All posts by wellingtonINSIDER

JP Picone Of Home Loan Experts Helps Clients With Their Mortgage Needs

JP Picone Of Home Loan Experts Helps Clients With Their Mortgage Needs

You never know on what path your life will take you. For John Gerard “JP” Picone of Home Loan Experts, what began as a dream of playing professional baseball has led to a successful career as a mortgage broker.

It all started in Newark, N.J., back in 1971.

“I was the only child in a middle class, Italian family,” Picone recalled. “My career goal at that time was to play second base for the New York Yankees. I played a lot of baseball growing up. I attended mostly Catholic schools — St. Thomas in Bloomfield for my elementary years and Holy Family in Nutley for junior high. I graduated from Clifton High School in 1989.”

After high school, Picone got a job as a senior file clerk at a top-shelf law firm with help from his mother, Doreen, who was employed there.

“I enjoyed my time there very much and was even offered assistance with college and law school, if I wanted to commit to becoming an attorney,” he said. “I really wanted to follow in the footsteps of my dad, uncle and cousin; all hard-working men and business owners in their own right. These were the people I looked up to. I really wanted to be in my own business.”

After running his own towing business for three years, Picone relocated to South Florida in 1997. His extensive auto background led him to become a salesman for AutoNation. He attended AutoNation University with plans to move up in the company.

“For six months, I was an assistant finance manager, a finance manager for four years and finally, a director of finance,” he said. “My financial automotive career has taken me through many auto dealerships: AutoNation, Acura, GMC, GM, Cadillac, Hyundai, Suzuki, Subaru, Mazda, Chrysler and Mitsubishi.”

Picone, who has been married for more than 20 years to his wife Meredith, has two children: son Jared, 20, and daughter McKenna, 18. He has been a Palm Beach resident since 2000.

After a few years serving as a loan modification manager for a bank, he made the leap to the mortgage side and began originating residential and commercial loans.

“I worked with several companies before going with Home Loan Experts, a wholesale mortgage broker, in 2017,” Picone said. “I am licensed to originate loans in both Florida and Texas and can refer in all 50 states. My concentration is in Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, Loxahatchee, West Palm Beach, Jupiter, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Lake Worth and Palm Beach Gardens.”

Picone enjoys his position as a wholesale broker.

“At this level, I can offer my clients competitive rates and better service by shopping their loans while having access to every loan product available, for all the various credit profiles,” he said. “In effect, this gives me more control of the loan and allows my clients to close either on time or early, almost every time.”

Home Loan Experts makes sure to go the extra mile for each and every client.

“We have the ability to offer lower rates and zero broker closing costs,” Picone said. “This means both lower payments and lower out-of-pocket closing costs for our clients.”

Picone also strives to stay in contact with clients after the mortgage is done.

“I am available from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week,” Picone said. “If you need something on a Saturday or a Sunday, I am available. Our services also do not stop after your closing. I assist my clients if something occurs after we close or if they just have a question. We are here for you.”

To contact John Gerard “JP” Picone, call (561) 275-3984 or (561) 318-5987. Learn more at www.homeloanexpertsusa.com.

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Above And Beyond Party Décor Turns A Client’s Vision Into Reality

Above And Beyond Party Décor Turns A Client’s Vision Into Reality

With life comes milestones, many of which are celebrated as special and unique occasions. Andrea Plevin of Above and Beyond Party Décor has built her business around making clients happy by bringing their dream celebrations to life.

With life comes milestones, many of which are celebrated as special and unique occasions. Andrea Plevin of Above and Beyond Party Décor has built her business around making clients happy by bringing their dream celebrations to life.

Originally from Westchester County, N.Y., Andrea moved to Wellington to support her family. Her two oldest children stayed up north for college, and her youngest, Kylee Plevin, joined Andrea and her husband Roger in Florida as they cared for her in-laws. The entire family has since reunited in Florida.

Andrea has long been involved in the communities that she has lived in, which led to her career in party planning.

“I was very active and volunteered for any kind of function that involved decorating, and I really enjoyed it,” she recalled. “People kept saying, ‘You should do this for a living.’ I finally decided to do it.”

