By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D. • Photos by Danielle Debley
Many folks in Harrisburg and York can now boast that they’ve hugged or even kissed an alligator thanks to Wally. Once a tiny gator who nobody wanted, Wally, has graduated into a new role as an emotional support animal.
Now four years old and 35 pounds, Wally has become world famous, having greeted visitors from all over the world who have come to visit, record, televise, and personally pet him.
Wally’s journey from Florida to Pennsylvania began in 2015.
“My friend called from Florida and asked me, ‘Do you want a gator?’” says Joie Henney. “My friend rescues alligators and told me that a gator was rescued from a lagoon. If I wanted him I could have the gator.
Henney, who had a hunting and fishing show on ESPN Outdoors, Fox and other outlets from 1989 until 2000, jumped at the chance to rescue a gator.
“Wally was just over a year old when I brought him home,” says Henney, who suffers from depression. “After Wally came to live with me, I began to feel so much better.” Over time, Henney realized how much the gator calmed him, and he decided to register Wally as an emotional support animal.
Henney says when he first arrived at his home, little Wally was afraid of everything. “He snapped, and I had to feed him with tongs because I didn’t want to lose a finger” says Henney.
He made it a point to pick Wally up on a regular basis, showering kisses and hugs, and soon Wally began to feel more at home. Henney says Wally eventually became as domesticated as he would become.
“But he’s still a wild animal,” cautions Henney. “You still have to be careful around him.”
Henney says Wally, “is just like a dog.” Wally, who is now 5 feet long, follows Henney and girlfriend Liz Caswell around the house, sleeping on “his” couch and lying in bed. Wally also loves his 300-gallon pond which Henney has in the living room and which he shares with Scrappy, another gator who Henney rescued.
Henney also rescued two other gators which share his home—Hope and Luna. Unfortunately, Hope is disabled, having recovered from a broken back and leg. But she has her own gated area which protects her. Luna is still a very young gator who has her own area, too.
“Wally helps me keep my spirits up,” says Henney. “He can also sense when folks are not feeling well. He’ll do his best to get to that person to comfort them.”
Henney says that Wally loves to watch television. “His favorite show is ‘Swamp People’ and his favorite movie is ‘The Lion King’” says Henney. “Wally also loves going on walks and drives in the car.”
Wally loves to cuddle with folks who are receptive to becoming intimate with a gator, resting his head on their laps or snuggling up on their feet. Henney encourages people to rub the top of Wall’s head. “When you rub the top of Wally’s head, it’s like petting a dog,” says Henney. “Wally will close his eyes and enjoy it just like a dog does.”
Henney knows that many people can be afraid of Wally so he only takes his emotional support animal to places he knows the gator will be welcome. He says Wally has gone with him to stores such as Cabela’s and Lowe’s, and he does take him into restaurants when requested.
“Many owners are afraid of having a gator inside their restaurant due to fears of their customers contracting salmonella,” says Henney. “But gators don’t carry salmonella.”
A recent scientific study by George Mason University has found that alligators and other crocodilians have developed a very strong defense against infection. “They inflict wounds on each other from which they frequently recover without complications from infection despite the fact that the environments in which they live are less than sterile,” says co-author of the study, Barney Bishop.
In 2008, chemists in Louisiana found that blood serum taken from alligators destroyed 23 strains of bacteria and depleted reserves of the HIV virus. The germ-killing molecules were identified as enzymes that break down a type of lipid.
“My goal is to educate the public about gators,” says Henney.
“I take Wally to schools, senior centers, and retirement homes,” says Henney. “I make presentations about alligators and those who want to pet or hold him can do so.
Henney says the public is really impressed by Wally. “Everyone loves him. And children with developmental issues are mesmerized by his presence.”
Henney recounts a recent visit to a nursing home where Wally made a profound impression on a male resident who was suffering from dementia. “This 93 year-old former farmer had not smiled in over a year. But when Wally found him and the gator put his head on the man’s feet, he smiled. The man’s blank look disappeared, and he began to smile. He really liked Wally.”
While Wally could grow to be 15 or 16 feet long, and weigh up to 1,000 pounds or more, Henney says he will never part with his emotional support animal. “Wally will always have a home with me.” Henney also says his other gators will have a permanent home, too.
Henney has plans to build a special facility for his gators so they’ll have room to grow. His plans also include opening the facility to the public to learn and experience the world of gators.
Also in the works is a 501c3 foundation which will allow Henney and Caswell to raise funds from their presentations about gators and appearances from Wally, with all donations going to feed the homeless.
To learn more about Wally, go to his Facebook page, Wallygator. To schedule a visit with Wally and a presentation by Henney, contact Caswell at email@example.com