Berens was attacked last year by cheetahs she purchased for $40,000 (http://www.palmbeachpost.com/localnews/content/west/epaper/2008/04/05/m1a_cheetah_0406.html).
Horsewoman focuses on passion for big cats
By By Amy Bower Doucette
Posted: 10:50 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009
Judy Berens lives on several acres amid the sprawling equestrian estates of Wellington. Although she is an accomplished rider, Berens no longer has horses. Instead, she spends her time in the company of other large animals, including pumas, cheetahs and clouded leopards. In 1999, Berens founded the Panther Ridge Conservation Center (www.pantherridgesanctuary.org ). In the past few years, Berens has tapered off her champion hunter career and focused more on her passion for big cats.
“I’ve always been enamored with cats,” she said. “It’s only been the last year or two that they became my main responsibility.”
Panther Ridge is home to 22 cats, and can be toured by appointment. The former horse paddocks are now home to some of the world’s most endangered species. Most were abandoned by their owners once they got too large to be handled. Some, like Aztec the jaguar, once performed for people. Others, like Aztec’s mate Tia and Maya the puma, were declawed.
Not all the cats have a sad story. Berens considers the newest addition a bit of a miracle.
“Aztec’s friend Zeus, another male jaguar, died a little over a year ago,” Berens said. “Aztec started crying and calling. Somebody put me in touch with a woman who bought a rundown zoo in North Carolina. Tia was in the zoo. She was miserable for the same reason Aztec was — the cat in the cage next to her had passed away.”
Berens worked with the woman to get Tia down to Wellington, worrying the entire time that the two jaguars wouldn’t get along.
“They took one look at each other, and it was love at first sight. One hundred days from the third day they were together, Isabella was born,” Berens said.
As is the case with some older cats, Tia was unsure of how to care for her newborn. After a few days, Berens had to intervene. Now, instead of spending time in the saddle, Berens plays mom to a lively, spotted ball of fur. Bella lives with Berens in her home, which is filled with photos of both horses and cats.
The youngest member of Panther Ridge will be the guest of honor at the upcoming dinner benefit on Dec. 13 at Lola restaurant in Delray Beach. Panther Ridge depends heavily on donations. Feeding the cats alone costs about $40,000 per year. Berens relies on fund-raisers, tour groups, grants, dedicated volunteers and donors to keep the center open. She can’t keep up with the many calls she gets asking her to take in cats. Of course, the neighborhood comes with a few limitations.
“I’ve gotten requests to take tigers and lions, but they’re too big and noisy,” Berens said. “My neighbors, who just swing with this like it’s no big deal, would get a little annoyed if there was a lion roaring at all hours of the night.”
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org