GRANTVILLE, Pa. (WHTM) — Sitting there on a secluded park bench on the lap of his person, Joseph Henney — who goes by Joie, spelled like that but pronounced “Joe” — you almost wouldn’t know he’s now a global celebrity.
But that is indeed Wally, the world’s only emotional-support alligator, according to Henney — a claim no one has risen to challenge.
For an alligator, Wally’s already well-known around central Pennsylvania. abc27 News first profiled him back in 2019. Like any emotional-support animal — in this regard, anyway, for an animal who’s unlike the rest in other regards — you can find him wearing his red emotional-support animal vest, lifting the spirits of senior citizens or sick children at hospitals.
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Ah, but then came last week. Henney and Wally were in Philadelphia for a local TV appearance about the fact that Wally is a finalist in the America’s Favorite Pet competition. With him were Mary Johnson, whom Henney describes as his best friend, and her two children, Eddie, 11, and Emmy, 7.
It was a hot day. The five of them — the four humans and Wally — went to a local splash pad. As tends to happen when Wally shows up, people started calling their friends.
“And they were coming from like a mile or two miles away to come get a picture, or a hug and kiss, from Wally,” Henney said.
(Yes, as this reporter can attest, Wally not only likes — but demands — kisses on the lips.)
Henney and his friends posted a TikTok video. Other people at the splash pad posted their own. And next thing Henney and Wally knew, people from a lot farther than a mile or two around were interested.
“Television networks from all over the world: Ireland, Australia, Africa, England, Italy,” Henney said. “They’re all calling, doing Zooms and stuff like that. It’s just, everybody loves Wally. Everybody loves Wally for what he stands for.”
We asked: What does he stand for?
“He helps needy people. He puts –” Henney got choked up, fought back tears and composed himself. “He puts smiles on people’s faces.”
Wally’s lesson for us all, conveyed by Henney? “Try putting a smile on somebody’s face today,” he said. “Tell ’em you love ’em.”
For all the joy Wally now seems to bring to the world, the first person Wally took care of was Joie Henney himself.
“I lost three family members and four lifelong friends,” Henney said. “That all happened in two weeks, and my doctor wanted to give me antidepressants. I — I refused.”
Wally stepped in.
“He was just doing things I had never seen alligators do,” said Henney, who knows what alligators do, because he runs a reptile rescue organization. Recued gators can’t be safely returned to the wild; other gators he has rescued have gone to zoos or wildlife refuge parks. “If I’d lay there and fall asleep, he’d cuddle up beside me, put his head on my shoulder, his arm around me, which I really thought was extremely weird.”
Weird — but wonderful.
“And he followed me around like a puppy,” Henney said.
Next he registered Wally as an emotional-support animal, because if Wally isn’t an emotional-support animal, who is?
Wally’s legend grew. He even inspired Alligator Loki, which — if the abc27 newsroom is a representative sample of the population — you either know all about or (like this reporter) have spent the day trying to understand and still can’t grasp.
Henney uses Wally charm to raise money, although he (Henney, that is; Wally didn’t speak) said the expenses — vet bills, food and so forth — cost more than the revenue that comes in. You don’t get rich rescuing reptiles.
“But at least we save their lives,” he said.
Henney and Wally also help other nearby organizations, including the Capital Area Therapeutic Riding Association (CATRA), which provides therapeutic horseback riding, and Cocoa Packs, which fights childhood hunger.
In retrospect, hard as it was to believe, Henney knew Wally was special before the two even met, based on what he heard from Disney folks in Florida who found Wally and other gators — including two others Henney took in — a little too close to people. The folks who captured him told Henney something interesting.
“He was the only one who really didn’t try to bite somebody” during the capture — scared alligators being rescued almost always try to bite, even if they won’t do any harm because the people catching them are properly equipped. “And they couldn’t understand that, which I doubted that myself.”
But then Henney and Wally got to know either other.
“He just he never attempted to bite, and we didn’t understand that,” Henney said. With most gators, “anything you touch inside their mouth is an automatic slam shut.”
But Wally? “I can put my hand and rub his tongue, and he will refuse to bite,” Henney said. “He’ll actually open his mouth wider and move away. He will not close his mouth. He won’t kill anything to eat.”
Really. They tried.
“He just made friends with — he’d swim around with the rats in the pond,” Henney said.
Lest anyone get any ideas though about getting their own emotional-support alligator, Henney reminds the world that the reason Wally gets so much attention is precisely because of how unusual he is.
“Wally is the first in all history,” Henney said — even the other gators born with and raised alongside Wally turned out like typical alligators. “And I feel honored with that. But I don’t push that. Do alligators make good pets? Not really.”
He said keeping most gators as pets is bad for people and even worse for the gators. All gators — except Wally.
“There’s none other like him,” Henney said.