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In the story of Pierre and Tonya the elephant, a young college student from Florida meets a four-ton African elephant, a gentle giant who is sometimes grouchy, other times, funny and kind. As Pierre learns to care for the creature, they become friends and their lives are changed.

That may sound like a Pixar movie, but it pretty much really happened to Pierre Bernard, a Beacon College senior and anthrozoology major from Seffner, Florida, who met a real-life Tonya last summer when he was a zoo intern in Texas. In Tonya and the zoo’s other elephants, Bernard witnessed firsthand the renowned elephant intelligence — an experience that he will never forget.

“There were times when these animals acted so human, it amazed me,” Bernard said. “Sometimes, when we were late opening the enclosure door for her, Tonya would throw debris at us to let us know she was not pleased. Overall, though, you could see their personality and gentleness in how they lived their lives.”

A milestone experience

Pierre Bernard with a giraffe at the Caldwell Zoo For Bernard, the internship at Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas — one of that state’s largest zoos — was a milestone, both personally and educationally, he said. It gave him practical insights into caring for animals, a better understanding of their behavior, and greater knowledge of zoo operations.

At the same time, the work was hard: He did almost everything — cleaning animal enclosures, preparing daily diet programs, toting plants and trees to the feeding area, attending training sessions, and interacting with guests to help educate them about the animals.

Ultimately, the experience broadened his horizons in terms of his career goal of becoming a wildlife protection professional for a major organization like the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I feel like it changed me,” he said. “Now I really want to go deeper into the issues of wildlife protection. Not just working with the animals, but also doing things like influencing public policy, getting new laws passed, or making other positive changes.”

Heart and mind for success

Always a classroom leader and hard worker, Bernard emerged earlier this year as the leading candidate for the Caldwell Zoo internship — Beacon’s first with the Texas zoo, said Bryan Cushing, the college’s program coordinator and assistant chair of anthrozoology. It was quite an honor for Bernard in one of Beacon’s most popular majors, only the second such undergraduate degree program in the country.

“When we thought of who would be the best representative for our major, Pierre led the list,” Cushing said. “We wanted to send them someone we knew would make them want us to send them more. Pierre cares so much about animals and has such a desire to learn about them. He has both the heart and mind to be a success in the anthrozoology field.”

In his senior capstone project — the culmination of Bernard’s degree work — he will build a new internal website that provides easy online access and in-depth data about the college’s animal collection. It will be a showcase and resource for students, faculty, families, industry partners, educational partners, and others, according to Cushing.

“This is a ground-breaking project,” he said. “And it will be Pierre’s lasting imprint on the program.”

To make the world better

As the pieces fall in place for his future career, Bernard says it all began when he was a child, especially in educational wildlife walks with his father, who inspired his interest in animals and plants. His love of nature and his intellectual curiosity grew as he got older and by high school, he knew what he wanted to do in life.

“From my sophomore year in high school, I knew I wanted a job in the protection of animals,” he said. “I didn’t want to have a typical 9-to-5 job, but one where I’d wake up every day and be excited about doing something I loved to do. I wanted something where I knew I was making a difference and making the world a better place.”