It’s excruciating to obey the low speed limit on the long road to Panther Ridge Conservation Center. At the same time, it is rather serene gazing at the lush grounds where horses walk, trot and learn how to master their game. It is most definitely horse country out there. Just when you think you’ve passed the turn onto the road where the center is, it’s right in front of you.
A gate code gets you onto the property. Panther Ridge is not open for daily public tours. Driving up, you pass more horses in training and instinctively slow down to admire them. Owner Judy Berens pulls up in a golf cart and is everything you have seen and read about her—petite, warm and genuinely open and friendly. As soon as we come to the area where a male cheetah named Charlie lives, he walks right over to her and rubs against the fence to get his neck scratched. Charlie has ample room to roam, sprint and nap in the shade and be a cheetah. These are good things to observe with a cat this large.
Back in the golf cart, we stop where Phoebe, a caracal, and Duma, an African serval, share living space. These two species would not usually get along in the wild of Africa where both originate. Here, they are as close as two old friends. Phoebe was curious about something she saw or heard and stalked the back fence. Duma was having a mid-day catnap in the sun.
Next on the visit is Meeka, a five-month-old Florida panther kitten. Snoozing high on a platform with her signature pink nose framed in black markings, this little one barely opened her eyes. When she did, those eyes were full of curiosity with a tinge of wariness. She seemed completely at ease and unconcerned with the visitor taking her picture like some crazed wildlife paparazzi.
There are several different species residing at Panther Ridge: ocelots, a jaguar, a black leopard, and clouded leopards. Each one has plenty of living and playing space, and each enclosure has its own structure where the animals can escape the sun, rain or occasional cold south Florida evenings. Each habitat has enrichment items. All of the animals showed no signs of stress or anxiety, which is usually mentioned about wild animals living in captivity. Several cats were eager to greet Judy at the fence to savor a neck scratch or lick her hand, as did Amos, the black leopard.
Almost every animal at the center is a rescue. Almost all have a hard luck story. None are releasable back to the wild. There are 17 in total. Each can be “adopted.” They are all fascinating ambassadors of their species. Visitors can observe them from a safe, close distance. There is no human interaction with them.
Judy Berens has always had a love for big cats and seeing them in the wild. After a very successful career as an equestrienne, she founded and opened Panther Ridge. Wildlife conservation is her mission. “It is ever more important in the world we live in to try and keep these animals, both in the wild and those destined to be in captivity, to give them the best possible life and best possible chance in the future,” she explains.
It is clear that the species that live at the center consider Judy more than just a caretaker. The trust and love they have for her and vice versa is evident with every animal visit.
To say that Panther Ridge is a refuge for these iconic, remarkable species comes close to the truth. The center provides a safe home from the dangers wildlife faces. In realty though, each animal is surrounded in tranquility and receives everything they need or want. As their devoted, dedicated caretaker Judy Berens said, “There’s good karma here.” Karma times eighteen.
Panther Ridge Conservation Center
14755 Palm Beach Point Blvd Wellington, FL 33414
Visits are by appointment only via phone or website