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‘I want to save everything’: In the era of COVID-19, a small army of animal lovers is providing triage for creatures in distress

Krystal Smajkiewicz held Fred, a brain-injured opossum, in her kitchen. Fred was hit by a car Christmas Eve and she has nurtured him back to health. Due to his injuries, he can't be released back to the wild.
Krystal Smajkiewicz held Fred, a brain-injured opossum, in her kitchen. Fred was hit by a car Christmas Eve and she has nurtured him back to health. Due to his injuries, he can't be released back to the wild.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

HOLDEN — Zelda Rosen looked out to the balcony of her third-floor Framingham apartment on Memorial Day weekend and saw “this little squirming thing” close to the edge.

“I was freaked out. He had a protruding belly and his eyes weren’t even open yet,” recalled the 25-year-old special-education teacher. On closer inspection Rosen realized it was a newly hatched bird, although she couldn’t imagine how it had landed on her balcony.

Rosen donned gloves and gently placed the creature in a plastic container lined with soft tissues. She spent hours frantically calling veterinary offices and wildlife rescue organizations, but every one was closed. One last phone call connected her with Krystal Smajkiewicz, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who cares for hundreds of orphaned and injured animals at her home in Holden, near Worcester.

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A rescued starling named Eddie is thriving after being found on a patio in Framingham.
A rescued starling named Eddie is thriving after being found on a patio in Framingham. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Late that night, Rosen brought the bird, which she named “Eddie,” to Krystal’s Wildlife Rehab.

“Krystal walked out holding a baby raccoon,” Rosen said. She scooped up Eddie and told Rosen that it was a 2- or 3-day-old starling. “She started putting her finger in his mouth, no fear, she knew exactly what she was doing.”

Smajkiewicz is one of 175 wildlife rehabilitators licensed by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Last year she rehabbed 219 animals in her rural home. This year, as a result of what Whitney Stiehler, president of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Massachusetts, called “an odd cascade of events,” Smajkiewicz says she is on track to double that number before the end of the year.

Stiehler said that a mild winter produced more healthy wildlife and early, larger litters. The wet and windy spring resulted in more animals being blown and washed out of nests. People working from home due to the pandemic were more likely to notice the wildlife around them, and that meant more efforts to save injured and orphaned creatures.

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“I want to save everything,” said Smajkiewicz, sitting at her kitchen table last month, surrounded by homemade formula, baby bottles, medications, and a basket of baby opossums whose mother was killed by a car.

Krystal Smajkiewicz and her children prepared to feed 9 baby opossums in her kitchen. The baby opossums are so young they must be tube-fed every four hours.
Krystal Smajkiewicz and her children prepared to feed 9 baby opossums in her kitchen. The baby opossums are so young they must be tube-fed every four hours. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Smajkiewicz, 33, with long hair and a warm smile, was born and raised in this small town. “I was always the weirdo kid who would steal my neighbors’ pets, and tell my mom, ‘I found a lost puppy.’ My mom would be like, ‘Go bring Nancy’s dog back.’ ”

Her childhood pets included dogs, cats, horses, ferrets, birds, bunnies, hamsters, and more. “I had a cockroach for a summer,” she said.

She studied pre-veterinary medicine in college, and lived in Tanzania and South Africa for five years working in an infant orphanage, hospitality jobs, and eventually wildlife rehab. When she is not caring for animals in her home, she works in a school cafeteria.

By early June of this year, in the heart of “baby season,” she had 46 raccoons, 24 opossums, 10 birds, seven skunks, six rabbits, five mice, four groundhogs, four squirrels, three bats, two turtles, two porcupines, and was “babysitting” nine ducks.

“It’s finely tuned chaos,” she said.

One of three bats that Smajkiewcz is caring for until they can be transferred to  a designated facility for their protection against COVID-19.
One of three bats that Smajkiewcz is caring for until they can be transferred to a designated facility for their protection against COVID-19. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The bats will be soon be transferred to a designated rehab facility, where they will be protected against transmission of the COVID-19 virus from humans.

She spends about $300 a week feeding her animals, and uses 30 pounds of dog kibble a day in a variety of mixtures. She does not get paid for her work and is grateful for the donations she receives from people who drop off animals and from supporters via a Facebook page.

