MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A drive along County Road 39 near Freeport is about as rural as it comes. That’s until silos and farm fields give-way to zebras and giraffes.

“We are on 26 acres of land, so when you first walk in people are just amazed at what we have to begin with,” said Jackie Poepping of Hemker Park and Zoo.

They’re also amazed that the Hemker Zoo has been here for nearly 4 decades. It began as the “mom and pop” dream of Mark Hemker and his wife, Joan. In fact, the 2011 movie “We Bought a Zoo” starring Matt Damon, could have been based on their story.

“Thirty-nine years ago it could have been written about us. When we married, he had waterfowl. And I thought, oh waterfowl, that’s not so bad,” said Joan.

But Mark wanted more than just birds. And like a fast-growing giraffe, the zoo grew quickly.

When Mark died in 2006, there was no question his vision would live on.

“Our dad passed away 11 years ago and my mom gave us four kids the opportunity to continue doing this. And we said yes, we all want to be a part of this,” said Jackie.

What they really want to do is educate people about conservation and preservation. Endangered species from around the world are given a second chance here.

“We have over 60 different species of animals here. We have close to 400 and some total animals,” said Jackie.

That includes getting up close and personal with kangaroos, sables, and monkeys. They also recently got an endangered red panda.

The zoo also has 3 of only 10 Japanese Serows in the U.S. after a baby was born last week.

“They are almost werewolf-looking. They are cool looking animals I think. That’s very important to us to keep it small and hands-on and give people an opportunity to see animals they have never seen anywhere else,” said Joan.

As a zoo in the back yard of farm country, the grocery list gets pretty long. Hemker’s goes through 120,000 pounds of pellets a year.

“And we go through 4,000 pounds of fish every year. So, that’s a lot of fish,” said Jackie.

By the time people leave, they’ve learned why it’s so important to care for all animals. The family knows this is a place Mark would be proud of.

“I think he would be very proud of what we are doing today. He’s taught us a lot and so has our mom, that if you believe in something and you carry through with it, you can do anything,” said Jackie.

Hemker Zoo works with other major zoos across the country to transport animals and to try and breed endangered species together.

In the winter their African animals go inside buildings kept at 80 degrees. The zoo is hoping to get rhinos sometime in 2018.

John Lauritsen