Palm Beach Co. facility has jaguars, leopards, other big cats

Panther Ridge had a tiger escape in 2005: http://myfwc.com/Whatsnew/05/south/tigerinwellington.html

By Stephanie Horvath
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted July 1 2007

Wellington – Blame it on Katharine Hepburn.

Maybe if little Judy Berens had never seen Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 movie in which Hepburn keeps a pet leopard in her New York apartment, she never would have grown up to own 20 sharp-toothed, big cats.

“I thought if she could have a leopard in New York, I could have a leopard,” said Berens, now 58.

She has her leopard, as well as two jaguars, one serval, one caracal, four clouded leopards, five cougars and six ocelots.

She houses the sleek cats in leafy enclosures on her 10-acre Wellington horse farm, Panther Ridge Sanctuary. It’s a retirement home for big cats of all kinds, some of whom haven’t had the best lives. Berens runs through 100 pounds of meat a day and $150,000 a year caring for them, a tab she pays for with fundraising through her nonprofit organization and donations from the schools and individuals she takes on tours.

Berens’ farm is a menagerie of 20 personalities and life stories, all separated from the rest of the world by 8-foot-tall, chain-link fences.

There’s good-natured Charlie, the cougar that lives in Beren’s backyard, swims in her pool and watches television in her house. He is the mascot for Panther Run Elementary School and purrs when he rubs his face against the chain-link fence.

Zeus and Aztec are the two former circus jaguars who like to dive for fish in their swimming hole. Melly, the clouded leopard rescued after Hurricane Katrina, will let Berens kiss her on the nose. Monty, the bad-tempered ocelot who had a rough start in life, gave Berens her one bad bite. Duma and Phoebe, the serval and the caracal, share a cage and don’t mind anyone walking in.

And finally there’s Amos, the black leopard that Berens raised almost from infancy. Before the insurance got too expensive, she used to take him everywhere: the Regal Cinemas off State Road 7, restaurants, the Grand Prix horse shows on Sundays.

“He’s the best behaved leopard,” Berens said while stroking his back through a chain-link fence. “Up until a couple of years ago, I’d put a leash on him and take him to PetSmart. And he’d just walk around.”

But Berens is careful to point out that although some of her big cats are social, they are not domesticated. She has been scratched and bitten enough times to remind her they’re still wild animals.

“This cat, as friendly as he is, is probably the most dangerous cat here,” she said of Amos. “Leopards by repute are very quick, very smart and they know their capabilities.”

Berens has had only one close call, which was more than two years ago. A Bengal tiger named Tristan slipped out after his owner, who worked for Berens at the time, didn’t latch the gate properly. Luckily, it all ended well. After meandering around a couple paddocks and getting a fright from a horse, state fish and wildlife officers tranquilized the tiger and took him home. Berens now has a double perimeter fence around her property.

It was very different from the story of Bobo, a pet tiger that lived in a Loxahatchee Groves compound owned by Steve Sipek, a former B-movie Tarzan. Bobo was shot to death after a state wildlife officer said he felt threatened.

“Every time I give a tour, I impress upon people that though it looks like it’s easy to handle these cats, it’s not always,” Berens said.

She now as a close relationship with many of the cats. Some will let her enter their cages to brush their backs or scratch them behind the ears. She said it’s a trust built over time. Take the clouded leopards she rescued after Hurricane Katrina. Berens sat inside their cages every day for two weeks until finally one of the small leopards approached her.

“The first one came out and sat on my foot. It was like she said, ‘OK, I’m accepting you,'” Berens said. “You go in little incremental steps with getting to know the animals.”

She didn’t know much about big cats when she started her 1,000 hours of state-mandated training to get her first ocelot in the early 1990s. She said her parents rolled their eyes and her friends were supportive as she pursued her dream.

“The only experience I had was occasional trips to zoos,” she said. “I think it was in my blood. Why would anybody do anything like this? It’s almost unexplainable.”

For more information about Panther Ridge Sanctuary, call 561-795-8914 or see www.pantherridgesanctuary.org.

Stephanie Horvath can be reached at smhorvath@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6643.

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/southflorida/ sfl-flppanther0701pnjul01,0,3190956.story?coll= sfla-home-headlines

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