Joie’s emotional support animal is a 4.5-foot alligator. There must be some currency to the adage that if you live long enough, you’ll see everything.
Joie paused in the hallway while residents and staff gathered in a semi-circle, an air of curiosity mixed with the ᴛᴇʀʀᴏʀ of seeing a huge reptile, its sharp teeth visible inside its powerful jaws, and kept their distance.
Joie said it was all right. Wally — that’s the gator’s name — wouldn’t ʜᴜʀᴛ them. He’s a pretty mellow reptile, and he likes people in the companionship way, not the potential food way.
One woman approached, cautiously, to have her picture taken with Wally. “I’m not scared of snakes,” she said, “but that thing has a lot of teeth.”
Joie encouraged her to pet Wally. He particularly likes the top of his head rubbed. When you do that, his eyes close, much like a dog’s when you pat the top of his head.
He seems very nice, the woman said.
Joie responded that Wally was. He’s about three years old and, Joie says, “He’s just like a dog. He wants to be loved and petted.”
That is if your dog had leathery skin and mouth lined with razor-sharp teeth.
Journey began on family farm
Joie Henney’s journey to becoming the owner of an emotional support alligator began on his family’s farm in northern York County, just outside Dover.
The family raised Yorkshire hogs.
Joie and a friend were goofing around on the farm when they decided it might be fun to ride one of the breeding stock, a female that had grown to be a good 800 or 900 pounds, a fairly substantial hog.
It was fun for a while.
But then his father caught them and ᴄʜᴀsᴛɪsᴇᴅ them for it, noting that hogs weren’t meant to be ridden.
It became worse because the hog in question was pregnant, and the sᴛʀᴇss of being ridden was too great for its apparently sᴇɴsɪᴛɪᴠᴇ constitution. The hog ᴅɪᴇd. And Joie was in deep trouble.
Joie’s father suggested that if he wanted to ride animals, he should try riding a steer.
So he took Joie to the rodeo in Wellsville, in a field next to the fire hall, so he could get a taste of what it was like to be atop an animal that didn’t want to be ridden and would do anything it took to make it stop. His father figured it would teach him a lesson.
He tried it.
He liked it.
He was about 10 years old.
The rush of hanging on for dear life as a half-ton of muscle, ʙᴏɴᴇ and bad attitude thʀᴀsʜed underneath him was ᴀᴅᴅɪᴄᴛɪve. “I guess I learned the wrong lesson,” he said. “I’m an adrenaline jᴜɴᴋɪᴇ.”
It was that ᴀᴅᴅɪᴄᴛɪon that led him to reptiles.
He had a friend who had a Gaboon viper, one of the most ᴘᴏɪsᴏɴᴏᴜs snakes on the planet, 4.5 feet of ᴍᴇɴᴀᴄe topped with 2-inch-long fangs that can inject massive quantities of ʟᴇᴛʜᴀʟ ᴠᴇɴᴏᴍ.
He got the snake out of its aquarium and handled it, asking his friend whether he had any anti-ᴠᴇɴᴏᴍ on hand, just in case. His friend didn’t. “We were going to ᴅɪᴇ if we got ʙɪᴛ,” he said.
He’s had snakes and other reptiles. “I’m not a dog person. I had ᴠᴇɴᴏᴍᴏᴜs snakes. I rode bulls,” he said. “I like the calm things in life.”
He had a ʜᴜɴᴛing and fishing show, “Joie Henney’s Outdoors,” that ran from 1989 until 2000 on ESPN Outdoors, Fox and other outlets.
He knew a few people who had alligators and, as he says, “I was always fond of them,” as if the attraction were the same as one would have with, say, a cat.
He has a friend who rescues gators in Florida, and about three years ago September, his friend called him up and asked, “Do you want a gator?”
There were a bunch of alligators — called a congregation — on a plot of land that was about to be developed. The initial plan called for the gators to be relocated to a haʙɪᴛat uninfested by condos. The plan changed and then included the eradication of the congregation.
Joie’s friend didn’t cotton to the notion of the gator elimination and offered to rescue them and find them new homes.
So in September 2015, Wally came to live with Joie at his home in Strinestown, York County.
He was just a pup, about 14 months old, as near as they could tell, just a small guy, maybe a foot and a half long, barely a yearling.
At first, Wally was afraid of everything. It was, Joie said, as if you just got a new dog or cat. He snapped at everything and was, well, a wild animal trying to adjust from living in what had been a swamp to living in a house.
