Jaguar bite leads to penalty for Palm Beach County wildlife sanctuary

U.S. Department of AgricultureHealthJustice SystemNatural ResourcesWellington

A Wellington wildlife sanctuary must pay a penalty of $2,786 for an incident last year in which a jaguar bit off part of a visitor’s thumb.

The Panther Ridge Conservation Center Inc. reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over alleged violations of the law on the handling of animals in a public exhibit. The center neither admitted nor denied the allegations in the settlement agreement.

The incident took place on the afternoon of Feb. 19, 2010, as a volunteer led a female visitor around the 10-acre wildlife center, home to nearly two dozen cheetahs, pumas, jaguars and other cats. The volunteer allowed the woman to pet the jaguar through its cage, and the cat bit her thumb, according to USDA documents.

The settlement agreement states that Panther Ridge failed to provide sufficient distance between the jaguar and visitors, failed to keep animals under the control of people experienced in handling them and allowed them to be under the supervision of an unqualified volunteer.

Mary Morris, attorney for Panther Ridge, said the organization signed the settlement and paid the penalty to put the matter to rest, not because it was at fault. She said the volunteer had taken the woman to an unauthorized area without the permission or knowledge of Panther Ridge management.

"It was important for us on behalf of Panther Ridge to make a payment without admission of liability because in our opinion there was none," Morris said.

Founded in 1999 by Judy Berens, who was involved in the equestrian business, Panther Ridge is a non-profit organization dedicated to caring for abused, neglected or abandoned big cats.

The USDA’s most recent inspection of Panther Ridge, held Aug. 17 found no cases of non-compliance with the laws governing animal welfare and exhibitions. But a 2009 inspection found that two clouded leopard had been declawed by the organization’s veterinarian, a procedure that is not allowed under the Animal Welfare Act “since it can cause considerable pain and discomfort to the animal and may result in chronic health problems,” according to the July 1, 2009 inspection report.

In 2008 Berens was hurt by two cheetahs during a fundraiser, suffering wounds to her back, neck and limbs.

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