ST. PETERSBURG — Judy Smith was born to roam.
She lived in St. Petersburg, but when she had the chance, she'd pick up and go anywhere else. She went to college in Kentucky and Iowa. Her job as an environmental scientist once took her to Alaska, where she tagged salmon, tracked bears and paddled a kayak down the Stikine River.
Last summer, she backpacked across Wyoming, hiked through Grand Teton National Park, photographed bears and bison. And when an opportunity arose to work in New Orleans on a project helping government engineers rebuild levees destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, she jumped.
"She was that type of free spirit," said her sister, Julie Edwards. "If something good came up, she'd do it."
When she arrived in September, the first thing she did was find stray cats to feed. She loved the vibe of New Orleans, intrigued and moved by the destruction in the Ninth Ward.
She was a cruise director for her friends, finding things to do every night — poker games, cool bars, park gatherings. She had more friends than her family could count.
Early Friday morning, she rode on the back of a motorcycle in New Orleans, wearing a thin novelty helmet. The driver, who police said had been drinking, hit the curb. Ms. Smith flew off the bike and was killed. She was 35.
Her family hopes her death will teach others to be safe, especially on motorcycles. And they want people to know about the life cut short.
• • •
Judy Smith was jealous of her older siblings — they got to attend school, but she was still too young. She loved reading in her room and listening to music with her pets.
At 7, she witnessed her first canine cesarean section — her parents raised and bred English bulldogs. She loved handling and feeding the tiny puppies.
In high school, she nagged her family to recycle, monitoring their every soda can and plastic bottle. She took in cats, bunnies, dogs. Her mother taught her to never let an animal go hungry.
Ms. Smith was never shy. She belted songs at the top of her lungs. She had no filter and gave her opinion, with or without tact.
She worked for the Humane Society and Lowry Park Zoo, where she swam in the manatee tank. She developed a passion for black bears and researched their activities in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
She knew how they lived — that they ate acorns, gallberries, hearts of palm. If she saw rough edges on arrowhead leaves, she knew a bear was near. She earned a master's degree by writing a thesis about the bears.
"She was very active, very outgoing," said her mother, Joyce Smith. "Extremely intelligent."
In New Orleans, she spent a lot of time working in an office helping coordinate rebuilding efforts. She went into the community to explain building proposals and environmental impacts to residents.
Every two weeks, she came home to her house in north St. Petersburg. She caught up with friends and family. And, she fed the 10 stray cats that wandered outside her home.
She had eight nieces and nephews. When Edwards had twins three years ago, Ms. Smith photographed the birth — that cesarean was more jarring to her than the English bulldogs. But it brought her closer to the family.
She once took her sister's family to pet brand new orphan bear cubs found in the Ocala National Forest. Now, when they're at the park, they look for the bears.
One niece, 8-year-old McKinsey, looks identical to her aunt. She loves to walk through the woods collecting animal bones to study and save in a box.
Her Aunt Judy did that exact thing.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.