Could you make a crochet koala. How much will it cust? Thank you.”

It wasn’t the first time neighborhood children called on Petersen in this way. Prompted by the joyful array of crocheted creatures he leaves nestled in trees around the neighborhood, local kids have made a point to find out who Petersen is and where exactly he lives. Petersen has spent the last six years seeking out good tree branches, creating animals he thinks would fit in them, then hanging them up during the day when most of his neighbors are in work or at school. In the course of doing so, Petersen has slowly—single-handedly—turned a two-block stretch of Diamond Street into a toy zoo of sorts.

“I got a lot of reactions from people,” Petersen told KQED during an afternoon stroll to see the tree dwellers, “so I kept doing it. Because of the animals, I know most of my neighbors now. And my neighbors know each other. It is just so lovely seeing them outside, looking at the trees. ‘Oh, there’s a new one!’”

Left: A crocheted brown goat with a round pink nose peaks over a tree branch. Right: A purple and black bat with fangs hangs upside down from a tree branch.
Petersen made the bat as a Halloween decoration but was quickly commissioned to make more for Castro and Diamond Heights residents. (Huib Petersen)

Petersen and his husband Jeffrey Tumlin moved to Diamond Heights seven years ago. Initially, his community contributions manifested as crocheted gifts he would hand out to local children. But after the shock and drama of the 2016 election, Petersen made a concerted effort to seek out more joy, and figure out better ways to spread it.

“We got Mr. Trump elected and that just hurt my heart,” Petersen says now. “And I saw at City Hall, someone was making these enormous giraffes wrapped around the trees. I saw that and I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that too. But smaller and everywhere in my neighborhood.’ Just for the fun of it.”

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“I wasn’t really doing it for the neighborhood,” he laughs impishly, “I was really doing it for myself.”

A white man with a bald head, short white goatee beard and septum piercing smiles warmly in front of a red brick wall.
Huib Petersen. (Courtesy of Huib Petersen)

By day, Petersen is a jewelry designer with an extraordinary gift for bead work. His passion for needle crafts started as a young child growing up in Holland. When he was six, his grandmother showed him how to crochet on his fingers. Around that time, he also taught himself how to knit by watching his mother making garments. “She wouldn’t teach me because I was a boy,” Petersen explains. “But because I was looking at my mother from this side, I did everything the other way around. I started everything mirrored-wise. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

A single animal can take Petersen up to a week to make, but he revels in the time-consuming work. He creates the animals in the evening, while his husband catches up on movies and TV shows. “My husband’s relaxation is sitting in front of the TV,” Petersen says. “My hands have to do something or else I get very bored. I cannot sit still.”

Though Petersen doesn’t design the animals from scratch—instead using patterns from Revelry and Etsy as jumping off points—one of the things that makes his zoo so appealing is the child-like joy he injects into each of his creatures. On our walk, when the mild-mannered maker notices a wolf he made has slumped to one side on its branch, he laughs. “Well, that’s okay,” he says. “Wolves are a little bit crooked anyway. You cannot trust them.”

Left: A crocheted sloth with googly eyes hangs upside down from its tail on a tree branch. Right: Blue, red, pink and purple crocheted crabs sit on the side of a tree branch.
A group of Petersen's tree creatures caught just after a rain shower.

At this stage, some of the animals are more weathered than others, and some have disappeared entirely. (“They're presents to the city, and the city takes them every now and again,” Petersen shrugs.) He is careful to maintain his menagerie as best as he can though. He re-positions and re-attaches older, slipping animals. He relocates ones attached to trees that have died. And he temporarily moves any that happen to be outside homes that are being painted or renovated. He, like the rest of the neighborhood, see the animals as “a little treasure hunt.”

For years, the Diamond Heights animals were simply a quirk of the neighborhood, mostly enjoyed by those that lived there. But during 2020’s prolonged shelter-in-place order, people from other parts of the city started visiting the animals on hikes. They were a fun addition to the teddy bear hunts already happening in many families. And they were a much-needed distraction from the day-to-day stresses of the pandemic.

Left: A luminous green, yellow and purple octopus sits on top of a tangled succulent plant. Right: An orange and yellow octopus sits in a tree, its long tentacles extending down the trunk.
Two of Petersen's octopuses, hanging out in Diamond Heights. (Huib Petersen/ Rae Alexandra)

It is clear from spending even a small amount of time in the vicinity that the grown-ups of Diamond Heights seem to like the animals almost as much as the kids do. The first time I stopped to take a photo of one—a goofy sloth hanging upside down by its ankles—a passing man stopped and, entirely unprompted, directed me to a tree further up the street. “You’ve gotta go see the monkeys!” he grinned.

The monkeys in question were the result of another personal request from nearby children. Two siblings wanted monkeys on the street to represent the four people in their household. Petersen dutifully obliged. “Those kids stole my heart from the first moment I saw them,” he says. So when the children returned with a friend and asked for some crocheted witch’s hats for Halloween, he made those too. Despite offers from parents to pay for his creations, Petersen always politely declines. Instead, he asks people to pay the kindness forward and donate money to charity.

Which brings us back to that request for a koala from the 7-year-old Siena. The note she left outside Petersen’s house had her mother’s phone number on the back. When he reached out to her for more details, he found out that the koala would be for a school project—a secret garden. Siena wanted there to be an animal hidden in the trees there too, just like the ones on her street. Petersen ultimately made two—one for the garden and one for Siena to keep at home. In return, her family adopted a koala through the World Wildlife Fund.

The crocheted koalas, one wearing a coral and yellow backpack "for eucalyptus treats," the other wearing a transparent tutu, "because everyone is happier in a tutu." (Courtesy of Jeffrey Tumlin)

Asked if he has any new animals planned for the neighborhood, Petersen pauses, unsure if he wants to spoil the surprise. “I still have a lot of them that I want to make,” he says. “There are grasshoppers at my house. And a praying mantis that I am really interested in making. And a couple of gnomes that I think are very funny. So there are still things coming up.”

Petersen is also planning to make some little monsters for a tree outside a nearby school. He recently made some for the windows of ImagiKnit as Halloween decorations. So many people tried to buy them that the Castro Street craft store had to start selling them.

Pink, green and purple crocheted monsters with big eyes and underbites from the window of Imagine Knit in San Francisco's Castro District.
Petersen's crochet monsters as seen in ImagiKnit. (Rae Alexandra)

Petersen himself is modest about his creations and tells me he’s not sure what all the fuss is about. Still, he keeps creating, motivated by his own positivity and community spirit that he sees reflected back in his neighbors.

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“I hope this might inspire kindness and creativity,” he says. “It’s just a nice thing. And I do it for the fun of it.”