Planning parties keeps her busy, too. So far in 2019, Andrea has worked on more than 25 baby showers and first birthday parties alone. Many people don’t realize that doing everything for an event on their own can get expensive very quickly.

“Often, I have supplies here that they can use, and I just take them back, so it’s like a rental,” she explained. “That is going to be much less money than if they went out, bought everything themselves, and then after the party, they don’t know what to do with it.”

During her 23 years in the business of making magic, all three of the Plevin children have been involved in the company to some extent. Her daughter, Jordana Norring of Jupiter, and son, Andrew Plevin of Wellington, have both contributed many times over. “My son Andrew is the fastest at tying balloons that you will ever see,” Andrea said. “Recently, my youngest has become very involved in the business, too.”

Andrea is also now a grandmother of seven, including Dean and Brad Lamont; Grayson and Rayna Norring; and Celia, Hudson and Claire Plevin.

After growing up in Wellington, Kylee graduated from Florida Atlantic University with an emphasis on technical design. She worked in the healthcare field for years before deciding to follow in her mother’s footsteps and feed her creative side. “I’m like my mom, very creative, very hands on, very crafty,” Kylee said. “But I also balance out my mom in ways. I’m very logistic and structured.”

Above and Beyond Party Décor can handle any type of function, from a personal backyard birthday party for two, to a 500-guest event at an exclusive country club. Their unique specialty? Larger than life arches and sculptures made entirely of balloons.

“Organic arches are really in right now,” said Kylee, who explained the involvement of different shapes, sizes and layers of balloons. “To keep up with the trends, we have to adapt to what people are wanting. Sometimes that means we have to learn new and different techniques.”

For the best experience from start to finish, clients should always consider their timeline and realize that successful event planning takes time to execute.

“For large events, like a wedding or bar mitzvah, I suggest getting started at least six months in advance,” Andrea said. “Smaller events should start planning at least a month or two ahead.”

Because the schedule for party planning varies, Andrea is open to working with clientele in person or virtually. She and her daughter are quite tech savvy.

“If I have a picture, I can do it,” Andrea said. “I like talking to people, but I also text often, as more people have been contacting me that way. For people out of the state, we can literally do the entire party by text, and I don’t meet them in person until the event day.”

She explained that the planning portion is all about learning the client’s vision. The execution portion is where Andrea takes the reins and makes that vision real.

She knows the local venues and can draw many of them by memory, but that may not be the best way to translate a client’s vision.

“We work predominantly in Palm Beach County, but we have the capabilities to work outside of it, if that’s what the client needs,” Andrea said. “We also don’t put out packages because everything is tailored to the client. We are also very good at working within a budget.”

Andrea takes being a part of these important lifetime moments very seriously, and that is why clients return.

“One customer, I did all four kids’ [bar/bat] mitzvahs, and now I just did the first wedding for them, too,” she said. “It is fun, but my favorite thing is when it’s all done, and I’m really excited about how it looks. I can’t wait for my client to walk in and see the expression on their face. So many times, they say, ‘This looks even better than I pictured!’”

Above and Beyond Party Décor is located at 235 N. Jog Road in West Palm Beach, and meetings are available by appointment. To schedule an appointment, call (561) 707-6606 or e-mail aboveand beyondparties@gmail.com. To see product examples and check out the extensive photo gallery, visit www.aboveandbeyondparties.com.

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Florida Eye’s Dr. Jason Gorscak Is Dedicated To Protecting Your Sight

Florida Eye’s Dr. Jason Gorscak  Is Dedicated To Protecting Your Sight

Protecting your eyesight is vitally important, and for more than a decade, the Florida Eye Microsurgical Institute has provided Wellington-area residents with advanced eyecare services using state-of-the-art technology.

“We’ve had a presence in Wellington for just over 11 years now, but opened our new office five years ago,” ophthalmologist Dr. Jason Gorscak explained. “There was an overwhelming need for good ophthalmic patient care in the area and looked at this opportunity to offer more care.”

Gorscak was born in New Jersey, attended Johns Hopkins University and then came down to Florida where he earned his medical degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine. He then completed his ophthalmologic residency at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey before joining Florida Eye in 2008.

