THE NEXT GEN­ER­A­TION OF AC­TIVISM

At 13, Me­gan Sorbo speaks out for na­tive wildlife in Florida

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Stephen Hudak

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.

STEPHEN HUDAK/ORLANDO SENTINEL

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.

TINA SORBO/COUR­TESY

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.

STEPHEN HUDAK/ORLANDO SENTINEL

Sorbo ad­dresses Orange County com­mis­sion­ers on Dec. 17, im­plor­ing them to keep a prom­ise to tax­pay­ers and pro­tect Split Oak For­est from de­vel­op­ment.

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