On Thursday, Feb. 20, the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Loxahatchee Groves held its annual fundraiser “Take a Dip on the Wild Side” and introduced the public to its two newest residents — a three-month-old pair of cheetah cubs.
Guests enjoyed live music, food, wine, live and silent auctions, and a chance to see the large cats living at the sanctuary while they were active at night.
“We belong to an organization that does a lot of captive cheetah breeding according to very strict regulations,” Panther Ridge founder Judy Berens said. “Every year, we send money back to worthy organizations in Africa that specifically do projects in the field to save wild cheetahs.”
Berens explained that cheetahs are the most endangered big cat in Africa, currently only inhabiting about five percent of their original territories.
“[Cheetah] populations are very fragmented, which increases the pressure on any genetic diversity in the wild,” she said. “This, combined with a naturally depressed immune system, leaves them susceptible to viruses and being wiped out. Breeding them in captivity is the only way we will be able to save the species.”
This year alone, these cheetah conservationists had approximately 70 cheetah cubs born, with the two tiny brothers now at Panther Ridge coming from a facility in Kansas. The cubs weighed only eight and 11 pounds when they arrived at Panther Ridge, but they are growing fast. While they are still small, the public has a unique opportunity to book personal encounters with the cubs.
For a short time, Panther Ridge is able to offer encounters with the cubs, by reservation only, for $250 per person. This is only available for a limited time, because once the young cheetahs reach a certain weight, it is no longer legal for the animals to have one-on-one interaction with the general public.
“It could be as soon as three months before the cubs are too big for public interaction,” Berens said. “Our focus right now is raising money for the new enclosure they will need as they get older.”
Eventually, the cheetahs may be requested by another facility for breeding purposes, to keep the captive population healthy and genetically diverse.
Panther Ridge is also part of the Species Survival Plan for the endangered clouded leopard and has successfully seen healthy cubs born at its facility in recent years.
The organization is also looking forward to introducing its male and female jaguars to each other sometime in the spring. Staff and docents are keeping their fingers crossed in the hopes of being able to introduce new jaguar cubs to the public someday too.
While the cheetah cubs do not have names yet, the honor of choosing their names was won by a guest during a live auction at last week’s event. The last available clouded leopard encounter was also auctioned off. Proceeds from the fundraiser go directly to keeping the cats healthy and safe so they can continue to serve as ambassadors for their species.
Panther Ridge, located at 2143 D Road in Loxahatchee Groves, is open to all ages, and tours are available by reservation seven days a week. Call (561) 795-8914 or visit www.pantherridge.org for more information about the different programs available, including the new “cheetah romps.”