While Gorscak focuses on comprehensive eyecare for his patients, he specializes in the diagnosis and removal of benign and malignant eyelid tumors. He also treats cataract conditions, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.

“I knew I wanted to go into medicine when I was in college. I wanted to help people,” Gorscak said. “When I was in Miami doing a rotation at Bascom Palmer, which is an eye hospital, there was an 85-year-old Haitian lady who spoke no English.”

Gorscak described how the quiet, four-foot-tall woman was completely blind due to severe cataracts that covered her entire pupils. “The resident did the cataract surgery, and the next day I was there as the patient took off her patch for the first time. She saw for the first time in who knows how many years,” Gorscak recalled. “This lady, who spoke no English, this smile grew on her face. She didn’t have to say any words. It was just amazing, and from that experience, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Florida Eye offers specialized care for cataracts, glaucoma, retinal conditions such as macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy, and even pediatric ophthalmology.

“All the doctors at the Florida Eye Microsurgical Institute have an extreme desire to provide professional and compassionate care to all of our patients,” Gorscak said. “We truly enjoy what we do. Here in the Wellington facility, we have trained staff from technicians to the front desk that are all a very big part in providing excellent care to our patients.”

After more than a decade of practicing ophthalmology, Gorscak has seen what happens when patients don’t prioritize their vision.

“We recommend that anyone over the age of 50 have their eyes checked once a year, and every two years for someone under the age of 50,” he said. “I’ve seen 20- and 30-year-olds with severe glaucoma, which is a silent disease that can cause you to go blind. It’s not common, but it happens, and it’s worth getting checked.”

Sometimes patients come in because they have picked up some bad habits, like sleeping with their contact lenses in.

“So many people wear these extended-wear contact lenses, and they sleep in them for about a month,” Gorscak said. “I see so many infections from patients who do that, and despite what it says on the box that sleeping in contacts is not good for your eyes.”

After working and living in densely urban areas, Gorscak found a deep connection to the community of Wellington, where he now lives and is raising his family. In his spare time, he enjoys racing cars non-competitively on road courses throughout the country.

Florida Eye Microsurgical Institute is located at 2575 State Road 7 near the Mall at Wellington Green. Operating hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Appointments can be scheduled online at www.fleyedocs.com or by calling (561) 792-1205.

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Not Just Playing With Numbers: Finance Team Keeps Wellington In The Black

Not Just Playing With Numbers: Finance Team Keeps Wellington In The Black

Wellington’s Office of Financial Management and Budget is setting the standard for practice and policy across the nation. More than just the purse strings for the village, OFMB is directly connected to every department — and every resident.

“We monitor all revenues and expenses for the village, and we provide services that the customers need, want and are willing to pay for,” said Controller Ana Acevedo, who has been with Wellington for five years. “In the finance department, we work very closely with all departments in the village, and I just enjoy seeing how our tax dollars are put to work.”

After 14 years on the job, Budget Director Christine Wadleigh knows the ins and outs of making things work for everyone.

“We give the financial support and guidance to all the other departments. We make the connection between what the residents see and the requirements that any government has to meet according to statutes and law,” Wadleigh explained. “We do the financial reporting, and then prepare and present a balanced budget. We make the translation between the fun stuff that everybody sees and the finances that make it happen.”

As a department centered around planning, OFMB is all about being prepared for the future.

“During the Great Recession, many local governments experienced debilitating hardships,” Acevedo said. “Wellington was able to continue to meet the needs of the residents during this difficult time by evaluating economic conditions and planning well for unforeseen events. I think that’s what finance is all about — planning ahead. We assisted with cost-cutting measures that kept the village running leanly while maintaining our excellent financial position.”

OFMB is not the largest department in Wellington’s government, but it touches every aspect. Between the purchasing, budget and accounting sections, approximately 20 people are tasked with crunching the numbers.

“We developed a priority-based budget model that every department completes, and it allows them to rank their budget requests,” Wadleigh said. “They do an awesome job of prioritizing, and I call them budgeteers.”

