August 30, 2022
Joseph Henney’s emotional support animal WallyGator goes with him almost everywhere—from the grocery store to walks in the park. They hug each other and sleep in the same bed. WallyGator is an alligator, reports The Washington Post.
“When he turns his nose toward you, that means he expects a kiss,” said Henney, 69, who goes by Joie (pronounced “Joe”) and lives in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, about two hours from Philadelphia. “He’s super sweet-natured.”
The two watch television together on the couch, and when Henney takes him to the farmers market, WallyGator gives hugs to shoppers—as long as they are okay with being that close to a 70-pound reptile with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
“Wally is definitely not your average crocodilian,” says Henney, explaining that most people in his community are familiar with his seven-year-old, 5½-foot emotional support alligator.
WallyGator has a following on TikTok and Instagram, and he made headlines on Friday, August 26, after Henney took him to Love Park in Philadelphia.
“He’s a very special gator, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone get one,” he said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you will get bit.”
Henney’s unusual relationship with WallyGator started in 2015, he said, when a friend called from Florida and asked if he could take in a few gators that had been found in a pond in Orlando. Henney makes a living in woodcrafting, but he has always enjoyed caring for reptiles as a pastime, he said.
Alligators are legal to own in Pennsylvania, and Henney has helped relocate unwanted alligators, snakes, and iguanas to wildlife sanctuaries as a hobby for about 30 years. He keeps his rescue reptiles in his home in separate indoor enclosures that he purchased for this purpose. He then finds sanctuaries or zoos that will take them.
He is usually called to rescue alligators when people take in cute baby gators as pets but they inevitably turn into large animals that can be difficult to handle, he explains. They are, after all, a species that has not changed since the time of the dinosaurs.
Henney told his Florida friend that he could take in three juvenile alligators. After a while, he sent two of the gators to reptile refuges in New York and New Jersey, he said.
But Wally stayed behind: “I bonded with him and was committed to caring for him,” says Henney.
“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 said, noting that the reptiles can live 80 years or longer in captivity.
They breathe air and generally live in freshwater, but their skin does not need to stay wet for survival. It isn’t common for people to want alligators as pets, though it does happen more than most people realize, he admits.
“When they get to three feet, nobody wants them,” Henney said. “They can bite and they’re extremely hard to handle.”
Wildlife experts agree: Alligators generally don’t make good pets, and they’re illegal to own in many states. “The jaw pressure from an alligator’s bite force is incredibly strong, and their powerful tails can whip you,” adding, “They are also predators who are hardwired to believe that other creatures want to eat them, so they are defensive early on, he said.
“I definitely assume that [Henney] is an exception when it comes to caring for an alligator—he’s done a good job,” Diaz said. “But most people don’t have that kind of time to devote to a pet alligator’s care.”
The large reptiles require a special diet and enrichment such as logs or live plants to hide under; and running or spraying water to thrive under human care. They should never be handled by people who aren’t trained, said Matt Evans, assistant curator of Herpetology at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C.
“If you are interested in working with alligators, volunteer at your local zoo or nature center or get involved with citizen science,” Evans said.
Research contact: @washingtonpost