Wellington animal preserve owner : Exotic cats not for everyone

Horses brought Judy Berens to South Florida decades ago, but it’s her menagerie of exotic cats that have kept her here.

“I just thought they were beautiful, and I’d always been a cat person,” Berens, 64, said of her love for wild felines.

The Minnesota native and former equestrian rider operates the Panther Ridge Conservation Center on the 10 acres she owns in southwestern Wellington.

Alongside her horse stables, Berens manages a sanctuary that houses 17 exotic cats, which are native to places throughout the world, although none of hers are directly from the wild, she said.

Two of her clouded leopards, Ming Too and Mei, are retirees of the Nashville Zoo, where they were previously on display for nine years. Others — like one of the cougars, Brandy — were once illegally bought and intended to be domesticated pets in a family home.

Panther Ridge has offered these cats a peaceful home to live out their years, with love and attention from Berens and her helpers, which include one full-time caretaker, two interns and weekly volunteers, she said.

Around Berens, the wild animals appear tame with the personalities and tendencies of house cats — rubbing their heads against the chain-link enclosures as they beg for treats or to be petted and even purring at furious volume, as Charlie the cheetah does at the sight of Berens.

But don’t be fooled, Berens warns. They are still wild animals; they’re just used to her.

“I spend a lot of time with these animals,” Berens said, but she acknowledged accidents and injuries can still happen. “It goes with the territory.”

Along with caring for the animals, Berens uses the center to advance her mission of teaching people on conservation efforts, because many species of exotic cats are endangered throughout the globe.

“We want to raise awareness about the plight of these cats,” Berens said.

This is Berens’ 15th year operating the Panther Ridge Conservation Center. The nonprofit’s annual “Walk on the Wild Side” fundraiser is March 16. To request tickets, email pantheridge@aol.com.

Question: How did you get started with the sanctuary?

Answer: I started with getting the permits to have a small exotic (an ocelot) as a personal pet. And then as time went by, people started to tell me about animals that were in need, and if I went to look at them, I wound up taking them home. So pretty soon I needed a farm to house all of these animals, and this has just evolved from there.

Q: What’s your daily routine, in terms of feeding them and taking care of them?

A: That’s why we give tours starting at 11 (a.m.) and the last one hopefully at 1 (p.m.), because we spend time in the morning making sure everybody’s cage is immaculate and feeding out breakfast to those that eat just in the morning. We have some that eat twice a day, so then the afternoon is preparation of diets and feeding out the afternoon cats. (It’s) lots of different types of meat and fish and whole prey items, like mice, chicks, guinea pigs, rabbits.

Q: What sort of safety precautions do you have to take, not only for yourself but for people who come for tours?

A: Usually, we keep them (visitors) behind fences, and for the people who care for the animals, every cage has a lock-out where the cats are fed in that separate little area and then they’re closed in there and we can come in a different door and clean the cage.

Q: Especially in South Florida, you hear a lot about people buying these animals as pets. Is that smart?

A: It is not a good move for most people. You have to have a lot of time to devote and because of the land requirements and caging requirements, it turns out you need substantial resources.

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