Another key step to this ranking system involves identifying all the core activities in Wellington and making sure those are funded.

“We implemented an annual budget survey, probably 10 years ago now, that really provides insight on the items that are important to the residents. That helps us to prepare our budget knowing that we are meeting the needs of our residents,” Wadleigh said. “We even identify the higher level, quality of life community add-on activities and make sure those are funded.”

Getting the community to participate in surveys is no easy task. Other government agencies throughout Florida have tried and failed, so crafting questions that people want to take the time to answer is an art form in itself.

“I gave a presentation on it to the Florida Government Finance Officers Association in June, and many others have had difficulties getting it off the ground. We’ve had great support here,” Wadleigh said.

The results have received not only attention, but awards.

“I am extremely proud of the awards that the finance department has received throughout the years,” Acevedo said. “In 2019, we received a certificate of excellence award for our investment policy. This is awarded for investment policies that have been reviewed and professionally accepted by the Association of Public Treasuries of the United States and Canada.”

OFMB has also earned many recognitions from the national Government Finance Officers Association, including a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for 22 consecutive years.

The GFOA has also bestowed upon Wellington its Popular Annual Financial Reporting Award for eight straight years. This award specifically refers to the creation of reports that are easily accessible and understandable to the general public.

The department’s proficiency in everything from policy documentation and organization to financial planning has also earned them the GFOA’s Award for Distinguished Budget Presentation for the past 23 years.

Past successes support a strong track record, but the department is always looking ahead.

“Our future plans are to always continue to meet the future economic challenges. We update our forecasting every year and want to keep Wellington in its current excellent financial position,” Wadleigh said. “That also means being able to change with the times and being aware of what’s going on out there and making sure we recommend financial and policy changes to keep ourselves in a good position, no matter what happens.”

There is also an internal plan in place to keep the department running at peak efficiency.

“We want to continue to grow our department and promote from within like a succession plan,” Acevedo said. “In the finance office, it is critical to cross-train to make sure that if anyone is out, we always have someone to cover during their absence.”

Both Acevedo and Wadleigh give much of the credit for their success to Director of Administrative and Financial Services Tanya Quickel.

“Tanya Quickel really just brings a great and welcoming culture. We meet weekly to discuss everything that’s going on,” Acevedo said. “It’s just a family, a home away from home. Our leadership is just exceptional.”

Wadleigh said that Quickel allows everyone to leverage each other’s strengths.

“We all respect that everyone’s strengths come together as a great team,” Wadleigh said. “We’ve got super-talented, devoted people. Even at quitting time, they’re not going home. They stay until the job is done.”

The pieces of Wellington’s government strive to fit together, working toward a common goal for the community.

“Our goal continues to be a great hometown, and that’s our mission and our vision for the village,” Acevedo said.

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RESCUE GROUPS Step up to SAVE COUNTLESS ANIMALS IN NEED

RESCUE GROUPS Step up to SAVE COUNTLESS ANIMALS IN NEED

If there’s one thing that Wellington-area families cherish more than our wonderful lifestyle, it’s our animals. Many of these pets live like kings with good food, lots of love, plenty of room and medical attention when they need it. But what about those not so lucky? Life can be grim for animals who find themselves lost, abandoned or stuck in a shelter. Luckily, there are a number of nonprofits that have stepped in to save them.

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Amber’s Animal Outreach

Amber’s Animal Outreach

Amber Nelson was just seven years old when she started helping established rescue operations in Broward County. Now 18 and living in Loxahatchee with her parents Kelly and Troy, Amber has already logged three years as a foster parent for a number of dogs through her own organization, Amber’s Animal Outreach.

Kelly explained that their nonprofit is not facility-based, but rather a foster operation.

“Amber takes in dogs that are about to be euthanized unnecessarily, gets them back to health and fosters them until they are adopted,” she said. “Many of the dogs are love-starved when she gets them. We also get calls from people going into nursing homes, who love their pets but can’t take them with them. If we can help, we do. Even though we are small, Amber saves hundreds of dogs every year.”

Like most rescues, the challenges for Amber’s Animal Outreach are twofold — getting funding and finding the right home for the right dog.

