By JANE MUSGRAVE
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 05, 2008
Bitten and bruised and stitched back together, Judy Berens was
welcomed home last week by what she described as her "close-knit family."
The family, however, isn't your typical mom, pop and couple of kids.
What are these?
The welcoming party for Berens featured about 20 yowling, howling
leopards, jaguars, cougars and other big cats – an ever-growing
menagerie that existed in relative obscurity until March 29, when two
cheetahs attacked her while she was entertaining visitors as part of a
fund-raiser for her wildlife sanctuary.
"All of the animals missed me," the 58-year-old said of their reaction
to her 11/2-day hospital stay.
Likewise, few outside the cat's enclosures in Wellington's horse
country missed news of the attack.
It catapulted Berens into the national limelight, including an
appearance on NBC's Today show. It also put her in the cross hairs of
a long-running debate among animal welfare enthusiasts about who
should own wild animals and what they should be allowed to do with them.
One flash point was that she paid $40,000 for the cheetahs, which came
to her Panther Ridge Conservation Center from South Africa about three
months ago. Another was that she entered their enclosure.
"Interacting with the animal as if it's a pet is just wrong," said
Carole Baskin, one of the founders of Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary for
146 wild cats in Tampa.
Ron Magill, a cheetah expert at Miami's Metrozoo, agreed.
It's not that cheetahs are killers. "They're probably the least
dangerous of the big cats. Your average German shepherd is more
powerful and dangerous," he said.
But they are wild animals that act on instinct and can't be trained,
Beth Preiss of The Humane Society of the United States said her group
takes an even stricter view. Wildlife sanctuaries shouldn't even be
open to the public, she said.
"You should give them a nice space to live out their lives," said
Preiss, who is director of the organization's exotic pets campaign.
However, others are equally insistent that such a stance ignores the
economic reality sanctuaries face and the effect of letting the public
see, learn and care about animals that are being massacred half a
"I guarantee that, if you ever go and see a cheetah and watch it run,
you will care about cheetahs for the rest of your life," said
Christine Janks, who operates a wildlife sanctuary in Gainesville and
is on the board of a well-known cheetah rescue organization in Africa.
Berens said that's what she envisions her two cheetahs will do for
children and others who come to her 10-acre sanctuary off Palm Beach
Pointe Boulevard not far from the Loxahatchee National Wildlife
Refuge, where thousands of wild cats used to run free.
"It's one thing to see things on National Geographic and another thing
to see it up close," she said. "It's a way of getting people involved
at the grass-roots level with conservation efforts."
In fact, that was her pitch to federal authorities to let her bring
the 2-year-old male cheetahs into the country.
Baskin said no one should be buying wild animals. "If you pay for the
animals, no matter how good your intentions, you're feeding the market
for them," she said.
Janks, who is on the board of the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust
and helped Berens get her two cheetahs, said she understands Baskin's
view. However, she said, organizations such as De Wildt, which has
sold cheetahs to zoos around the country, including Metrozoo, use the
money from selling captive-bred cheetahs to fund their real mission:
stopping South African farmers from killing the endangered spotted
cats and buying land to create habitat for them.
"We do breed cheetahs, and a lot go to wealthy people in Dubai and
other private collectors," she said. "It's a way to defray expenses
for all the other work that De Wildt does."
Baskin counters that the need for cash to do good doesn't excuse
turning wild cats into a commodity. "If an orphanage were to suggest
that a small percentage of their children be prostituted to provide
for the rest, the orphanage would be shut down in a heartbeat," she said.
Florida is a hot spot for abandoned wild animals, Magill said. "I call
it the Ellis Island of exotic animals," he said, adding that scores
are ultimately destroyed when people tire of them and there's no place
to send them.
The state leads the country in the number of breeders and dealers of
exotic animals and also leads the nation in the number of killings,
maulings and escapes by big cats, Baskin said.
People adopt kittens, not fully understanding that they will grow
quickly into large, strong, uncontrollable cats. Then they want to get
rid of them. Sometimes people start sanctuaries and then become
And feeding cats that can eat as much as 10 to 15 pounds of meat a day
Two weeks ago, the owner of a 25-year-old sanctuary near Tampa shut
his doors, acknowledging he was likely to lose his permit after being
cited 40 times since 1993. He is searching for homes for 35 big cats.
Berens started with an ocelot in the mid-1990s. Then she added a cougar.
Court records show she married and divorced twice. She was getting
$15,000 a month from her first spouse while she was married to a
Tennessee investment banker. When she and second husband, James
Greene, split in 1999, she received $1 million in alimony, plus
property, including the Wellington land where she lives and operates
But even with her wealth, she needs public support.
In 2005, the last year for which records are available, she raised
$213,918 from the public, according to the sanctuary's tax returns. Of
that, $50,000, or 38 percent, went to fund-raising – a hefty amount,
according to charity watchdog groups. Big Cat Rescue, by comparison,
spent 5 percent of its $646,887 budget in 2006 on fund-raising.
Those who know Berens say she is passionate about her animals and
dedicated to spreading the word about the threat they face in the
wild. Her cougar, Charlie, is the mascot for Panther Run Elementary
School in Lake Worth. Children at the school raised money last week to
feed Charlie, said Principal Pierre D'Aoust. A mural of Charlie adorns
a wall in the cafeteria.
Wildlife officials said Berens' facility meets all requirements. They
were called to the sanctuary in 2005 when a 500-pound Bengal tiger
escaped from an unlatched cage. The animal never left the fenced-in
State and federal wildlife officials found her facility in order last
week during inspections after the cheetah attack. The Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission recommended that she no longer enter
the enclosures alone.
Berens said she is reviewing her operations. Investigators blamed a
child with a ball outside the enclosure for distracting the cheetahs.
In their rush to get the ball, they knocked down Berens and then
Janks said children aren't allowed on tours at De Wildt. Because of
their size, cheetahs view them as prey. Berens said she typically
requires that children on tours be carried or that an adult hold their
hands. But, she said, there were so many people at the fund-raiser
that the rules weren't followed.
Still, she's not sorry for bringing the cheetahs here or showing them
off to the public in hopes they will care about the cats' fate.
"It's better than extinction," she said.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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