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Florida woman runs a sanctuary for big cats

Judy Berens takes in abandoned leopards, panthers, and other exotic animals at a conservation center on her home property.

By Jacqui GoddardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 2008

Amos, a black leopard, lounges on a slide at the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Wellington, Fla.

Courtesy of Judy Berens

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Wellington, Fla.

When Judy Berens took a neglected ocelot into her home in 1993, she never actually planned on finding it a companion. But as author Ernest Hemingway, who once kept 57 felines, famously observed: “One cat leads to another.”

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Fifteen years after that first furry companion, Ms. Berens shares her 10-acre estate in Wellington, Fla., with a 23-strong menagerie that includes some of the world’s most endangered species. Incongruous as their habitat may seem – Wellington is classic equestrian country, noted for its polo clubs, horse shows, and smart stables – the leopards, jaguars, caracals, panthers, ocelots, servals, bobcats, and cheetahs who reside here do so in quarters that are much different from their former homes.

Some, like jaguars Aztec and Zeus, are castoffs from circuses and entertainment acts; others are former pets, like Cody the ocelot, who simply outlasted their owners’ love for them. Duma the serval was dumped and abandoned outside a reptile shop, Pei the clouded leopard was rescued from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.

Over the past decade, Berens has created a sort of modern Noah’s Ark for abused or neglected animals. While some critics fault her for turning her backyard into a personal zoo, Berens sees herself as a providing sanctuary for felines that no one else often wants.

“It’s not about building a cat collection, although it did start out basically because I couldn’t say ‘No,’ ” says Berens. “I soon realized by perhaps the fifth cat that this wasn’t just going to be a habit, it was going to be a passion.”

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From the outside, the Panther Ridge Conservation Center, as this place is called, looks like just another of Wellington’s upscale estates with its bougainvillea and neatly trimmed lawns.

But behind the manicured, three-quarter mile hedgerow that surrounds the property, it is not routine.

The exotic felines live in shady enclosures furnished with wooden kennels. In the case of Manolo the ocelot, who has a chronic skin condition, it also comes with air conditioning. Some have hammocks, wooden decks, and their own patios with potted plants. There are toys and distractions – footballs, trees to climb, rubber tubes to play in.
Berens – an elegant divorcee who, after cleaning out 23 cat enclosures and preparing 23 cat meals, still manages to look the picture of refinement – coos at Aztec and Zeus as they push their noses up against the mesh of their enclosure and bow their heads for an ear-tickling. “Would you like your maid service?” she jokes to them, poking her fingers through the fence to scratch their heads.

She doesn’t venture into their den, knowing that for all their apparent kitty-cat tenderness, humans and jaguars are a mismatch when in a cage together. These animals have the most powerful bite of any feline, and razors for claws.

In the case of Matt and Charlie, cheetahs who arrived here from South Africa earlier this year, she thought things would be different. Cheetahs are the least dangerous of the big cats. But as Berens stood in the cheetahs’ three-acre, open-air enclosure one day in March, addressing some visitors on the outside, it became clear that Matt and Charlie had not read the textbook. As a child in the visitor group played with a ball on the other side of the fence, one of the cheetahs – the fastest creatures on earth – bounded excitedly towards it, knocking Berens to the ground, whereupon she became the animals’ new toy.

“That cheetah said, ‘I’m having that ball,’ and I was in the way,” she says. “After I fell, he said, ‘You’re second best, but you’ll do.’ ”

As the cheetahs mauled Berens, volunteers at the center raced to drive them off by spraying them with a hose. She was airlifted to a hospital, but discharged a day later, shrugging off the incident as accident rather than aggression.

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