News & Features

The Big Cats of Panther Ridge

Berens feeds Amos, the panther.
Berens feeds Amos, the panther.

Feeding raw meat to a full-grown panther may sound a tad dangerous, but Judy Berens ’71 and her 165-pound feline friend, Amos, have turned it into a game.

“He sits like a trained Labrador Retriever while I give him some food by hand,” Berens explains. “Then, I’ll hide the rest in his cage and he has to go find it.”

Amos is one of 16 big cats—some of them endangered species—Berens is currently sheltering at Panther Ridge Conservation Center, an animal sanctuary she founded 13 years ago on her farm near West Palm Beach, Florida.

Berens launched her venture five years after she finished the yearlong process of obtaining a license to raise exotic animals and adopted a six-week-old ocelot named Sabrina. In 1998, she received a call from a conservation officer at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission advising her he’d confiscated another ocelot from someone who did not have a permit. Berens took the orphaned ocelot in, and about a year after that, she received another call about a sickly puma cub.

“I foolishly went to look at him, and here was this tiny creature with sapphire blue eyes staring up at me, alternately crying and purring,” Berens says.

The young puma joined the two ocelots on Berens’ farm, and Panther Ridge was born. Since then, she has provided a home for more than three dozen large felines—panthers, jaguars, cheetahs, some rare clouded leopards, and even a tiger.

Berens draws the line at lions. “Their roars can be heard for five miles, and my neighbors would not be pleased,” she says.

Macho, an ocelot, on his way to Berens’s lap. Ming, a clouded leopard Berens with Ming and Suki, two clouded leopards. Ming gets a chin-scratch, beloved by cats large and small. Aztec and Tia, two rescued jaguars, play in the pool. Isabella, a jaguar cub

Berens says her neighbors have been aware of her love for big cats since they first saw her taking 30-pound Sabrina for walks. “I had a harness for her, and we’d go out for walks with the Jack Russells and other dogs in the neighborhood,” Berens recalls. “Sabrina had a definite idea of where her territory was—I guess you could say she walked me.”

Berens has obtained her animals from numerous sources. Some were confiscated from owners who didn’t have proper permits. Others came from licensed owners who no longer wanted to care for them. Some of the clouded leopards came from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans was devastated by the hurricane, and Berens received a call a few weeks after the storm from the director of the Nashville (Tennessee) Zoo asking if she could take four clouded leopards his zoo had rescued.

“I did some shuffling and found room for them, and it was like they thought they’d gone to heaven,” Berens says. “They’d climb all over me and take naps in my lap. They even let me clip their nails.”

Getting a kiss from Charlie, the cheetah.
Getting a kiss from Charlie, the cheetah.

Learning which cats to trust and which to keep at a distance can have a learning curve, Berens says. She’s been bitten and scratched numerous times (“It goes with the territory”), but only once did an injury require serious medical attention, after she was scratched by a cheetah.

“The people at the emergency room thought I ought to get an IV of antibiotics, and they kept me overnight,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to get back to work.”

Berens says she has always kept her distance from a jaguar named Aztec because she knows he had been abused before he came to Panther Ridge.

“I’m afraid I might have a mannerism that would trigger Aztec’s memory of that behavior,” she says.

An animal lover and avid equestrian all her life, Berens says she has learned how to take care of her large feline guests from numerous sources.

“It’s sort of like graduating from college and thinking you know just about everything, and then you get your first job,” she says. “You realize you’re going to have to learn something every day.”

Berens says she seeks advice from local veterinarians, zookeepers, and other experts in the field, “and I get lots of calls, as well—there’s lots of trading of information.” A vacation for Berens is a trip to a zoological convention, where she can really get a chance to interact with the specialists in the veterinary, research, and conservation fields.

Panther Ridge is accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Feline Conservation Federation, and Berens holds a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In addition to Berens herself—“I guess you could say I’m the Mother Superior and full-time slave,” she says—Panther Ridge has one other full-time employee, some occasional part-timers, and a small team of volunteers who help her with her newsletter, website, and fundraising activities.

“Fundraising is a daunting task—the economic downturn has been devastating to all charities, and animal charities account for only about three percent of all the money that is donated, so taking a hit from that small piece of the pie is difficult,” she says.

Jaguar cub Isabella gets an “A+” for cuteness.
Jaguar cub Isabella gets an “A+” for cuteness.

Berens holds a major fundraiser each year, enlisting the help of friends and colleagues to gather interesting auction items.

“Last year, we auctioned off the cats—or, rather, their care—for a year. Everyone enjoyed the bidding so much that we are going to do it again this year,” she says.

Berens also hosts tours of her sanctuary in exchange for donations—and she says Amos does his part to be charming.

“He and I have been together for seven years, and he definitely knows how cute he is,” she says. “He’s usually the star of the show.”

Keeping Panther Ridge going is hard work, Berens says, but well worth the effort. “My mission is to raise awareness of the dire situation faced by endangered wildlife and to encourage young people to become more involved before it is too late,” she says. “There’s just a sense of joy you get seeing an animal who’s had a rough time begin to enjoy life again. It’s pretty rewarding.”

—Larry Hertz 

Photos courtesy of Panther Ridge.

Posted Wednesday, January 23, 2013