There’s a conservation center in Wellington that’s hidden behind the tall hedges and lush landscaping. You could drive right in front of it on Palm Beach Point Boulevard and never guess there were cheetahs, cougars, jaguars and other big cats roaming there. But, yes, Wellington is home to more than just horses.
For a limited time and an extra fee, you can even play with three clouded leopard cubs. They are adorable.
I recently took the one-hour big cat tour at the Panther Ridge Conservation Center, where I got to interview the head keeper Sadie Ryan and executive director Judy Berens. It was an educational experience, for sure. I learned about each species at the center, why they were brought there and how we can help with their survival. The animals at the center are provided with a home and life-long care. As a conservation center, Panther Ridge not only takes in rescues but also works to preserve endangered species. Today, they not only serve as ambassadors for the survival of their species, but also symbols of a more ideal planet.
Feeding all these animals gets very expensive, which is why Panther Ridge accepts donations that help their daily needs such as diets and special care. You can also be involved with their “Adopt a Big Cat” program. Anything helps. Time is also money, so if you are interested, see how you can donate your time as a volunteer.
Here are 8 wild cat species found at Panther Ridge
1. CLOUDED LEOPARDS
There are six adult clouded leopards at Panther Ridge and three babies.
The cubs were all born in 2018. Lura who is 6 months old, Taj is three weeks younger than Lura, and Malee is the youngest at only 3 months old.
The clouded leopard cubs are playful and non-aggressive. Visitors can play with them for a fee, which helps the conservation center buy food and other needs for the cubs. This play opportunity is offered for only a limited time.
The other six adults are Drupata, Ming, Ming Too, Nuri, Suki and Tula. You can see their pictures and biographies here.
Adult clouded leopards in the wild can be found in Southeast Asia and China. They can weigh anywhere from 25 to 60 pounds, and have the largest canines in proportion to its body of any cat, according to Swiss naturalist Charles Albert Walter Guggisberg’s in his book “Wild Cats of the World.”
Charlie the Cheetah was born in 2005, and is a third generation captivity-bred cheetah. He is considered a senior cat. He was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be imported as an ambassador for his species.
“Charlie inspires guests at Panther Ridge to be involved in Cheetah’s conservation. Only 6700 Cheetah are left in the wild,” said head-keeper Sadie Ryan.
Even though Charlie has a fenced, three-acre yard for himself, he prefers to relax in the shade. Cheetahs are known to be the fastest cats in the world, but they only sprint when they need to hunt or escape an attack. Charlie doesn’t do either -- he’s a bit lazy. He likes to have his food delivered a-la room service. Charlie has a sleek body and a powerful purr.
There are two cougars at Panther Ridge. Meeka and Brandy.
Meeka is a Puma and was born in 2016. She came to this conservation center when she was only three weeks old. She likes to climb trees and relax high up on a branch or the tree house. Meeka is leash trained which makes it easier for the staff to transfer her to a different location for feeding, medical check ups or other errands. She was raised with Mateo, a jaguar cub.
Brandy is an older Puma. She was born in 2006, and was rescued from a horrible facility when she was seven years old. At that facility, Brandy was mishandled, according to the head keeper. Panther Ridge was told Brandy was purchased illegally, too.
Pumas like Meeka and Brandy usually stay with their mothers until they’re about 18 months and are set to go out on their own, once they’ve learned how to survive for themselves. Pumas are also known as cougars, Florida panthers and mountain lions across the world.
There are two jaguars at Panther Ridge, Mateo and Isabella.
Mateo is still a cub, and he’s built like a killing machine. They are very powerful and muscular. He was born in 2016 in a zoo in Arizona, and came to Panther Ridge when he was 4 months old. Mateo, as mentioned before, was raised with Meeka, the puma. They bonded so well, that they still hang out together during morning walks. They act like siblings. Mateo at 2 years old is already 130-pounds. Male jaguars in the wild can weight up to 300-pounds.
Isabella was born at Panther Ridge in 2009, but was abandoned by her mother as a newborn. She was never cleaned up by her mother, and was laying on a bed of hay for an entire day without care from her mother. The executive director Judy Berens had to step in to prevent baby Isabella from dehydrating to death.
Jaguars like these two are believed to have the strongest bites in the cat family, and the best swimming skills of any cat. Jaguars are found in Central and South America. But there have been some occasional sightings in western United States according to the U.S. Government Publishing Office.
There’s only one caracal at Panther Ridge. Her name is Phoebe. She was in the hands of a dealer in Miami who couldn’t sell her when she was a kitten. The dealer ended up sending her to Panther Ridge.
Phoebe shares a very vertical cage with Duma, a serval. They’re roommates, and have been living together for about 10 years. Though a Caracal and a Duma would never share a habitat in the wild, at Panther Ridge, they get along just fine.
Caracal are high jumpers, which is why her cage was designed specially for her. They are often found in Africa, southwest Asia and central Asia.
There’s only one leopard here: Amos. He’s all black, with bright eyes and an elegant posture. Amos arrived at Panther Ridge when he was only one week old, and is 16 years old as of September of 2018. Berens bottle-fed Amos and took him with her around horse shows, the supermarket and movie theaters like a pet when he was a baby. Today, Amos weighs more than 150 pounds.
Black leopards are found in the Malay Peninsula of Southeast Asia and rainforests of Africa. Leopards have the largest range from Africa to Siberia.
“They’ve lost 75% of their habitat due to deforestation,” said Ryan.
There are four ocelots at Panther Ridge, Cody, Delilah, Macho and Toltec. You can see their photos and biographies here. These are smaller cats that measure between 28 to 35 inches and weight between 24 and 35 pounds in the wild. They are about twice the size of average house cats.
Ocelot are nocturnal cats with keen sight to hunt small animals like iguanas, fish and frogs. Most Ocelot are found in South American rain forests, but they have been found as north as Texas.
There are two servals at Panther Ridge, Lexi and Duma. Servals are native to Africa and have big ears. They can jump up to 10 feet in the air, and are native to more than 35 countries, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.
Duma was abandoned in the back of a store. One of Beren’s friends actually found Duma and brought him to Panther Ridge.
Duma lives with Phoebe, a caracal. He is known for licking the employees hair and giving them “Duma-Do’s”.
Lexi was born in 1997. He’s a serval who is staying at Panther Ridge temporarily. He has been at Panther Ridge for years, but his owners take him home whenever they’re in town. They spend time with him when they can. The staff at Panther Ridge believe that Lexi is having a hard time adjusting to a new family.
“He’s a perfect example of why Servals shouldn’t be kept as pets,” said Ryan.
Meet the headkeeper
Sadie Ryan currently lives in Wellington but is originally from Chicago. She has a Bachelor's of Science in Biology, and traveled the country doing internships with exotic animals at various zoos. Ryan has been working with exotic animals for five years now, and has been at Panther Ridge for about two-and-a-half years.
“Animals are my truest passion, and I'm beyond grateful to have a job which enables me to create relationships with these magnificent cats and inspire people to care more about what's happening in the wild,” said Ryan. “Now more than ever, these animals need us to be their voice to save them from extinction.”
If you go:
Panther Ridge Conservation Center: 14755 Palm Beach Point Blvd. Wellington: 561-795-8914.