The hard-working teenager depends on donations acquired primarily through fundraisers and her Facebook page.

In an effort to find potential adopters, Amber and her supporters spend just about every other weekend at PetSmart, hoping to find homes for the dogs. She also is a presence at Roger Dean Stadium during baseball games.

“All this started because Amber couldn’t stand the thought of dogs being put down,” Kelly said. “As her mom, just seeing her following her dream makes me happy. Her love and compassion are amazing. She was home-schooled and just graduated this year. We’ll see where her path takes her now.”

To support Amber Nelson in her mission, visit www.aaodog.org.

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Barky Pines Animal Rescue & Sanctuary

Barky Pines Animal Rescue & Sanctuary

On six acres in western Loxahatchee, Elizabeth Accomando operates Barky Pines Animal Rescue & Sanctuary together with her husband Steve, and daughter Mary Montanaro. The group received its nonprofit status in 2015, although they’ve been rescuing all kinds of animals for the last 20 years.

“We take in dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, ferrets, turkeys, tortoises, cows, pigs… everything except horses, and that’s only because of the expense. Most come from Palm Beach County Animal Care & Control, and we take them, so they are not euthanized,” Elizabeth explained. “The small dogs have their own building, and the larger dogs are in a different building. The chickens are in coops. The cows roam the entire property.”

Although small, Barky Pines has rescued hundreds of animals.

“We do fundraisers and are always looking for sponsors,” Elizabeth said. “Our for-profit business is a mobile auto body repair, but all the leftover money from that goes to the animals. We also apply for and receive grants, but we are always, constantly on the hunt for funding. Right now, we need more housing to save more lives.”

Elizabeth and her family take care of all the animals themselves.

“We’re in the trenches, not just sitting on a board. Once an animal is rehabilitated, we find it a home,” she said. “We do screenings on our potential adopters, but the geriatric dogs generally stay here for sanctuary, and we hospice them and care for them until it’s time for them to move on. We also find family companions for families with special needs. Some dogs go on to become comfort dogs after we have taken our time to make them that type of pet.”

The work is difficult but rewarding. “It’s a lot of work for no money, but getting them better, healing them — especially the ones that we can adopt out — it brings such joy, not only to the dog or cat, but also to the family,” Elizabeth said. “Making that match, completing their family; now that animal gets love in a home of its own.”

Once an animal is adopted out, Elizabeth stays in touch with the family through social media.

“It’s our Barky Family, as we call it,” she said. “We love hearing all the stories and about the joy and happiness that the animals are bringing to the families.” Learn more about Barky Pines at www.barkypinesanimalrescue.com.

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Luv-A-Pet

Luv-A-Pet

You don’t need lots of acreage to rescue animals. In Royal Palm Beach, Denise Willoughby has put together a group of volunteers who foster pets in their own homes. While Willoughby works full-time at a nursing hospital, foster volunteer Kat Calloway helps keep things humming along at Luv-A-Pet.

“Denise used to foster animals through Palm Beach County Animal Care & Control (ACC),” Calloway explained. “But it bothered her that she never got to see where the animals were going. So, she gathered together a group of ladies she knew and founded Luv-A-Pet in 2004.”

Key to the operation is the M*A*S*H (Mobile Animal Surgical Hospital) unit, where veterinarian Dr. Virginia Sayre donates her time to provide low-cost vaccines, as well as spay and neuter services for area pets. Volunteers like Calloway allow the unit to park on their property, then take to the web to publicize its current location.

“We’re small, but we try to make an impact wherever we can,” Calloway said. “We take in dogs and cats we get via word-of-mouth, Facebook and the ACC, if they’re full. We also take in strays. Some of these animals are broken, some are sick, some have astronomical medical bills, but Denise won’t turn them away. I find that admirable. Because we have no designated space of our own, we are completely dependent upon our foster volunteers.”

Calloway got involved in 2015 when her son was earning community service hours by showing some of the foster kittens at PetSmart in Royal Palm Beach, in hopes of finding adoptive homes for them. In addition to adoption events, Luv-A-Pet uses Petfinder, Facebook and word-of-mouth to place the rehabilitated animals.

