Judy Berens, founder of Panther Ridge Conservation Center, interacts with Suki, a clouded leopard, at the exotic cat sanctuary during a tour in January. Photo by Palms West Journal.
Stepping into Panther Ridge Conservation Center is like stepping into another world.
It’s an oasis in the middle of Palm Beach County, nestled in the heart of the rural Loxahatchee Groves community.
The 4-acre center is a nonprofit haven for big cats, particularly those that are endangered or threatened or whose habitats are disappearing because of humans.
“I wake up in paradise every day,” says Panther Ridge founder Judy Berens, whose home sits on an acre that is next to the conservation center. “I can hear the cats from my bedroom in the morning.”
That paradise recently welcomed two additions: a jaguar cub and a clouded leopard cub.
“They are so special,” Berens says.
On March 16, Panther Ridge is holding its annual Walk on the Wild Side fundraiser to benefit the care of its cats and support conservation efforts in the wild. The event is 6 to 9 p.m., and a $150 ticket includes dinner, live music, an open bar and a silent auction.
Panther Ridge has been open to the public since 2003. Berens in 2019 moved the sanctuary to its current location on D Road from her previous home in Palm Beach Point, where she began her time with big cats with just one in the 1990s.
Berens’ property became a haven for rescued exotic cats.
She also works with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which occasionally has asked her to breed exotic cats as part of species survival plans.
“I think the reason I keep going is because there’s so much more to be done,” Berens says of her work in education and conservation.
Panther Ridge visitors can observe and learn about panthers, jaguars, cloud leopards, cheetahs, fishing cats, ocelots and servals.
The center offers guided tours, which provide an up-close and personal experience with the cats and an opportunity to learn about their natural behavior and habitat.
“You’ll see all the mannerisms here you will see from a domesticated dog or cat,” Berens says.
As keeper Brittany Greene led a recent tour through the sanctuary, the cats watched her approach. She carried a bowl filled with small pieces of raw meat to entice the cats forward. Greene then could point out the physical characteristics of each cat and describe how each species is threatened in the wild.
Each resident at Panther Ridge has an enclosure built to federal specifications with locking double gates. Towering ceilings provide room for movement, and each cat receives treats and toys that are educational or stimulating and encourage movement and play.
Some cats share an entire enclosure. Jaguars Onyx and Mateo, a mating pair, share what Berens calls “a three-bedroom apartment with pool.”
Fishing cats Minnow and Finley share an enclosure with a wall, so the female, Finley, has personal space, Berens says.
In addition to offering tours, Panther Ridge works with local organizations to educate the public about wildlife conservation and the dangers big cats face in the wild. The center’s goal is to inspire a new generation of wildlife advocates who will help protect and conserve these animals.
Berens hopes to continue Panther Ridge’s trajectory as an education and conservation destination. “We love teaching the public, and we love doing whatever we can for conservation efforts,” she says. “I find it hard to accept a world that doesn’t have these beautiful animals out in it.”
For more information or for tickets to the fundraiser, go to pantherridge.org.