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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.

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Since then, she has been back in with Matt and Charlie, with undramatic consequences. But the incident left her irritated with herself, and with the publicity it garnered, the drama having led to mutterings from critics as to the justification for importing big cats like this.

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Carole Baskin, chief executive of Big Cat Rescue, an “educational sanctuary” in Tampa, Fla., which is home to more than 100 exotic felines saved from neglect and abuse, questioned the import of Matt and Charlie from their native South Africa and suggested that they were “being used as ego props in a backyard collection.”

Others, however, see Berens’s sanctuary as a much-needed refuge for animals who would otherwise have few places to turn. “Some people use the ‘education’ argument as a facade for nothing more than doing a little circus show or using animals for commercials,” says Ron Magill of Miami Metrozoo. “But with Judy it’s not commercial. She has made significant contributions to wildlife conservation.”

For her part, Berens, who allows only private groups to tour the center – such as school pupils – robustly defends her work as contributing to education and the protection of wildlife.

She tells visitors, for example, about how clouded leopards face potential extinction because of the loss of their natural habitat in Asia, while cheetahs are trapped or shot by landowners in Africa for stealing livestock.

“When I got my first cat, it was all about me and my special pet,” she admits. “But then when you realize how many are out there in desperate situations ... there’s such potential for trying to fix the situation and to educate people about the problems they face.”

Many of her four-legged lodgers were abused or neglected and referred here by authorities such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Matt and Charlie came from a breeder in Africa with the permission of the US Department of Agriculture, which grants import permits only for big cats that are three generations away from having lived in the wild. “They were exported as ‘ambassador cats’ for their species,” Berens says. “I tell people about where they come from, their prospects, why they are in crisis.”

She strolls past Apache the cougar, who belonged as a cub to a man who took him to children’s birthday parties as a novelty. “It seems like such fun for a child at a party, but what happens to all these cats when they get older? I tell children: ‘Think about what you are seeing.’ Hopefully they will take away an awareness of some important issues, about whether the parameters for keeping them as pets or for entertainment should be more stringent, and what the prospects for preserving them in the wild are.”

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Born in Minneapolis, Berens was not allowed to keep pets as a child. Instead, she recalls, “I would go out in the woods as a girl and befriend everything.” But “Bringing Up Baby,” a 1938 movie starring Katharine Hepburn as an heiress who uses a tame leopard to get the attention of a paleontologist (Cary Grant), sowed an even bigger fascination.

After coming to Florida in 1971 to get a master’s degree in business – “which doesn’t really prepare you for a life of picking up cat poop” – she got her first cat, an ocelot, in 1993, after undergoing a rigorous licensing process. In 1998, with a second ocelot and a cougar also having joined her, she moved here to found Panther Ridge. It “runs on a shoestring,” she says, with the $150,000 annual costs covered by sponsors, public donations, and the small fees she charges for private tours.

Married twice but now on her own for 10 years, she has no trouble with being alone; this place keeps her busy. “My parents would be rolling in their grave right now. They wanted me to be a doctor,” she says. “But I would be rolling in my grave if I didn’t do this.”

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