“Some kitties who needed fostering came my way, and it became a labor of love,” Calloway said. “I have two dogs of my own but have since determined that I am a cat person. I only take in cats and kittens.”

More than 100 cats have since found their way through Calloway’s home.

“I own the ‘crazy cat lady’ label,” she smiled. “As for Luv-A-Pet and Denise, I will never leave her. She genuinely cares for and loves the animals and will do whatever needs to be done to give them happy lives.”

Luv-A-Pet held its big auction fundraiser at the end of August and hosts other events to raise money throughout the year. All proceeds go toward caring for the animals. Although the need is great and the task is daunting, the loyal volunteers at Luv-A-Pet never miss a beat to save lost souls.

Learn more about this nonprofit at www.luvapet.net.

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Danny & Ron’s Rescue

Danny & Ron’s Rescue

Ron Danta and Danny Robertshaw had always rescued dogs, but things got official when the pair jumped in to save 600 suddenly homeless pups following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That’s when they organized as the nonprofit Danny & Ron’s Rescue.

Based in Camden, S.C., where they work as horse trainers, Danny and Ron have long been providing dogs for Wellington families that they meet at equestrian events. Their story has been immortalized in the documentary Life in the Doghouse, currently available on Netflix.

Danny and Ron have turned their own house into the ultimate safe haven, personally caring for injured and abused animals until they are ready for adoption. Each dog receives a wellness check from a veterinarian, then is spayed/neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, dewormed, groomed and loved like part of the family.

Prior to Katrina, Danny and Ron would go to the shelters, save four or five dogs from euthanasia, rehab them a bit and adopt them out to friends in the horse community.

“We’d go to the greyhound kennels, where 150 dogs were scheduled to be put down, pick up six or eight greyhounds and take them home to our South Carolina campus,” Ron recalled. “Since Katrina, we’ve rescued 11,500 dogs.”

The couple were at their second home in Wellington when that deadly storm changed their lives.

“We had just bought a house in Wellington the year before, so we were there when all the chaos began,” Danny said. “Many of our friends were involved with the horse rescue, but when we turned on the TV and saw all the stranded animals, we felt that that was where we could really fit in. It touched our hearts and caused us to take big steps in that direction.”

Since then, they’ve rescued dogs from junkyards, freed animals chained to trees and saved abandoned pets living on the streets. They rescue over-bred, long-caged puppy mill dogs; bait dogs used in dog fighting; and shelter dogs about to be euthanized.

“In Danny’s barn, we used to do cats, too,” Ron said. “We had cages on both sides of the aisles and caging across the aisle and over the tack room. We used to call it the Kitty Hilton. But once we started doing such huge numbers of dogs, well, it’s hard to rescue dogs and cats in that volume and keep them all safe. So, we focused on dogs.”

While they love to place dogs in loving Wellington homes, they also support the work of the many other animal rescues.

“With five airlines showing the Netflix movie, we get calls from California, from Europe, from far away,” Ron said. “We ask them to go to their local shelters and save a life.”

“All we want is awareness in the world,” Danny said. “If each person who appreciated our movie would help one animal or one shelter, that’s total gratification for us.”

Learn more about their mission at www.dannyronsrescue.org.

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Panther Ridge Conservation Center Puts Its Focus On The Survival Of Majestic Cats

Panther Ridge Conservation Center Puts Its Focus On The Survival Of Majestic Cats

Cheetahs are the second-largest big cat in the world, right behind the mountain lion. To hear a cheetah purring loudly, all one has to do is meet 14-year-old Charlie when he is around Judy Berens, founder of the Panther Ridge Conservation Center.

“I came to Wellington originally because it was a fabulous place to show horses,” recalled Berens, who competed as a hunter rider until 2010.

Her passion for horses eventually expanded to include exotic cats.

“I started in the early 1990s,” she said. “Then once I had all my appropriate licensing, people would call me and say there was an animal that needed help. I went from being a pet owner to a rescue, and as the years have gone by, we have become much more involved in the conservation of these animals because they are absolutely disappearing from the face of the earth.”

