FREEPORT, Minn. (WCCO) — Rays of sunshine cast a warm glow on a cold winter’s day. Spreading light onto an unusual gathering of animals grazing the snow covered ground.
“We have mule deer, musk oxen, buffalo,” said Heidi Roering.
In a penned prairie just outside Freeport is the Hemker Park and Zoo. It’s a collection of dozens of mammals and waterfowl from around the world. There are ostriches and big horn sheep, but this time of year the stars of the show are the smallest creatures of the Caribou family: Reindeer from the Lapland’s of northern Norway.
“In the reindeer family, both the male and the female grow antlers,” Roering said.
Mark and Joan Hemker started the herd more than 25 years ago. Joan says it was Mark’s dream to spread the magic of Christmas.
“He said to me, you want to get reindeer and pull a sleigh? I thought you’re not Santa, you’re crazy!” said Joan
That craziness has grown into a herd of 30 reindeer. Where this time of year their coats are thick and feet splayed wide, ready to pull a sleigh loaded with toys.
“The only one we don’t have is Rudolph,” said Heidi, Mark and Joan’s daughter.
When cancer took Mark Hemker’s life nearly seven years ago, the family instantly agreed to keep Mark’s dream alive. Daughter Heidi is now chief reindeer trainer and keeper.
“I always tell people they’re kind of like a little kid, except for their snow cones come at winter and that’s what they get to eat all year, they love it!” Heidi said.
But what they really love is getting harnessed to pull. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, they’ll bring the reindeer to daycares and nursing homes, schools and hospitals.
They see it as spreading the joy of Mark’s dream.
“When we get to a show, kids come out and not just kids, all ages. Their eyes light up and they can’t believe there’s real live reindeer,” Heidi said.
With a simple command, the bells jingle and hooves tromp on the frozen ground, putting smiles and wonder in faces of sleigh riders prepared to fly.
“You need Santa’s magic dust, they need that magic dust. If they had that they would fly!” Joan said.
Yet even when grounded, it’s a sight and sound that’s unforgettable. These eight tiny animals with the big antlers and hooves are about to prance into the hearts and heads of children everywhere.
“But we all walk away and we are more blessed by them. And we are better people cause we get to touch their lives,” Roering said.