“Everything has a bad attitude at first,” Joie said.
First, he had to feed him with tongs; otherwise, giving him a snack of some raw chicken could result in the loss of digits, or worse.
He picked Wally up when he could and comforted him when he was scared. It took some time, but after a few months, Wally had beɢᴜɴ to become domesticated. “He was a like a little puppy dog,” Joie said. “He would follow us around the house.”
He had some territorial instincts. He cleared out one of the kitchen cupboards and established that as his domain. “He still thinks that cupboard belongs to him,” Joie said.
After a while, Wally became as domesticated as he would ever become. He is still a wild animal, Joie said, emphasizing that you still have to be careful around him.
But he became a part of the household. He liked lying on the bed or the couch. (He can’t stand a made bed and has to ruffle the blankets and sheets to make a nest, sort of like a dog.)
He was just like having a dog, save the notion that, at any given moment, he could ʙɪᴛᴇ your thumb off.
Wally has the run of the house. He and Joie’s other gator, Scrappy, a 2-year-old, reside in a 300-gallon pond he build in his living room.
Wally loves to watch TV, his favorite shows being “Gator Guys” and “Swamp Boys,” resting his head on the edge of the living-room pond to watch the screen. His favorite film is “The Lion King.” When that movie is on, Wally watches it through to the end.
Before he knew it, Wally was 4.5 feet long, a pretty good-sized reptile. (He could eventually top out at 15 feet or so. Gators, like all reptiles, grow the entire span of their lives, which for a gator, could be 55 to 80 years.)
Joie takes Wally around to schools and senior centers, putting on programs about gators and educating people about them and the pressure on their haʙɪᴛats from development and other human activity.
It was during some of those programs that he noticed something. Children with ᴀᴜᴛɪsᴍ or Tᴏᴜʀᴇᴛᴛᴇ’s or other ᴅᴇᴠᴇʟᴏᴘᴍᴇɴᴛᴀʟ ɪssᴜᴇs would be mesmerized by Wally. The gator’s presence calmed them.
It made Joie think. He believed that Wally, a pretty mellow reptile, had calming, even healing, powers, the same as a golden retriever that serves as a companion to someone in need of emotional support.
He looked into getting Wally classified as a service animal. But the rules for service animals, mostly dogs, were pretty strict and required arduous training to be certified as such.
Then he found the classification of emotional support animal. Any animal could be an emotional support critter — donkeys, skunks, ferrets, anything. Why not a gator? Joie wondered.
Pretty much all you have to do to get an animal classified as an emotional support animal is go online and register. No special training is required.
Emotional support animals, unlike service animals, are not granted any special privileges under federal law, according to the Americans with Dɪsᴀʙɪʟɪᴛies Act.
He did that, and Wally became an emotional support gator. As such, he is pretty much permitted to go wherever Joie goes. He has taken Wally to Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shop, to Lowe’s and Home Depot.
Wally travels with him just about everywhere. He had some trouble taking him to restaurants. Restaurant owners balked at having a gator in the dining room and feared that the beast carried sᴀʟᴍᴏɴᴇʟʟᴀ.
Joie assured them that gators don’t carry sᴀʟᴍᴏɴᴇʟʟᴀ, but to no avail.
Gators may seem sᴄᴀʀʏ, but Joie said they really aren’t.
More often than not, when you heard about someone being ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋed by a gator, Joie claims it was because the person ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋed the gator first. He told the story about a woman in South Carolina who had been the victim of a gator ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋ.
She was walking her dogs by a lagoon at dusk, feeding time, and a 6-foot gator went after her dogs. The woman went after the gator and the gator defended itself, ʙɪᴛing the woman’s arm off. The gator, though, didn’t eat the arm, Joie said. Gators don’t like human flesh. The gator spit it out. And then it ate one of the dogs.
An August article in Time magazine said fᴀᴛᴀʟ alligator ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋs are rare but have been on the rise because people are further encroaching on their haʙɪᴛat. An wildlife expert in the story said alligators do not have an natural instinct to ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋ humans but do view dogs as food.
“Wally’s never ʙɪᴛten me,” Joie said, “and he’s never tried to ʙɪᴛᴇ anyone. He’s pretty laid back.”
Whenever he does a presentation, Joie emphasizes that gators don’t make good house pets, Wally being the exception to the rule. They are wild animals, and if the person handling doesn’t know what he or she is doing, somebody could get ʜᴜʀᴛ, fast.
“They aren’t for everyone,” Joie said. “But what can I say. I’m not normal.”