One such case of a rescued animal living at Panther Ridge is Toltec, a 12-year-old ocelot. The cat was living at another facility for wild animals but was severely abused there.

“He kind of wobbles around like a drunk sailor, but he is the first ocelot to ever receive stem cell surgery in the world,” Facility Manager Sadie Ryan said. “We did that for him about three years ago, and it helped, but he will, unfortunately, never walk normally.”

Now Toltec’s life is filled with enrichment training conducted through positive reinforcement, along with a variety of other treats.

“He also gets special CBD popsicles to help with his arthritis and loves his toys,” Ryan said. “Toltec is a fanatic for some expensive cologne, too. He thoroughly enjoys a good scent sprayed in his enclosure.”

Originally based in Wellington’s Palm Beach Point community, the growing nonprofit moved last year to a much larger home in Loxahatchee Groves.

Currently, Panther Ridge houses 19 exotic cats representing many different species, including clouded leopards, jaguars and even a rare fishing cat.

Mateo, a three-year-old jaguar, was transferred from a zoo to Panther Ridge, where he was hand-raised. Now that he is reaching maturity, the team has arranged for a two-year-old female named Onyx to be his future girlfriend, once the facility infrastructure is complete.

“The long-term plan for them is to start a breeding program for jaguars, in association with the Zoological Association of America, so that their cubs can go to other facilities and spread their genetics within captivity to maintain a healthy captive jaguar population,” Ryan said, adding that many years from now, the hope is to once again return jaguars to the wild. “Once there is a protected area for them to thrive in without being poached and hunted.”

Several other cats in the collection came to Panther Ridge from other facilities, some because of the animal’s safety and others for a unique opportunity.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the zoological community, and I have a real fascination with clouded leopards,” Berens said. “Then we were given an unusual invitation — to become part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for these cats. We had to meet stringent regulations, and now have successfully bred healthy cubs. The next group of cubs that we have, the SSP coordinator will come and determine which other facilities they will go to.”

Lura and Malee were the first two clouded leopards born at Panther Ridge, where they were hand-raised and well-socialized. Development Director Kandice Seitz shared the importance of having them.

“This is one of the only places you can go and get up close and personal with cats that are Class 1 endangered species, and we are very lucky to have clouded leopards here,” Seitz said. “It is very rare to see this many clouded leopards in one place. It’s just an amazing place that’s great for small kids, too, because it’s not too big for them to enjoy, even in the summer. Since our move a year ago, we’ve tried to create a more user-friendly facility for the public.”

Having a background in fundraising, Seitz never expected to be so involved with exotic cats.

“I’ve been here about three years,” Seitz said. “I actually went on my first tour with a group of prospective donors, and little by little, I began bringing people here to visit. Once I found Panther Ridge, I knew this is where I wanted to work.”

Seitz, like other docents and volunteers, also provides support for the facility by working directly with staff and even some of the animals. It is a love for the creatures in their care that brings the team together.

As the nonprofit grew in size, Berens made the difficult decision to move the facility and give up her time with horses.

“Horses can be put to pasture, retired or sold. There is no other safe option for these cats. These animals won’t survive without certain care and treatments,” Berens said. “But the quality of life for these special creatures is our priority. Our food bill alone is $45,000 a year for 19 cats.”

Berens, now championing exotic cats for almost 20 years, is hands-on every day — feeding animals and keeping a strong personal relationship with them, even the challenging ones.

“Fishing cats like Minnow here are very rare to see. Not a lot of facilities have them. In fact, they are notoriously difficult to deal with,” said Berens, who personally visits him every day. “He came to us at only five weeks old, and he was injured and had been weaned too young. On top of that, they were using the wrong formula. The long-term plan is I would like to get an unrelated female and breed some more fishing cats.”

Other species that can be seen at Panther Ridge include the caracal, serval and panther (also called mountain lions or cougars). Guests can also arrange personal encounters with a few of the animals.

The Panther Ridge Conservation Center is located at 2143 D Road in Loxahatchee Groves. It is open to all ages, and tours are available by reservation seven days a week. Call (561) 795-8914 or visit www.pantherridge.org for more information about the different programs available.

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