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Krystal Smajkiewicz feeds the raccoons in "the animal room" which was formerly a garage. She feeds her raccoons dog kibble with a home-made raccoon formula on top. For her opossums' unique  formula, she combines vegetables such as bok choy, kale, berries, apples, beets to carefully balance their intake of calcium and phosphorus.
Krystal Smajkiewicz feeds the raccoons in "the animal room" which was formerly a garage. She feeds her raccoons dog kibble with a home-made raccoon formula on top. For her opossums' unique formula, she combines vegetables such as bok choy, kale, berries, apples, beets to carefully balance their intake of calcium and phosphorus. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Smajkiewicz also cares for two children. She has sole custody of the son and daughter of a former partner. With help from family members, she rebuilt her house to make room for the two kids.

“It was the right thing to do. There was no choice in it,” she said.

Reilly, now 11, and Chase, 9, help Smajkiewicz by carrying multiple bowls of raccoon kibble into the former attached garage, now called the “animal room.”

One of the 46 raccoons that Smajkiewicz cares for climbed the wire fencing of its enclosure in the back yard.
One of the 46 raccoons that Smajkiewicz cares for climbed the wire fencing of its enclosure in the back yard.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Smajkiewicz makes her animals’ formulas carefully from scratch.

For her opossums, “I ravage the produce section.” She buys vegetables like bok choy, kale, berries, apples, beets to balance the animals’ intake of calcium and phosphorus. One of her most urgent messages is that people should never feed an injured or orphaned animal: The wrong food can be fatal to wildlife.

Smajkiewicz tube-feeds 9 baby opossums every four hours in her kitchen until they reach a weight of 50 to 80 grams.
Smajkiewicz tube-feeds 9 baby opossums every four hours in her kitchen until they reach a weight of 50 to 80 grams. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The compassion she feels toward all her animals is evident, but she has a special bond with Fred, a brain-injured 2-year-old opossum. He was hit by a car on Christmas Eve, and because of his injuries he can’t be released to the wild. Smajkiewicz is in the process of getting an educational license to take Fred out to educate people about wildlife.

“He’s friendly, goofy — just a chill dude,” she said while cradling him at her kitchen sink and wiping food off his face. “People think opossums are scary, dirty, and mean, but they are just misunderstood.”

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Fellow rehabber Ashley Makridakis of Fresh Start Wildlife Rehab in Millbury called Smajkiewicz “magical.”

“Krystal is a single mother, and I don’t know how she does it,” Makridakis said. “I only did 11 raccoons and I was losing my mind.”

Krystal Smajkiewicz has three incubators in her bedroom. One has five-week-old squirrels in it that she hand-feeds four times a day.
Krystal Smajkiewicz has three incubators in her bedroom. One has five-week-old squirrels in it that she hand-feeds four times a day. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Like Smajkiewicz, Makridakis has been dealing with a new reality this year. “I’ve never taken in so many animals in such a short amount of time in my entire life.”

Marion Larson of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife attributed the increase in rescued animals in part to the pandemic.

“More people are at home, and people are seeing stuff they’ve never noticed before,” she said.

But Larson also cautioned that not all baby animals without parents nearby are orphaned. “Don’t assume all the animals are abandoned,” she said.

For example, rabbits visit their young only twice a day to nurse, for the animals’ protection. Making fewer visits to the nest means they will attract fewer predators.

“For the most part, it’s best for a wild animal to be left alone. Obviously a person can [safely] help a turtle across a road, place a bird, bunny, or other creature under or in a nearby bush [the parents will still come to care for it even if it’s handled], but if the animal isn’t visibly injured or ill, it should be left alone,” Larson said in an e-mail.

Smajkiewicz rescued Franklin, a snapping turtle, when he was the size of a dime. He was attacked by a bird and lost most of his beak. He can never be returned to the wild because of his injury. Now, at a year old, he is outgrowing his aquarium and Smajkiewicz must find way to finance a larger one.
Smajkiewicz rescued Franklin, a snapping turtle, when he was the size of a dime. He was attacked by a bird and lost most of his beak. He can never be returned to the wild because of his injury. Now, at a year old, he is outgrowing his aquarium and Smajkiewicz must find way to finance a larger one. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

On a sunny morning earlier this month, during a stretch of calm weather, Eddie, the rescued starling, and two other orphaned birds were enjoying the sunshine in a small cage in Smajkiewicz’s yard, she said. The door to the cage was open. Forty-five days after Zelda Rosen found him, after Smajkiewicz had nursed him to robust health, Eddie and his new friends flew out of the cage and up into the trees.

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“Krystal has a true gift,” Rosen said when she learned Eddie had taken wing, “and Eddie and I are lucky to have found her.”

Suzanne Kreiter can be reached at kreiter@globe.com.

Information about abandoned or orphaned animals can be found at: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/find-a-wildlife-rehabilitator.