After nearly 20 years in Wellington, the Panther Ridge Conservation Center is building a new future in Loxahatchee Groves. The nonprofit organization, dedicated to the rescue and conservation of exotic felines, is now located at 2143 D Road. The new grounds mark the beginning of new educational programs, tours and encounters available to the public.
Housing 20 cats of nine different species, Panther Ridge’s former facility had been home since 1999 but was no longer able to sustain growth for the organization.
“The facility wasn’t exactly set up for us to expand,” Facility Manager Sadie Ryan explained. “We did not have the infrastructure to be open to the public or do special events safely. We started relocating here in October and have been building from the ground up. It has been a massive project.”
But now that the animals are all safely transferred and the proper barriers are in place, Panther Ridge is using the opportunity to start new programs that will bring its message of conservation and education to the general public.
Part of Panther Ridge’s conservation plan includes involvement in some breeding programs for endangered cats. When introducing Lura and Mali, the first two clouded leopards born at Panther Ridge, Ryan gave some additional background on the animals.
“Clouded leopards are an endangered species, and we do work in cooperation with the Species Survival Plan, or SSP, and their parents are here from the Nashville Zoo. We do hope that these guys will breed and have some really awesome offspring that we can send to other facilities,” Ryan said.
The facility is accredited by the Zoological Association of America, or ZAA. Another breeding program centers around a three-year-old jaguar named Mateo and his potential mate Onyx. Before that happens, however, more construction is needed.
“We want to get our jags introduced, but we need to build a pool in the middle and build the roof and the sections (chutes or tunnels). They love water, and a general pool area will give them more room to roam,” Ryan explained.
Along with physical expansion, Panther Ridge is introducing a new docent program. This is an opportunity for locals to be a part of the long-term plan for programs and the ultimate goal of opening to the public. Docents will learn about the cats while training on how to conduct tours and other programs.
The new programs coming to Panther Ridge include a special Keeper for a Day designed for kids ages 12 and up to learn more about the field of animal husbandry and care, guided tours for ages two and up, or even unique animal encounters for ages 13 or 16 and up, depending on the animals.
For young people interested in working in the field of exotic species, an internship program is also available. Temporary housing is usually offered for interns coming from out of the area, along with a stipend.
“I just graduated from Mississippi State,” said intern Emily Hatch after a training session with an ocelot. “Experience is necessary to get into the field. I am from Alabama and heard good things about this place.”
While the next goals for Panther Ridge include building up a team of volunteers and docents, there are also some structural projects needed before the doors can open to the general public. Crushed concrete walkways to make the facility more accessible and a covered gazebo for events or groups to use are on the list of upgrades.
However, there is room to grow, and that is a big first step.
“We would love to take in more rescues and more endangered species. We definitely have the space for it,” Ryan said. “The issue is funding.”
Panther Ridge recently held a fundraiser to help offset the costs of moving, but when factoring in the special needs of the animals to keep them safe and healthy, the need adds up quickly. The organization also accepts donations of items including scrub brushes, towels, lumber and office supplies.
All of the cats at Panther Ridge have a story to share. Some were abused, others confiscated due to illegal ownership or taken in from other facilities that closed. But one thing they all have in common now is a safe new home.
For more information on program and volunteer options, or to make a donation, visit www.pantherridge.org or call (561) 795-8914.