Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Human Interest

Florida girl's environmental advocacy is sharp, perhaps more so as an autistic child


Times Staff Writer


Oink. Oink. OINK!

The frog girl, Avalon Theisen, is all ears. A pig frog is a pretty good frog. Nice and big. Some people hear them and think they're hearing alligators. No way. Alligators have a deeper voice.

The frog girl can tell you about pig frogs. Coloration and pattern? Variable, but often olive green. Dorsum? Brownish to gray. Ventral mottling? Moderate in the throat but heavy in the area of the hind legs. Genus and species? Rana grylio.

The frog girl knows her Latin. She is a mainstay of the Frog-Listening Network in the Tampa Bay area. Her ambition? Keeping track of the frogs for the rest of us.

She likes to listen for the marble-on-marble croaking of the tiny cricket frog, Acris gryllus dorsalis. Her ears perk up when a Southern leopard frog, Rana sphenocephala, bursts into its nightly fingers-squeaking-on-a-wet-balloon cacophony.

When the frog girl hears a lot of frogs, she knows the natural world is doing fine. When she hears fewer frogs, she worries. Maybe something is wrong. Not enough rain. Or too much. Maybe pesticides got washed into the pond and killed the bugs frogs eat. Frogs are losing habitat, are being eaten by invasive species. Global warming might be a factor. Yikes.

"Frogs tells us the story of the environment,'' says the frog girl.

She is 12 years old.




She reminds me of myself when I was her age, only she is smarter and less likely to do something stupid and get herself killed. I liked my frogs too, though I couldn't tell you their names in Latin and I would have never considered myself an "environmentalist.''

Few adults in the 1950s had ever heard of the word, much less a big-eared kid who seldom wore shoes except to school and church. Florida's natural bounty seemed endless. Kids in my neighborhood fished, built rafts, camped in back yards, chased snakes, because that's what Florida kids did.

We jumped off bridges without knowing the water depth, shot each other with homemade arrows and drank from oily puddles. We were wild boys and girls saved from lockjaw by the occasional tetanus shot. Somewhere along the way a lot of us became real Floridians who never outgrew our fascination with snakes and frogs.

I tried to give my own kids similar opportunities, minus the bridge jumping and puddle drinking. We went fishing and camping and canoeing. We watched birds and butterflies. My youngest, now a sophisticated Manhattanite, bought a born-in-captivity rat snake when she was 9. When her snake got loose in the house for weeks at a time I didn't complain.

But what about the new generation of Florida kids? I fretted. Kids who grow up without a stake in Florida may grow up indifferent to what Florida is all about. Ignorant, they may welcome the roar of the bulldozer if it means another shopping mall or golf course.

I put the word out. Could anyone recommend a kid who was growing up like Florida kids of yesterday? People sent me a lot of names. One name kept popping up.




Avalon Theisen was different even in the beginning. Born in Virginia, she arrived in Florida as an infant. Her parents, Deborah and Keith Theisen, found they couldn't comfort her in the usual ways. "Walking her around the room or rocking her in a swing didn't work,'' Deborah says. During the day Deborah laid her baby on a blanket so she could watch the passing clouds.

As Avalon got older, adults noticed other differences. Eventually she was diagnosed with the autism spectrum disorder Asperger syndrome.

Keith, 42, was an Eagle Scout with a passion for bass fishing. Deborah had grown up as a smarty-pants frog girl herself in Arkansas. So they read their daughter nature books. They took her camping. They took her to the Rainbow River, where she learned to kayak and swim. "When other people were scrambling to get out of the water because of an alligator," her mother says, "I had to hold her back from jumping in."

In nature classes, Avalon soaked up everything. That intense focus is common in Asperger kids. Instructors began letting her lead hikes when she was 10. With Mom's help she started an environmental organization for kids, Conserve It Forward (

In an aquarium, she keeps living props she uses in her talks: a Southern leopard frog, a Southern toad and a Cuban treefrog. In the dining room, waiting for their live mouse supper, are her caged corn snake and milk snake. "I'd take the milk snake out and let you hold it,'' she tells me generously, "but it's a little nervous and will musk on you. The musk really stinks.''

