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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”