'Wally is definitely not your average crocodilian,' Joie Henney says of his emotional support reptile.
Like most emotional support animals, Joseph Henney's emotional support companion, WallyGator, accompanies him almost everywhere. They go on walks, take trips to the grocery store together and even sleep in the same bed. However, unlike most emotional support animals, WallyGator is an alligator. "When he turns his nose toward you, that means he expects a kiss. He's super sweet-natured," Henney, who lives in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post. The 69-year-old revealed that WallyGator even gives hugs to willing shoppers when the pair visit the local farmers market.
I am obsessed with WallyGator, the emotional support alligator.— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) August 30, 2022
And his owner who says normal people should absolutely not do this. https://t.co/60velafKJD pic.twitter.com/MvdOXtRHuW
"Wally is definitely not your average crocodilian," Henney—who goes by Joie (pronounced "Joe")—said of his 70-pound, 7-year-old, 5½-foot emotional support alligator. "He's a very special gator, but I wouldn't recommend that anyone get one. If you don't know what you're doing, you will get bit." Henney's unlikely friendship with WallyGator began in 2015 when a friend from Florida called to ask if he could take in a few gators that had been found in a pond in Orlando. Because he has always enjoyed caring for reptiles as a pastime, Henney told his friend that he could take in three juvenile alligators. Little did he know, he was about to embark on a beautiful friendship with one of them.
For about three decades, Henney—who makes a living in wood-crafting—has helped relocate unwanted alligators, snakes and iguanas to wildlife sanctuaries in his free time. He revealed that he is usually called to rescue alligators that people take in as pets when they are cute baby gators but find difficult to handle when they inevitably grow into large animals. After moving the rescue reptiles into separate indoor enclosures in his home, Henney finds sanctuaries or zoos to take them. Two of the gators he received from his Florida friend eventually went to reptile refuges in New York and New Jersey.
You don’t see this everyday! Video shows a girl walking an alligator on a leash in Philadelphia. 👀🐊 Local media said WallyGator is apparently an emotional support alligator from a local reptile rescue. 🥺 https://t.co/TYQQVaTzJF pic.twitter.com/7AVlmTxy8h— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) August 29, 2022
WallyGator, however, he decided to keep as he had formed a special bond with the then-14-month-old reptile. "I bonded with him and was committed to caring for him," Henney said. Adopting WallyGator was not a decision he made lightly. "One of the problems when someone gets an alligator for a pet is they don't realize they're in for a long haul," he explained, adding that the reptiles can live 80 years or longer in captivity. "When they get to three feet, nobody wants them. They can bite and they're extremely hard to handle."
While alligators are illegal to own in many states, Pennsylvania is not one of them. According to Raul Diaz, a herpetologist and evolutionary development biologist who teaches at California State University in Los Angeles, they generally don't make good pets and because they are predators who are hardwired to believe that other creatures want to eat them, they tend to be defensive early on. "The jaw pressure from an alligator's bite force is incredibly strong, and their powerful tails can whip you," said Diaz. "I definitely assume that [Henney] is an exception when it comes to caring for an alligator—he's done a good job. But most people don't have that kind of time to devote to a pet alligator's care."
According to Henney, it was evident to him from the very beginning that WallyGator was different from all the other alligators he's handled. "He wouldn't eat live rats, and he really showed a love for cheesy popcorn," he revealed. "I thought it was different, but I was still very cautious around him. I've been handling gators for years, and I've learned to read them. An alligator isn't going to attack you for no reason. I'm always careful, but I felt it was fine to let [WallyGator] roam free in the house. He enjoyed being held, and I thought, 'Wow, this is a super nice, friendly alligator.'"
THE EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ALLIGATOR: Forget dogs and cats, ABC’s @willganss explains why an alligator named Wally has just been nominated for America’s Favorite Pet. pic.twitter.com/h3lCRxssst— ABC World News Now (@abcWNN) August 23, 2022
It was in 2017, after several members of Henney's family died, that he and his unusual pet really bonded. "I was depressed and WallyGator started to do silly things to cheer me up," Henney shared. "When I was on the couch, he'd pull my blanket to the floor. It was his doctor who suggested that he register the reptile as an emotional support animal when Henney revealed how WallyGator had helped with his depression. Although he initially dismissed the idea, Henney went home that day with a letter from the doctor qualifying the alligator as an emotional support animal. He later filled out an application on the U.S. Service Animals website and received a certificate along with a harness and leash for his alligator once it was approved.
“He’s just loveable. He sleeps with me, steals my pillows, steals my blankets. He’s just awesome," says Joie Henney, owner of the alligator emotional support animal named Wally. https://t.co/XwWMFxsX63 pic.twitter.com/KM4i52TEEi— CNN (@CNN) August 28, 2022
Henney also credits his leathery friend for emotionally supporting him through a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer and weeks of radiation treatments. Because he knows there's a good chance his pet gator will outlive him, he has arranged with a friend to ensure that WallyGator gets to spend the rest of his days in reptilian comfort.