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.