'He loves attention ... people': York County man has emotional support alligator

John A. Pavoncello
York Dispatch

It's not every day that you see a 4½-foot-long alligator walking on a leash. However, if you live in York County, chances are you've seen Strinestown native Joie Henney and Wally.

Henney, 65, grew up on a farm but was never much of a dog person. He does, however, have a love of reptiles — especially poisonous ones — and has owned and rescued some deadly snakes, including Gaboon vipers.

"I like all these calm things," Henney said, describing his long love of snakes.

During a trip to Florida several years ago, Henney had the opportunity to visit Gatorland, where he got to see America's largest reptile up close.

In September 2016, a friend who was rescuing alligators from Walt Disney World asked Henney if he'd be interested in taking one. Disney World had removed more than 200 alligators during a 10-year period between May 2006 and August 2015. After a fatal attack on a 2-year-old boy in June 2016, the resort doubled its efforts to remove gators from its property.

While most were being harvested for their meat and leather, some, including Wally, were rescued.

Holly Armstrong, Community Life Enrichment Director, right, and Ron Snyder, 88, cuddle with Wally the emotional support alligator, Monday, January 14, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Lap dog: At first Wally was aggressive and snapped at everything. He was a wild animal suddenly living in captivity, Henney explained. Each time Wally acted afraid or aggressive, Henney would pick up the then-foot-and-a-half gator and cuddle him.

Now 4½ feet and nearly 60 pounds, Wally thinks he's a lap dog, Henney said.

"He loves attention, (and) he loves people," he said during a recent visit to SpiriTrust Lutheran's Village at Sprenkle Drive. About a dozen seniors visited with Henney and Wally, some brave enough to rub Wally's head or even let him lie in their lap.

Recently Wally became the first American alligator to be licensed as an emotional support animal. Unlike service animals, which are limited to dogs and miniature horses as described in the Americans With Disabilities Act, pretty much any animal can be an emotional support animal. Henney decided to register Wally because of their public visits. 

Wally regularly accompanies Henney to stores such as Lowe's, Home Depot and Rutter's on the Susquehanna Trail in Strinestown. They also make public appearances at York Revolution games and at private events such as the one at SpiriTrust Lutheran. 

Not good pets: Caring for the alligator can be difficult, Henney said.

"Alligators don't make good pets," he said. A 300-gallon landscaping pond complete with filter sits in Henney's living room. The water has to be changed every three days, because "it can stink pretty bad," Henney said.

And while it's legal in Pennsylvania to own alligators as pets, Henney is a strong advocate against it.

"We never place our rescues back into homes," said Henney. Rescued alligators are placed in zoos or other specialized facilities.

Joie Henney of Strinestown recently certified his rescued American alligator Wally as an emotional support animal. Friday, January 18, 2019
John A. Pavoncello photo

Giving back: Wally's local fame has created a unique opportunity for Henney to give back to the community, he said. People who meet Wally tend to want to donate to provide care for him, but Henney said that if he couldn't afford to care for Wally himself he wouldn't have him.

So, he said, he uses Wally's donations to provide holiday meals for local families in need.

"We provided full Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to several families this year," said Henney, adding they will do the same at Easter. 

Living with an animal that doesn't train well can be taxing, he said. Wally has free range of the house, loves messing up made beds and will occasionally clear out a bottom kitchen cabinet to lie inside.

But Wally also has developed a love for watching TV.

"He loves the 'Lion King' movie," Henney said. Wally lies in his pond with his head on the side watching until the last song of the movie is played.

He also likes "Gator Boys" and "Swamp People," although Henney said he can't understand the last.

"They kill gators on that show," he said.

If you would like to see Wally in person, there will be a "Meet Wally Day," 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at Central Market.