Sick Jaguar Has Panther Ridge Asking Community For Support

Isabella, fondly called Bella, is leading a pampered life. Few jaguars have the luxury of being cared for by Judy Berens at the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Wellington.

Berens works diligently to raise awareness for the need to protect animals like Bella. It all began 20 years ago, when Berens acquired a small exotic cat as a personal pet.

“I had that animal a couple of years before people started telling me about cats in trouble, cats in need,” she recalled. “What started out as one cat, and one cat only, mushroomed over the years.”

In her current location for the past 15 years, Berens has been the primary caretaker for as many as 24 exotic felines. A former equestrian, she rode for 35 years, and Wellington was the place to be.

Berens’ lush 10-acre landscape nestled in the heart of Wellington’s equestrian community is home to 17 cougars, caracals, cheetahs, clouded leopards, jaguars, leopards, ocelots and servals, along with a few barn cats.

She has a special relationship with each cat, many of which have survived abuse, abandonment and neglect prior to joining the Panther Ridge family. Berens and Bella, however, have a particularly special and unique relationship.

Born in September 2009 to two of the jaguars at Panther Ridge, Bella was rejected at birth. An ultrasound revealed that her mother was unable to produce milk.

“Nature told her to walk away from that baby,” Berens said. “We kept coaxing her to go back and take care of the baby. She just wouldn’t. She put her head in the corner, and she actually was distressed. It was very sad. It was heartbreaking.”

Eventually, Berens was able to get to Bella and feed her. From there on, Berens was Bella’s adopted mother and has enjoyed watching her grow from a baby to an adult.

Jaguars like Bella are listed as near threatened by the World Wildlife Foundation, placing them just a few categories away from extinction. Because there are so few, Berens will eventually be looking to mate Bella, as was done previously with Bella’s parents, to diversify the gene pool and increase the population.

But motherhood plans for Bella will have to wait. Right now, the young jaguar is fighting for her life.

It began one day in May. When Bella yawned, Berens noticed that one of her back teeth didn’t look quite right and her appetite was down. Berens brought Bella to the veterinarian, who discovered a growth in the back of her mouth. Pathology tests and blood work were taken. Bella was given medicine and stitched up.

A few days later, she went through another surgery, and the pathology report determined the growth was non-cancerous. The next task was stitching Bella’s wound, but those stitches lasted only a few days. The second set of blood results showed problems with Bella’s blood. Her red and white blood cells were down, and her liver enzymes were up.

In mid-May, Berens rented a large van and Bella was brought to the University of Florida for a CT scan, ultrasound, biopsies and many blood tests. During the two days they were there, Bella underwent dozens of specialized tests.

“We were lucky enough to have there, that particular day, a pathologist from Disney. We had several great minds working on this,” Berens said.

Eventually, Berens was told that Bella should be taken off all medications and should heal herself. The stitching just wasn’t helping.

Once home, Bella barely had any appetite.

“She did start to turn the corner, and started to eat a little more and a little more. Every day now has been a little bit better,” Berens said. “She was one sick kitty, but she is getting better.”

The mystery of what has been ailing Bella has been an unnerving and expensive waiting game.

“The two days in Gainesville racked up a bill of more than $7,000, and for a small organization like this, that is a real hit.” Berens said.

For now, Berens has to cross her fingers and hope for the best, since a diagnosis for Bella has been elusive.

Panther Ridge, a nonprofit conservation center, is run by Berens with help from a few interns. It doubles as a research and education facility. Panther Ridge is accredited by the Feline Conservation Federation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and has a permit from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Appointment-only guided tours and donations help alleviate the costs of running Panther Ridge, but Bella’s recent, and possibly ongoing, illness has taken a chunk out of the annual budget.

To raise awareness that Bella needs help, a page on the Panther Ridge web site has been created and posts on Facebook shared. Contributions made to Bella’s medical expenses are tax-deductible, and Berens is looking for ways to raise money on Bella’s behalf.

To help Bella, donate to her medical fund, book a tour or learn more about Panther Ridge, visit


ABOVE: Panther Ridge’s Bella the jaguar needs your help.


  1. Panther Ridge is the very best possible place for a exotic feline to find a home after having an uncomfortable association with zoos or private owners. Judy Berens is one of the most compassionate people you will ever meet. She is indeed VERY loving to all the animals at Panther Ridge. This is the only establishment I have visited that offers such a wonderful compassionate living environment for all who live there. Everyone who visits Panther Ridge will have an exceptional time. I highly recommend visiting Panther Ridge by ALL family members.

  2. I’ve visited PR many times, especially for their photographer tour. I’ve seen Bella grow up there. Judy and her staff do an amazing job caring for these animals. Many of the animals were discarded or abandoned and in need of medical help. Judy never turned her backs on them.

    Any little bit helps out.


Comments are closed.