By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Known for their wide variety of zoo animals most of the year, the Hemker family of Hemker Park and Zoo northeast of Freeport is better known during the Christmas season for their reindeer sleigh rides.
It was Mark Hemker’s love of animals that spurred the acquisition of animals for a zoo in Central Minnesota. It began in 1977, with a collection of waterfowl and increased in 1980, with the first pair of whitetail deer and black bear.
“It was a hobby,” said Mark’s daughter, Heidi. “The animals were like pets. Dad just loved animals.”
Pronghorn antelope and reindeer were added in 1985. The reindeer came from Canada.
“Dad worked with the Natives in Canada learning how to break the reindeer to pull a sleigh,” Heidi said. “He really wanted to do reindeer sleigh rides.”
Mark was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1996, and he and his wife, Joan, made a career switch. The day after his diagnosis, Mark left his banking job to stay home with the kids and Joan went back to work nursing. She also ran the business, doing all the bookkeeping.
“Dad had decided that people shouldn’t have to drive all the way to Fargo or Minneapolis to go to the zoo,” Heidi said. “So he made it a full-time job and built it up to what we have today.”
Mark lost his fight with cancer in 2006, at age 50, but the family unanimously decided to continue the totally family-owned and operated enterprise.
Joan still works in surgery at the St. Cloud Hospital. “She is the official person who gets the last say in anything we do,” said Heidi.
Sleigh rides are offered on location for groups and events. They were first held at Thomsens Nursery in St. Joseph. Then the Hemkers began a family sleigh ride tradition the day after Thanksgiving for family members.
Over the years, the number of events has grown considerably. The Hemkers — siblings Heidi and her husband, Chris and children, Ella, Aubrey and Leo; Jackie and her husband, Josh; Anne and her fiancé, Roger and Marcus — can do up to six events in one day.
“We have lots of reindeer,” Heidi said with a grin.
All sleigh rides are done on location, including Gerten’s Greenhouse in the Twin Cities, Nights and Lights parade in St. Cloud, the Melrose Public Library and the Runestone Museum in Alexandria.
“We go to many family holiday parties and a number of corporate Christmas parties, mostly in the Twin Cities,” said Heidi.
Since the zoo is closed from Nov. 1 to May 1, the animals hunker down for the winter. There are ostriches and emus, zebras and camels, musk ox and three species of deer. Visitors will find two species of monkeys, with kangaroos and African porcupines. There are three species of sheep, antelope, parrots and macaws, lemur, tamarins and New Guinea singing dogs.
Reptile fans will find a house devoted entirely to them.
“We do extensive research before getting new animals,” Heidi said. “We spend a lot of time with curators of other zoos in South Dakota, North Dakota, Texas, Canada and Japan.”
The Hemker family is carrying on where their dad left off. “He was a big kid at heart,” Heidi said.
Anne remembers that on Christmas Eve, her dad would put the reindeer away, out of sight. “He told us that Santa had come to pick them up.”
The Hemkers are elves working for Santa, and are often asked if they have pointed ears.
“I have to show the kids,” said Heidi, “and I tell them that I’m not a toy elf — I’m a reindeer elf. We try to bring the magic of Christmas back for them.”