By LIZ VERLEY, Staff Writer
What is now known as the Hemker Park and Zoo began as the Hemker Game Farm in 1977.
Joan Hemker, owner of the park and zoo said, “Mark and I were married in 1977. He had waterfowl at that time and his vision always was that Central Minnesota needed a zoo. We started Hemker Game Farm with the waterfowl.”
In 1980, the game farm, located near Freeport, right off I-94, acquired its first pair of white tail deer and black bear, and in 1985, it added pronghorn antelope and its first pair of reindeer.
In 1992, the game farm’s name was changed to Hemker Wildlife Park. Later that year, the first six black-footed penguins
arrived at the park.
Joan said, “We changed the name to ‘Wildlife Park’ so it did not give the image that hunting was allowed. At no time was any hunting allowed on the property.”
The park opened to the public in 1994.
“We wanted the park to be people friendly. We wanted them to be able to take their time looking at the animals. We also had a picnic area,” said Joan.
Mark passed away in 2006. Joan said, “To stay open or not was a hard decision to make, but the four kids all agreed they wanted to continue on with the park open to the public.”
In 2008, the Hemker Wildlife Park became the Hemker Park and Zoo, a new picnic area was added, as was a petting zoo.
Today, Joan’s children all have their own responsibilities. Heidi is the director of the zoo, Jacqueline coordinates the gift shop and is an animal curator, Anne heads the educational programs and is an animal curator, and Marcus is head of animal sales and in charge of the animal exhibits.
Joan said, “Heidi’s husband, Chris Roering, Jacqueline’s fiancee, Josh Poepping and Ann’s boyfriend, Roger Blenker, are very integral parts of the zoo. I am so blessed to have them. They have as much interest in the zoo as the family does.”
She said, “The children have marketed the zoo. They all have a college degree that helps in the running of the zoo.”
Joan, who is also a full-time surgical nurse at the St. Cloud Hospital, said, “We operate and carry the same licenses as other zoos such as Como Park, Duluth Zoo, etc., but we receive no funding from the state. Twice a year we have unscheduled visits from inspectors with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). They inspect our records, check the animal’s health and check their environment.”
In 2011, the Souris River surged toward Minot, N.D., Roosevelt Park Zoo. All of the exhibits and buildings were buried under water with depths up to 12 feet. The extensive damage caused by the flood required zoo staff to find alternative housing arrangements for the animals until the zoo grounds can be repaired.
At the present time, Hemker Park and Zoo is home to some of Minot’s camels, monkeys and birds.
The Hemker Park and Zoo adds something new each year. In 2011, a new educational building was added where people can touch and feel the exhibits. This year, terrariums are being added which will hold a variety of insects.
One exhibit Joan describes as “a hit” is the budgie (small parrots) site. People can enter the exhibit and interact with the birds.
All the feed for the animals at Hemker Park and Zoo is purchased, and each species has a specialized diet. During the winter season, many of the animals are housed in controlled environment buildings on the site.
While visiting the zoo, guests will have the opportunity to see 32 different waterfowl and at least 36 different species of animals.
Some of the animals on display include red kangaroos, reindeer, bacterium camels, big horn sheep, dall sheep, a variety of monkeys, a boa constrictor, African spurred tortoises and many more.
Joan said, “When we heard about the movie ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ we thought it should have been about our family. It could have been called, ‘My kids fell into a zoo.’”
The zoo is open from May 1 though Oct. 31 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is charged. Tours are available by appointment.
Arrangements can also be made for parties, special holiday events, wagon rides and winter sleigh rides.
For more information, call (320) 836-2426.