“It’s not about building a cat collection, although it did start out basically because I couldn’t say ‘No,’ ” says Berens. “I soon realized by perhaps the fifth cat that this wasn’t just going to be a habit, it was going to be a passion.”
From the outside, the Panther Ridge Conservation Center, as this place is called, looks like just another of Wellington’s upscale estates with its bougainvillea and neatly trimmed lawns.
But behind the manicured, three-quarter mile hedgerow that surrounds the property, it is not routine.
The exotic felines live in shady enclosures furnished with wooden kennels. In the case of Manolo the ocelot, who has a chronic skin condition, it also comes with air conditioning. Some have hammocks, wooden decks, and their own patios with potted plants. There are toys and distractions – footballs, trees to climb, rubber tubes to play in.
Berens – an elegant divorcee who, after cleaning out 23 cat enclosures and preparing 23 cat meals, still manages to look the picture of refinement – coos at Aztec and Zeus as they push their noses up against the mesh of their enclosure and bow their heads for an ear-tickling. “Would you like your maid service?” she jokes to them, poking her fingers through the fence to scratch their heads.
She doesn’t venture into their den, knowing that for all their apparent kitty-cat tenderness, humans and jaguars are a mismatch when in a cage together. These animals have the most powerful bite of any feline, and razors for claws.