Judy Berens Third Big Cat Incident since 2005 Jaguar Bites Off Thumb
Jaguar tears off thumb of visitor to Panther Ridge Conservation Center
By JANE MUSGRAVE
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 9:56 p.m. Friday, March 5, 2010
Posted: 7:13 p.m. Friday, March 5, 2010
A woman who lives on Florida's west coast lost her thumb to a jaguar on a recent visit to a privately-owned wildlife sanctuary in Wellington, state officials said Friday.
The visitor, whose name wasn't released, apparently had her fingers curled around an enclosure at Panther Ridge Conservation Center when a jaguar grabbed her hand and tore off her thumb, said Gabriella Ferraro, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The Feb. 19 attack on a friend of a center volunteer is under investigation and no further details were available.
Judy Berens, who started the preserve in 1999 and has assembled a menagerie of roughly 20 wild cats, was cited for failing to have proper barriers in place. She faces a maximum $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
The incident has renewed concerns among animal welfare advocates about the operation of the center that is open to visitors only by appointment.
It is the third time since 2005 that wildlife officials have been called to the roughly 10-acre compound off Palm Beach Pointe Boulevard. In 2008, Berens was attacked by two cheetahs as she was entertaining visitors in their enclosure. Three years earlier, a 500-pound Bengal tiger escaped from his cage but didn't get beyond the 12-foot-high fence that encircles the preserve.
Nick Atwood, of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, said three incidents in five years is too many.
"We think it's become apparent that it's not run very well," said Atwood, of West Palm Beach. While it passes state and federal inspections, is well-groomed and the animals appear to be well treated, Atwood said something is amiss.
"It appears that they treat the animals more as pets than wild animals," he said. His group opposes Florida's liberal laws that allow people to keep wild animals as pets and have made the state No. 1 in the nation for killings, maulings and escapes by big cats.
Atwood is also concerned about a May inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that found Berens had improperly declawed two clouded leopards.
"The procedure is no longer considered to be acceptable when performed solely for handling or husbandry purposes since it can cause considerable pain and discomfort to the animal and may result in chronic health problems," inspectors wrote.
Berens didn't return a phone call. When she was criticized in 2008 for paying $40,000 for two cheetahs by those who believe it feeds the market for the endangered cats, she insisted she is trying to help protect them.
"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."
Ferraro described the recent accident as an error of judgment. Berens was cited because she should have accompanied the woman and made sure she stayed behind the barriers, Ferraro said. But the public wasn't threatened.
Atwood said his group will urge the agency to make sure Berens is punished and that she and her staff receiving additional training.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com
Jaguar at Wellington exotic cat sanctuary bites woman’s thumb
By Erika Pesantes, Sun Sentinel
8:00 PM EST, March 5, 2010
A jaguar at the Panther Ridge Conservation Center for exotic and endangered cats in Wellington bit off part of a visitor's thumb on Feb. 19, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The incident, which is still under investigation, happened at around 3:30 p.m. when a woman who was accompanied by a volunteer stuck her hand in the jaguar's cage and the animal chomped down, FWC spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro said.
Judy Berens, Panther Ridge's owner, was cited with a misdemeanor for not having the proper supervision and barrier between the public and the exotic cat. She faces a fine of up to $500, Ferraro said. The jaguar will not be euthanized.
"Judy Berens was aware there was a guest of the volunteer on property. But she did not know this person was going to stick her hand in the enclosure," Ferraro said.
The unidentified woman, who Ferraro said was in her 50s and was visiting from Florida's west coast, was treated at Wellington Regional Medical Center.
Berens could not be reached for comment despite several calls and messages left at the center.
According to the center's website, the jaguar on site is named Aztec, and he was brought there from a circus environment in 2004. It is unclear when a second jaguar, Tia, also featured on the website, arrived at the center.
The center is a 10-acre sanctuary with 22 large cats including cheetahs, pumas, leopards and ocelots, and is properly licensed and open for personal tours by appointment only. It was founded in 1999.
In March 2008, Berens herself was attacked by two cheetahs, Matt and Charlie, during a fundraiser. She suffered 40 puncture wounds on her back, neck and limbs, but FWC said there was no wrongdoing. The investigation revealed that the cats were distracted by a child's balloon.
However, in February 2005, Berens was cited with a misdemeanor after a 500-pound tiger, Tristan, escaped from an improperly secured cage.
Better safeguards and improvements in practices and caging are necessary to keep the exotic cats safely away from the public, said Nick Atwood, campaign coordinator for Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.
"Having this facility in our backyard is a concern," he said. "We are concerned about public safety and animal welfare."
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