On Monday afternoon, Joie Henney, 65, walked into the Glatfelter Community Center at the Village at Sprenkle Drive, an assisted-living development north of York, Pennsylvania, with his emotional support animal on a leash.
He walked by an elderly woman sitting on a bench by a window, reading a book. The woman glanced up from her book, took a look at Joie’s emotional support animal, shrugged and went back to her book.
Which seemed kind of unusual. Joie’s emotional support animal is a 4.5 foot long 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 semicircle, an air of curiosity mixed with the terror 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 hurt 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.
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He’s about three years old and, Joie says, “He acts like a 3-year-old,” rooting around cupboards in the kitchen, knocking over the garbage can.
“He’s just like a dog,” Joie told her. “He wants to be loved and petted.”
That is if your dog had leathery skin and mouth lined with razor-sharp teeth.
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, Delaware.
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 chastised them for it, noting that hogs weren’t meant to be ridden. It became worse because the hog in question was pregnant, and the stress of being ridden was too great for its apparently sensitive constitution. The hog died. 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, Pennsylvania, 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, bone and bad attitude thrashed underneath him was addictive. “I guess I learned the wrong lesson,” he said. “I’m an adrenaline junkie.”
It was that addiction that led him to reptiles.
He had a friend who had a Gaboon viper, one of the most poisonous snakes on the planet, 4.5 feet of menace topped with 2-inch-long fangs that could inject massive quantities of lethal venom. He got the snake out of its aquarium and handled it, asking his friend whether he had any anti-venom on hand, just in case. His friend didn’t. “We were going to die, if we got bit,” he said.
He has had snakes and other reptiles. “I’m not a dog person. I had venomous snakes. I rode bulls,” he said. “I like the calm things in life.”
He had a hunting and fishing show, Joie Henney’s Outdoors, that ran from 1989 until 2000 on ESPN Outdoors, Fox and other outlets. He’s also a master craftsman, making furniture and other items, often from exotic woods such as olive and maple salvaged from creek beds. He might have worked construction for a living, but his avocation was, well, being Joie Henney.
“I’m not normal,” he said.
He says that a lot.
Which brings us to Wally.
A surprising number of people buy small gators
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, except a cat isn’t normally a prehistoric reptile with a long, powerful jaw containing razor-sharp teeth.
He and a friend have been involved in gator rescues in York County. A surprising number of people buy small gators as pets, not realizing that small gators grow to be big gators — and then what do you do with them?
He has a friend who rescues gators in Florida, and about three years ago, his friend called him up and asked, “Do you want a gator?”
It was a rhetorical question.
There were a bunch of alligators — called a congregation of gators — on a plot of land that was about to be developed. The initial plan called for the gators to be relocated to a habitat 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 genocide — and neither did Joie — 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, Pennsylvania.
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. He was two days removed from the wild when Joie took possession of him.
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. Joie had patience. It was not unlike training a new dog or getting a new cat. It had to get to know its handler. It had to be treated with kindness. “Everything has a bad attitude at first,” Joie said. At first, he had to feed him with tongs; otherwise, giving him a snack of some raw chicken cold 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 begun to become domesticated. “He was 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 bite 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. Once, Joie tried to feed him as he watched the movie. Wally wouldn’t budge, only taking the frozen rat after the last song was sung. (Wally’s diet includes frozen rats and chicken.)
A calming presence for children
They grow up so fast, Joie said. 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 habitats from development and other human activity. It was during some of those programs that he noticed something. Children with autism or Tourette’s, or other developmental issues, 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.
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 Revolution games, to Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shop, to Lowe’s and Home Depot. He takes him for walks around Cousler Park, which usually takes about five hours because everybody wants to stop to meet him.
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 salmonella. Joie assured them that gators don’t carry salmonella, but to no avail. Wally is persona non grata in a lot of restaurants. The salmonella scare, Joie believes, is a smokescreen. He thinks restaurant owners just don’t want a gator scaring the bejesus out of the other diners.
Gators may seem scary, but Joie said they really aren’t. Crocodiles and caiman are much more aggressive and will attack humans. Gators won’t. But since they are lumped in with crocs and caiman, he said, they get a bad rap. Cats, Joie said, have killed more people than gators, something that any cat owner who has had a feline dart under their feet as they descended some stairs can attest to.
More often than not, when you heard about someone being attacked by a gator, it was because the person attacked the gator first. He told the story about a woman in South Carolina who had been the victim of a gator attack. 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, biting 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.
“Wally’s never bitten me,” Joie said, “and he’s never tried to bite 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 hurt, fast.
“They aren’t for everyone,” Joie said. “But what can I say. I’m not normal.”
At the presentation in Glatfelter Hall, the seniors had a lot of questions. One remarked that gator was pretty tasty, that she’d had it in Florida once. “Tastes like chicken,” she said. It seemed kind of unseemly, like remarking that someone’s cat was pretty tasty.
And if anything, Wally seemed like a big, leathery cat with a whip-like tail that could knock you over. He cuddled with Holly Armstrong, the center’s life enrichment director, and Ron Snyder, a resident, resting his head on Holly’s chest. He seemed content.
“He’ll lay there all day long,” Joie said. “That’s what he does. He’s pretty lazy.”
Mike Argento is a columnist with the York (Pennsylvania) Daily Record, where this column first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @FnMikeArgento.