It's safer in her study, where natural history books stand beside Harry Potter and Clan of the Cave Bear. Her bedroom is filled with fossils and the mummy of a Cuban treefrog. "They're an invasive," she says of Osteopilus septentrionalis. "They eat the native frogs."

In the back yard, she leads the way through the tall weeds to a rotting hammock. "I wanted to show you this," she whispers. She gives it a tug and a million ants spill from the mildewed netting.

"I think of them as sugar ants because they're so small,'' she explains. "But I'm not an entomologist so I can't identify them for sure."

She invites me to climb a tree and seems disappointed when I decline to join her.




A lot of people believe Florida is all gone, which is irritating to me since it clearly is still with us.

When I was a kid, hunting had put the alligator and crocodile on the "say goodbye" list. Today, they are more numerous than at any time in a century. Panthers and bears face problems. But their populations are more robust than when I was young. Nobody, legally at least, scrambles turtle eggs into omelets anymore; last year loggerheads set nesting records on east coast beaches.

I don't mean to sound like a Pollyanna. Florida's environment faces many risks. When my parents moved here in 1951 there were 2 million residents. Now there are 18 million of us competing for space and water. The recession is over. The bulldozers are starting to rumble.

More than ever, Florida needs new blood — young people who will speak up.




Officially, she is in about seventh grade, but Avalon is already learning high school algebra, taught by her mother who homeschools her. Avalon hopes to take college classes before she is old enough to go to college. She says she might like to become a doctor, though perhaps she will become a naturalist who has a doctorate.

When Avalon was 9, she met George Heinrich, the king of herpetology in the Tampa Bay area. Avalon bowled him over.

Not long ago, Heinrich took Avalon and her parents to study the gopher tortoises at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, then to Dunnellon to look at aquatic turtles in the Rainbow River. Finally they drove across the state to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge to watch nesting loggerhead sea turtles lay their eggs.

"The stuff she knows and what she's done is incredible,'' Heinrich says. "She has a resume better than a lot of graduate college students."

Maybe she will grow up to be the next Temple Grandin, another high-achieving person with autism. Grandin teaches animal science at Colorado State, writes books, makes videos and is a spokeswoman for autism causes.

Last summer Avalon won the national Temple Grandin Award. The famous doctor of animal science told her to "be yourself, be polite and study hard.'' It's what she plans.

Late this fall, Nature Tracks With Avalon will stream on the Autism Channel ( She has added her voice to a CD for children, Pacha's Pajamas — A Story Written By Nature, Vol. 2.

"I play Abbey the toad,'' Avalon says.




Dark. Rainy. Clouds of mosquitoes.


Armed with a flashlight, Avalon trots into the back yard with me in tow. "It's important to hold the flashlight right below your eyes and aim the beam straight out. Now look for eyes. Those eyes that are glowing over there? Spiders. I have to admit I am not that fond of spiders right now. Maybe someday. Tonight should be good for frogs.''

In the bushes, bright eyes glow like emeralds. Some kind of treefrog.

"It's not a green,'' she says, staring. No, it's not Hyla cinerea. Nor does it seem to be a barking treefrog, Hyla gratiosa.

"This may be my first pinewood treefrog!"

With her mom shining the light, the frog girl carefully positions her left hand. With her right she bumps the bewildered Hyla femoralis in the rump. It's a practiced move: The little frog leaps into Avalon's left hand.

Frogs weren't born yesterday, of course. This one is wily, and possibly slimy. It squeezes out of her hand and catapults onto the lawn. Pandemonium. Lights. Screaming by Avalon. Advice from her parents and me.

The frog girl kneels. Pokes around with her hand. Mosquitoes land and bite. They're ferocious.

"Enough, Avalon,'' says her dad, "we're being eaten alive.''

She's 12 years old. She's a Floridian who wants an adventure.


Reluctantly she returns to civilization.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected]





Avalon Theisen, 12, environmentalist and real Florida girl.

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