WELLINGTON, Fla. (CNS) – A woman who tried to pat a captive jaguar on the shoulder now has no right thumb. She says a retired circus jaguar named Aztec chomped it off at a conservation center where the only barrier between visitors and 350-pound cats is a chain-link fence, and where the owner encourages visitors to “pet the wild animals.”
Marie Russell was enjoying lunch and watching wild cats on Feb. 19 at the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Wellington, when she decided to give Aztec a “pat on the shoulder,” her attorney, Chester Brewer, said in an interview.
Earlier that day, Judy Berens, head of Panther Ridge, had held a learning session with Russell and had invited her to pet wild cats much younger than Aztec, Brewer said.
According to Russell’s negligence complaint in Palm Beach County Court, Berens lulled Russell into a false sense of security.
Russell saw Aztec pressing its body up against the fence, and when she reached out to pat it, the jaguar bit off her thumb, Brewer said.
There were no barriers between Russell and the fence, Brewer added.
Florida regulations on captive wildlife require barriers, such as fencing or moats, to prevent “public contact” with captive animals. Brewer said that even in close-viewing settings, a buffer zone of at least 6 feet between the cage and the viewer is standard.
The regulations allow “public contact exhibitions” such as the one Berens had completed in the hours before the attack, provided that the wild cats in the exhibitions are less than 25 pounds.
Berens, herself, had been mauled by captive big cats at Panther Ridge.
According to a Palm Beach County Sherriff’s Office report, Berens was attacked during a March 2008 fund raiser for “saving the cheetahs in Botswana.”
During Berens’ lecture about wild cat conservation, a cheetah she had raised pounced and “latched onto her with its jaws and claws,” according to the report.
Catering employee Craig Evans “sprayed water” on the cheetah to distract it while a Panther Ridge volunteer pulled Berens to safety, the report states.
Days later, Berens told the media that she would not stop working with the cats.
She is still seen in her website’s photo gallery, snuggling cheek-to-cheek with a stoic adult panther.
Panther Ridge, home to Bob the Bobcat and Amos the Black Leopard, houses more than 20 exotic wild cats, from ocelots to pumas, according to its website.
“School groups are able to visit, interact with, and learn about endangered species in an intimate experience that few zoos could ever replicate,” according to Panther Ridge’s website.
Russell and her husband seek monetary damages.