After Irma: White rhinos have fun in the mud at Lion Country Safari

There were stomps, grunts and whistles of excitement Thursday morning as they waited at the gate. They shuffled their feet and eagerly jostled each other, waiting to be allowed one by one through the passageway that had remained closed before Hurricane Irma blew through Palm Beach County.

The 12 southern white rhinos at Lion Country Safari were released from their nighttime enclosure after spending nearly a week there, wading inquisitively into the remnants of mud and water four days after Irma.

RELATED: Didn’t lose power during Irma but now it’s out? Here’s why

“I just anticipated them getting out of here and just running, finding the nearest mud hole,” said Dan Soler, Lion Country Safari’s lead rhino keeper.

The massive rhinos — each weighing more than 2,500 pounds, except 2-year-old Blossom, who clocks in at a mere 2,100 pounds — wandered among guests’ vehicles that were the first to enter the park when it reopened Thursday morning. With about 80 percent of the park running, Lion Country offered a discounted entry fee for Thursday and today: $10 plus tax per person. The park said it will be fully operational beginning Saturday.

RELATED: After Irma, Big Dog Ranch struggles to meet medical needs

“They weathered the storm wonderfully,” Lion Country Safari spokeswoman Jennifer Berthiaume said of the animals who roam the park’s 320-acre property.

She described the damage as minimal, with the worst seeming to be a large black olive tree that toppled onto a shelter in the petting zoo area.

Brian Dowling, the park’s wildlife curator, stayed at the park during the storm and went out in the thick of things to check on the goats who were in the shelter when the tree fell.

RELATED: Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter seeks volunteers, donations after Irma

“Those goats were so happy to have some extra branches,” he said, smiling. “They weren’t scared at all.”

Dowling said the park didn’t lose any of its fences, except one in the petting zoo that was damaged by the same tree. No animals died. 

Dowling, Soler and Berthiaume marveled at the number of guests at the park Thursday morning. Among them was Jessicca Oelerich, of Lake Worth, who brought her 6-month-old son, Bentley, for his first visit.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Lion Country Safari turns 50

“We’re just trying to get out of the house,” said Oelerich, who said that as a teacher out of class until Monday, she needed a way to stay busy.

Carrera Waller, of Boca Raton, was eating a hot dog and tater tots in the park’s restaurant, which featured a limited menu Thursday. She said she saw on Facebook that Lion Country Safari was reopening, and decided to come up “to support the animals.”

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“It almost looks like nothing happened here,” she said.

Berthiaume said Lion Country Safari’s staff was back “at daybreak” Monday to tend to the animals and check the property for damage.

“Everyone’s a landscaper after a hurricane,” she said.

Help needed for rescues

While there were smiles of celebration and sighs of relief at Lion Country Safari, local animal rescues put out calls for volunteers and donations.

Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter asked for large bait fish to feed birds, fruits and vegetables to feed other animals, towels, Dawn dish soap and bottled water for staff members.

The facility only just regained power Thursday, and treats wounded animals brought in by the public. People responded quickly when sanctuary staff put out a Facebook call for fuel to power their generators, said Erika Adams, the center’s animal care director.

“About 30 people showed up with containers of fuel. We poured it into our 55-gallon fuel drum. We were working in the dark and heat. It warmed my heart to see such a fantastic public response,” Adams said.

At Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Loxahatchee Groves, the request was for supplies to be airlifted daily to the Keys, where the rescue will be the primary provider of relief for pets. The group asked for donations of dog and cat food and cat litter, which can be dropped off at their facility at 14444 Okeechobee Blvd., Loxahatchee Groves.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Bill DiPaolo contributed to this report.

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