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Member Spotlight: Hemker Park & Zoo

August 27, 2021

Tucked back in the woods outside of Freeport lays one of Central Minnesota’s best kept secrets – Hemker Park & Zoo. Amongst the backdrop of corn, soybeans and silos, visitors can now jump on an all-new electric tram to learn more about exotic animals like penguins and zebras and giraffes, oh my!

What started out as a small hobby farm quickly grew into something so much more. “We never planned on a zoo when we first started. My late husband, Mark, had some waterfowl when we bought the property back in 1977, so our first building was a duck barn,” Joan Hemker, owner of Hemker Park & Zoo, recalled. “Then we happened to get some penguins and things escalated.”

When the penguins arrived, word spread quickly and the Hemkers started receiving calls from local boy and girl scout troops looking to learn more about the unique animals.

“Since the beginning of our operation, we have always put our focus on education, first and foremost,” Hemker said. “We started with small, private educational sessions with the boy and girl scout troops. Soon after, we opened to the public for scheduled groups. We charged $1 admission for these organized educational tours where people could learn more about the environment and eco-system, and see the animals – waterfowl, deer and penguins at the time.”

Since the early days, the zoo operation has grown immensely. Today, there are over 50 different animal species from around the world that people can learn about when they visit Hemker Park & Zoo. Joan is still very much involved, but the day-to-day operations are managed by Joan and Mark’s four children and their families.

“Education is still our number one priority, and we are committed to teaching visitors about the endangered and threatened animals that live at our zoo,” she said. “Our goal is to show those who visit about the importance of taking care of our environment so these animals are around for generations to come.”

GUARDIANS OF CONSERVATION

One of the newest initiatives at Hemker Park & Zoo is the Guardians of Conservation organization. This non-profit was created to support endangered animal conservation and education efforts both locally throughout Hemker Park & Zoo and around the world.

The non-profit has already helped educate zoo guests on koi fish and donated to the International Rhino Foundation to help protect rhinoceroses from poachers.

“Guardians of Conservation is working to guide the next generation down a lifelong path of animal conservation by bringing the world to their fingertips. Our younger generation may never get to see a rhino, giraffes, bontebok, or Alpine ibex as their populations are dwindling,” Hemker said. “We find this very disturbing and have created this non-profit to help change that.”

BEHIND THE SCENES

What does it take to operate a zoo in Central Minnesota? Food, electricity, and more food, to start.

Feeding the animals is no easy task. The annual grocery list for Hemker Park & Zoo includes the following:

  • 140,000 pounds of pellet
  • 122,000 pounds of hay/alfalfa
  • 240,000 mealworms
  • 27,250 pounds of produce, including romaine lettuce for the daily giraffe feedings
  • 24,600 mice
  • 4,500 pounds of bananas

“We get most of our supplies from local grocery suppliers, farmers and mills,” Hemker said. “Some items need to be specially ordered, such as the ocean fish from Iceland that the penguins eat.”

“Some of our food is ordered in bulk supply a few times per year, such as the ocean fish. Other supplies, such as fresh produce, need proper storage,” Hemker said. “That’s one of the reasons why reliable electricity is so important to the zoo. We need cold storage and freezers to keep these items fresh for our animals to enjoy.”

Reliable electricity proves even more important in the winter. Many animals at Hemker Park & Zoo come from warmer climates, but all the animals reside in Freeport, Minnesota year-round.

“Though many of our animals can be outside during the winter months, at least occasionally, some cannot. We need to keep all of our animals comfortable and cozy in Minnesota’s harshest conditions,” Hemker explained.

In order to keep animals like the giraffes and monkeys warm throughout the wintertime, Hemker Park & Zoo relies on in-floor heat in their buildings, in addition to traditional furnaces. Likewise, the penguins have special electrical lighting installed in their building, which helps stimulate breeding in the winter.

“Our electricity bills are very high during the winter months, but it’s extremely important to keep our animals comfortable,” she said.

NEW ALL-ELECTRIC TRAM

Stearns Electric recently partnered with Hemker Park & Zoo to bring a new, all-electric tram to the facility.

“We get visitors from all walks of life at Hemker Zoo. With such a large space, it can be challenging for some of our visitors to enjoy all the areas of the zoo. The new electric tram helps change that,” Hemker explained. “The two-cart tram can accommodate over 15 passengers at once and provides handicap accessibility for those who need it. And since the tram is electric, it provides a smooth, quiet ride for those on-board, which is especially nice for our elderly visitors.”

“Stearns Electric Association is committed to helping our member-consumers make efficient energy upgrades that benefit their business operations. When Hemker Park & Zoo approached us with their idea to purchase an all-electric tram, we were very excited to be a part of this new electric vehicle project,” John Pantzke, Stearns Electric’s Business Development Representative, said. “We are happy to partner with our wholesale power provider, Great River Energy, to provide a rebate to Hemker Zoo for this project, and even more proud to provide the electricity needed to charge the tram.”

“Hemker Park & Zoo is a wonderful asset to Central Minnesota. We know this tram will provide a great benefit not only to the zoo, but also to many of our area community members who visit the zoo each year,” Stearns Electric CEO Robin Doege said.

All visitors can now take a ride on the tram to learn even more about the animals residing at Hemker Park & Zoo. Visit www.hemkerzoo.com to learn more.

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