Sept. 10, 2006 — Sean LaPlace questions the wisdom of introducing sea lions into Coki Bay at Coral World. He doesn't keep his opinion to himself; he makes himself heard at Coastal Zone Management committee meetings.
LaPlace is 13 years old, perhaps the youngest active conservationist on St. Thomas. It is his passion, and, according to his mother, Chrys Petersen, he came by it naturally.
Petersen has nurtured her children's interest in nature. "It's a part of our lives," she says. A native St. Thomian, Petersen says she had roots going back 300 years.
An avid nature lover herself, Petersen says , "I took walks before the kids were even born." What Petersen saw, and what La Place sees today, is what a lot of people may not readily observe – the wonder that exists in nature all around us, the laughing gulls on the waterfront, for instance, or the hawk flying overhead, perhaps a redtail.
"There are so many things going on all the time," says LaPlace. He and his mother and younger sister, Analis, a nine-year-old fourth-grader at Gladys Abraham Elementary School, regularly go bird-watching.
"We don't usually go on organized bird-watches," says LaPlace, "because too many people will scare the birds away. They don't mean to, but you can lose a lot of good sightings that way."
LaPlace has raised something most of us have never seen – a baby pigeon. The outdoor rafters at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, where he just completed the eighth grade, are cluttered with pigeons, something parents and students complain about. The droppings are unpleasant and unsanitary.
But LaPlace sees something else — baby pigeons. "The babies fall out of the nests," LaPlace says, "and some of the kids stomp on them and kill them. I gather up the babies and take them home to raise. It takes about two months before I can release them."
And his efforts don't stop with the pigeon chicks. The family's home is a virtual zoo, to hear LaPlace tell it. Rescued critters – ducks, pigeons, dogs – abound. "I take the baby ducks home from the agriculture dam in Dorothea," he says. "The mongooses will get them, and so I keep them until they are big enough to take care of themselves, and then I take them back to the dam."
LaPlace has the courage of his convictions. He ran into a bit of controversy at a June CZM hearing about Coral World's desire to provide a habitat for four South American sea lions, which are about to lose their home in Thailand. LaPlace read from a prepared statement saying that, "Bringing them here would be a huge injustice to them." Though three marine experts testified that the environment would be conducive to the animals' well-being and not threaten the local habitat, LaPlace was tenacious in his pursuit of the issue.
He says, ""We need to know that any possible … solution is indeed in the best interest of not only the animals in question, but the people as well."
One of the CZM members later congratulated LaPlace on his presentation, but remarked that he didn't believe LaPlace had written his own presentation. LaPlace was incensed by the remark.
He says he had researched his statements, though he admitted he had some help with phrasing the speech, but not with the content. He wrote the CZM member defending himself. "I was really insulted," LaPlace says. "I'm 13 years old, and, yes, I had some help with the wording, but the research was my own."
The young man takes himself seriously. While noting that he is always open to new ideas – "I'm always learning," he says — LaPlace is not shy to point out his academic achievements. He says, "I have been a high honors student since I entered kindergarten. I have always been at the top of my class. I was champion of my school's geography bee in the seventh grade, winner of the inter-island Spanish quiz bowl, and I scored at the top of my team in the Iowa Test of Basic Skills with the grade equivalent of a first-year college student."
That's quite a mouthful. However, LaPlace isn't immodest. He appears on first glance, in fact, almost shy. He is, after all, a regular 13-year old. As we talk, he is very conscious of his new look. He had gotten his first set of braces just the day before. He looks at his mother, "Did you bring any Anbusol [an anesthetic teething gel]?" She has not, but soon they will be off to the dentist to adjust the fit.
When the Source inquired if another day might be better for the interview, LaPlace looked stricken. "Oh, no. Absolutely not. I want to do this today," he says.
And, like other teenagers, he is having a growth spurt. "I grew six inches in the last six months," he flashes a grin. "Now, I'm five feet six."
LaPlace just took one more big step in the school system, one he says earlier he looked forward to. He is just starting his first year as a ninth-grader at Charlotte Amalie High School.
It will come as no surprise that he plans to pursue a career in environmental science. He may attend the University of the Virgin Islands after he graduates from high school, but isn't ready to make any bold commitment yet for his future studies.
"I'm still making up my mind," he says. And he has yet to take his first trip to the states, adding, "I'd love to see snow."
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