By RON HAYES
Palms West Monthly
Posted Oct. 4, 2018
WELLINGTON — You’ve heard of cat ladies, of course. Those overly affectionate feline fanciers who take in cat after cat after cat, until one sad day when Animal Care & Control knocks on the door and 45 or 50 purring pets are removed from the house for safe keeping.
Judy Berens is not that kind of cat lady. She prefers size over multitude.
On 10 acres in rural Wellington, where most folks keep horses, Berens is the founder and director of Panther Ridge Conservation Center, a nonprofit home to 20 exotic and endangered cheetahs and cougars, jaguars, leopards and pumas – eight species in all.
Judy Berens is a big cat lady.
“When I bought here, I had horses and three exotic cats,” she recalls. “Now I have 20 cats and no horses. I don’t have time for both.”
Originally from Minnesota, Berens came to Wellington from Nashville after visiting the area regularly for horse shows and equestrian festivals.
“But I’ve always loved cats,” she says. “I’m just drawn to their beauty, so in the mid-90s I got a license to have a small exotic pet, a 22-pound ocelot named Sabrina.”
She was married then, living in Palm Beach Polo Club, and used to walk Sabrina around the club on a leash while the neighbors walked their dogs.
“Well, once you have a license, people call you,” she explains. “The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission will call and say they have a cat that’s been confiscated. So I took in another ocelot.”
And then she took in a cougar from Loxahatchee that had metabolic bone disease.
“I outgrew the Polo Club.”
In 1999, she bought the 10 acres that are now Panther Ridge. “And it just grew.”
Today, Panther Ridge Conservation Center is a beautiful spread of rolling green grass and shade trees, under which the cats’ zoo-sized enclosures stand. With accommodations for 20 cats, the center is now full.
There’s Charlie the cheetah, and there’s Amos, the black leopard. Mateo and Isabella are jaguars and Brandy’s a puma.
The cats’ enclosures are constructed of chain link fencing, with plenty of room to roam and frolic, and separate homes in each enclosure for sleeping and getting out of the rain.
They have toys galore – balls to play with, and bowling pins, tree limbs to stretch out on, slides to slide down and wooden climbing structures.
Mateo and Isabella share a swimming pool.
“Jaguars are the best swimmers in the cat family,” Berens says. “They can jump on top of a crocodile and crush its skull with one bite.”
Over in the food preparation building, Taj, Malee and Lura, three baby clouded leopards, share a temporary holding area.
“Clouded leopards have the longest canine teeth in proportion to their skull of any living cat,” she notes. “Two inches when fully grown.”
Catnip may be the preferred intoxicant of small, adorable kittens, but Berens’ big cats have more expensive tastes.
Amos the leopard prefers Calvin Klein’s Obsession For Men cologne, while Isabella, the jaguar, is partial to peppermint oil.
Berens keeps about 40 bottles of perfumes and essential oils, which she dabs or sprays on their toys. That, she says, is a big cat’s catnip.
And don’t even think about serving them Friskies Party Mix for a treat. Big cats want tasty … well, bloodsicles.
“We take the blood from the meat they’re fed and freeze it in muffin baking cups for licking,” she says. “We have happy cats!”
Unfortunately, big cats require a big budget. In addition to bloodsicles, the cats eat about 100 pounds of beef, lamb, venison, rabbit and chicken every day. Berens says the annual cost of employing two staff members, plus veterinary care, food and maintenance of the facilities totals more than $200,000. The money comes from tours, private donations and grants.
The enterprise is so expensive Berens is moving the center to land in Loxahatchee because it will be cheaper to operate there.
Think how much easier – and less expensive – it would be to simply keep a manageable family of house cats and dogs.
But Berens isn’t interested in becoming a small cat lady.
“The bottom line with small cats and dogs,” she says, “is simply that they are never going to go extinct. These big cats are rushing to extinction, mostly through loss of habitat, poaching and hunting.”
In the past 50 years, the number of leopards throughout the world is down to less than 40,000 from an estimated high of 750,000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Cheetahs, the most endangered cat in Africa, once numbering about 100,000, are now down to less than 7,000.
The cats’ lifespan can be twice as long in captivity, Berens notes. Duma, a serval who came to her at 2, is now 20.
“Once they come here, they stay with me their entire life,” she says.
But someday, she knows, she will have to scale back. Until then, she’s the lady with a big heart for big cats, caring for her animals and trying to educate the public about them.
“If we can raise awareness about how endangered they are,” she says, “maybe we can get people to support work in their natural habitat to try to save them.”
To learn more about scheduling a tour of Panther Ridge Conservation Center, go online to PantherRidge.org or call (561) 795-8914.
Pictured above: Panther Ridge Conservation Center founder and Director Judy Berens tends to Charlie, a 12-year-old cheetah who Berens says she brought to the center to become an “ambassador” for his species. Photo by Carolyn Rose Designs/Palms West Monthly