THE NEXT GENERATION OF ACTIVISM
At 13, Megan Sorbo speaks out for native wildlife in Florida
When Megan Sorbo first spoke out for Florida black bears at a public meeting, she was 9 and needed a step stool to see over the podium. In the years since, the homeschooled Orlando girl, now 13, has taken up for not only bears but also panthers, the Everglades and the Split Oak Forest.
An advocate for Florida’s natural resources, she’s cajoled, chastised and charmed governing bodies for the state wildlife commission, watermanagement districts and several county governments. “This girl has clearly found her voice,” said Mike Orlando, a wildlife biologist. “Whether you agree with her or not, you have to respect her. She’s smart and thoughtful.”
This month, she urged state wildlife commissioners to ax hunting as an option to manage bear populations and asked Orange County commissioners to protect Split Oak Forest from a road plan.
“Just because kids can’t vote doesn’t mean we don’t care,” she told commissioners. “Just because
kids aren’t doctors or lawyers or professors yet doesn’t mean our voices matter less.”
She was among dozens of people who spoke up for the protected forest, which straddles east Orange and north Osceola counties. All the others were adults.
In the matter of Split Oak, commissioners opted to back the Central Florida Expressway Authority’s proposal to extend the Osceola Parkway across the forest’s southern tip.
But Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings took note her comments that implored elected leaders who want to be seen as caretakers of the world to “then take care of it.”
“We admire your passion,” he said, thanking her for being active and involved in her community.
Megan’s mother, Tina Sorbo, believes her daughter’s unflinching activism was awakened at age 7 during a trip to the Everglades for a homeschool lesson.
“That was her light-bulb moment,” the mom said. “It lit her passion.”
Always an animal lover, Megan recalled learning about encroaching threats on the vast subtropical wilderness, an important habitat to manatees, the American crocodile and panthers.
“I thought, ‘I can do something about this,’ ” she said.
And an advocate was born.
Megan’s passion has inspired the whole family, said her brother, Trevor, 25, who graduated from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management before he was 20.
Both he and his mother also spoke against the Expressway Authority’s plan to a route through Split Oak to serve an area targeted for future mega-developments.
Her words are her own, her brother said.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, these kids have parents planting stuff in their brains.’ But that’s completely not true of my sister,” Trevor Sorbo said.
Their mother is concerned because she said Megan has received “nasty grams” for opposing the bear hunt.
Their father, Eric, who served in the Army and Air Force, is supportive of his daughter’s advocacy but unable to accompany her to most public meetings because of his work schedule.
But Megan said she no longer worries since she earned an orange belt in the Koran martial art of Taekwon-Do.
Her brother and Mike Orlando see similarities between Megan and Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist honored this month by Time magazine as its “Person of the Year.”
Both are youthful, passionate, vocal advocates for the environment, they said. Both are feisty and fearless.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump mocked Time’s recognition of Greta by tweeting “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta Chill!”
The clever 16-year-old then poked fun at the president by updating her Twitter bio to read, “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”
Likewise, Megan has skewered developers and appointed government leaders.
In her Split Oak remarks, she pointed out the forest was bought with millions of taxpayer dollars to be protected in perpetuity.
“I don’t know how long forever is to developers, ” Megan said. “But to me, forever means until the end of time.”
Others have noticed the plucky girl’s zingers.
In 2016, Celeste De Palma, Everglades policy director for Audubon Florida, tweeted footage of Megan speaking at a meeting of the South Florida Water Management District governing board.
The state agency oversees water resources from Orlando to the Florida Keys.
Megan urged the board to work in partnership with other agencies to protect the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
“I am 10 years old and I have already learned the value of working with others for better solutions and results,” she said.
Like the Split Oak proposal, many of the issues she opposed were nonetheless adopted, but she remains optimistic.
For instance, while bear hunting is still a management option, Megan is grateful for local governments and homeowner associations that heard the pleas of advocates like her.
Dozens enacted “Bear Wise” rules widely credited with increasing the use of bear-resistant trash cans and reducing conflicts between people and bears — making a future hunt less likely.
“Small things can add up to make something big,” she said.
Megan Sorbo, left, with her mother, Tina, and brother, Trevor, at the family’s home near Orlando. The bear photographs on the wall were taken by Megan’s mom during a vacation to Alaska.
Florida wildlife biologist Mike Orlando helps black bear advocate Megan Sorbo fill in data on a form documenting the capture of a black bear for research purposes.
Sorbo addresses Orange County commissioners on Dec. 17, imploring them to keep a promise to taxpayers and protect Split Oak Forest from development.