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Un-purr-turbed by leopards

One woman cares for 20 rescued big cats in her Florida sanctuary.

July 08, 2007|Stephanie Horvath | Orlando Sun-Sentinel

WELLINGTON, FLA. — Blame it on Katharine Hepburn.

Maybe if little Judy Berens had never seen "Bringing Up Baby," the 1938 movie in which Hepburn keeps a pet leopard in her New York apartment, she never would have grown up to own 20 sharp-toothed, big cats.

"I thought if she could have a leopard in New York, I could have a leopard," said Berens, now 58.

She also has two jaguars, one serval, one caracal, four clouded leopards, five cougars and six ocelots.

She houses the sleek cats in leafy enclosures on her 10-acre horse farm, Panther Ridge Sanctuary, in Wellington, Fla. It's a retirement home for big cats of all kinds, some of whom haven't had the best lives. Berens runs through more than 100 pounds of meat a day and $150,000 a year caring for them, a tab she pays for with fundraising through her nonprofit organization and donations from the schools and individuals she takes on tours.

Berens' farm is a menagerie of 20 personalities and life stories, all separated from the rest of the world by 8-foot chain-link fences.

There's good-natured Charlie, the cougar that lives in Beren's backyard, swims in her pool and watches television in her house. He is the mascot for Panther Run Elementary School and purrs when he rubs his face against the chain-link fence.

Zeus and Aztec are the two former circus jaguars who like to dive for fish in their swimming hole. Melly, the clouded leopard rescued after Hurricane Katrina, will let Berens kiss her on the nose. Monty, the bad-tempered ocelot with the rough childhood, gave Berens her one really bad bite. Duma and Phoebe, the serval and the caracal, share a cage and don't mind anyone walking in.

And finally there's Amos, the black leopard that Berens raised almost from infancy. Before the insurance got too expensive, she used to take him everywhere: the cinema, restaurants, the Grand Prix horse shows on Sundays.

But Berens is careful to point out that although some of her big cats are social, they are not domesticated. She has been scratched and bitten often enough to remind her they're still wild animals.

"This cat, as friendly as he is, is probably the most dangerous cat here," she said of Amos. "Leopards by repute are very quick, very smart and they know their capabilities."

Berens has had only one close call, which was more than two years ago. A Bengal tiger named Tristan slipped out after his owner, who worked for Berens at the time, didn't latch the gate properly. Luckily, it all ended well. After meandering around a couple paddocks and getting a fright from a horse, the tiger was tranquilized by state fish and wildlife officers and taken home. Berens now has a double perimeter fence around her property.

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