By Steve Winston
Down below, a lone leopard wanders the grasslands.
Up above, a panther peers out from behind the camouflage of a tree branch.
But you’re not in Africa. You’re in Palm Beach County.
In the “wilds” of far-western Palm Beach County, in an area more accustomed to horses than to big cats, you’ll find Panther Ridge Conservation Center, a 10-acre refuge for cats that have been abandoned or are no longer wanted.
It’s a place where these animals are nursed back to health. Where they’re thriving. Where they’re in surroundings – and fed diets – similar to those in the wild. And where you can actually stand only inches away from them, with nothing but a fence between.
Panther Ridge is the brainchild – no, the passion – of Judy Berens, who has such a fascination for these magnificent animals that she actually had an ocelot as a house-pet for years. In the mid-90’s – because people knew of her unique pet – big-cat owners who no longer wanted the responsibility began bringing their animals to her. So she founded Panther Ridge as a non-profit refuge, and opened it to tourists in 2003.
Now she has more than 20 cats here, among them exotics such as jaguars, black leopards, servals, caracals, ocelots, and clouded leopards, as well as panthers, cougars (mountain lions), and cheetahs, etc.
When she speaks about these animals, it’s with an obvious love in her heart.
“So many of these animals are literally on the verge of extinction,” Berens said. “There used to be 450,000 lions in Africa and Asia. “Now there are less than 20,000. They’ll probably be gone in our lifetime…and with them, tigers and snow leopards, too.”
Cats in the wild face grave environmental threats, Berens said, among them pesticides, fertilizers, climate change, methane gas escaping from under the fast-melting Arctic ice, and the fact that many Third World countries are disregarding environmental regulations in their rush to industrialize. Then there are the threats that have been around forever – hunters, fur traders, and tribes who kill the cats for meat or for their teeth, to be used in homemade remedies.
Judy’s cats, however, are happy and comfortable in their surroundings. Her feline family includes Charlie the Cheetah, who actually walks up and nuzzles her, licks her hand, and enjoys her hugs. Brandy the puma (pumas, mountain lions, and cougars are actually all the same animal, with different names in different places) belongs to a species that’s the largest purring cat, up to 275 pounds. Amos is a stunning black leopard with green eyes – and kisses for Judy.
Then there’s Bella, a jaguar rejected by her mother at birth, whom Judy had to bottle-feed to keep alive. Nearby is Aztec, Bella’s dad, a grand old man of 18. Other residents of Panther Ridge include Audrey, a 22-year-old cougar; Lexi, a serval from Africa; and a 22-year-old ocelot named Cody, who’s a member of a breed that isn’t large but does have a bit of a temper – and is nicknamed by Berens as “Bites-a-Lot.”
“The most-endangered breed we have are the black leopards,” Berens said. “They also have the largest teeth of any cat. And we’re lucky enough to have four of them, including a brother/sister pair, Ming and Mei.”
Berens does not actually enter the animals’ “home” enclosures (which could make them feel threatened), but interacts with them in an outer enclosure connected to the main one. She lets them come to her, and they do, every time she enters.
Panther Ridge conducts tours by appointment only, with a minimum of four people for a licensed guide, and a minimum of two (at a different price) if you’d like to be guided by Judy herself. And it’s not hard to tell how visitors feel about Panther Ridge.
“The coolest thing here, I think,” said Jennifer Lathrop of Alexandria, Va., “is not only the chance to see these magnificent animals up close, but also to learn about the danger they’re in – and what we can do to save them.”
And sometimes, if they’re lucky, the kids may get a chance to actually pat one of the smaller (docile) cats.
When you go…
Panther Ridge Conservation Center
14755 Palm Beach Point Blvd
Wellington, Fla. 33414
Photos by Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA