Judy Berens of the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Wellington recently added two new big cat babies to her rare and endangered cat family.
Meeka, a puma, and Mateo, a jaguar, have found themselves at home with Berens and her team at Panther Ridge.
They join cougars, caracals, cheetahs, clouded leopards, jaguars, leopards, ocelots and servals in a safe, caring and protected environment where they never have to worry about where their next meal will come from.
Meeka, who recently was the star of a Panther Ridge fundraiser, is just over three months old and came from a zoo in Texas. Berens is friends with the owner of the zoo, and when the zoo’s pumas had three cubs, one of the cubs came to Berens.
“She is actually here to fill the very large paws of a cat [Audrey] that passed away this past winter at the age of 22,” Berens said. “She lived a very long, full life, and little Meeka will follow in her footsteps, or paw prints, as it were.”
Meeka happily posed for pictures and enjoyed the many pets she received at the fundraiser, which took place at World of Beer on Sept. 2.
Just like any other baby, she likes to play and then take catnaps.
“She has been absolutely a delight so far,” Berens said. “She’s very rambunctious, and just is fascinating to watch as she is growing up. All animals are like little people. Each has a different personality.”
Meeka has spots on her coat that will fade and be mostly gone by the time she is a year old. The spots act as camouflage, Berens explained, helping to keep baby pumas safe when their mothers hide them from predators.
Mateo found his way to Panther Ridge on Sept. 24.
“Mateo came here from a zoo in Phoenix. He was three months old when he arrived and is basically here to be a companion for our female jaguar, Isabella,” Berens said. “As he grows up, he will very carefully be introduced to her, and they, hopefully, will have a great relationship.”
Isabella, affectionately known as “Bella,” was born in 2009 and is the offspring of Aztec and Tia. Tia passed away in 2013.
There are very few jaguars in the United States, Berens said, even though they are a native species.
“There are currently none left in the wild,” she said, which makes Mateo even more special.
Of course, there is the potential that Isabella and Mateo will mate, adding to the diminishing number of jaguars.
For now, though, Mateo is a baby and will be living with Meeka.
Mateo and Meeka weigh about the same right now, but they look quite different. Whereas Meeka’s spots are fading, Mateo will have the same spots forever. “They are individual, just like our fingerprints,” Berens said.
She also expects Mateo to grow much larger than Meeka’s predicted adult weight of approximately 100 pounds.
For a limited time, in addition to tours of the Panther Ridge facility, Berens is able to offer encounter experiences with Meeka and Mateo. Inquiries should be made quickly, since the pair are growing every day.
On Wednesday morning, they were happily playing, exploring their home and testing out their cat abilities, jumping, climbing and playing with toys.
A large component of the work that Panther Ridge does, in addition to its educational programs, is working on conservation efforts.
“Every year, we take a percentage of our profits and send it to areas where conservation is being done in the wild. We actually had a visit from a gentleman who was head of carnivore conservation for the country of Brazil, and he told us about all of his programs with jaguars,” Berens said. “We are currently supporting him in those efforts.”
At her facility in Wellington, Berens insists on feeding the very best products to her 17 cats. She currently has a GoFundMe campaign (www.gofundme.com/pantherridge), with the goal of raising $60,000 to help with enclosure maintenance and creation, food and veterinary care. Any contribution is greatly appreciated, she said, and donations can be sent directly to Panther Ridge, too.
To meet Meeka and Mateo, or any of the other rare felines at Panther Ridge, call (561) 795-8914 to arrange a tour of the facility. Tours are by appointment only, with at least 48 hours’ notice. Two types of tours are available — the standard tour and the directors tour — where visitors learn about the lives of the cats and what makes them special.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Berens said.
For more information, visit www.pantherridge.org.
ABOVE: Judy Berens of Panther Ridge with Mateo, a jaguar cub.