A Pennsylvania alligator is making headlines nationwide for his cuddly, friendly, go-everywhere personality. He even sleeps with his buddy/owner Joie Henney at their home in Jonestown.
The bonds between the man and his reptile are so close, in fact, that Henney’s doctor certified the critter as an emotional support animal, according to an article in The Washington Post.
That puts Wally among the ranks of the more unusual emotional helpers — a list that has included at least one squirrel, a peacock and miscellaneous cats, rabbits, birds and a companionable pig, among others. Dogs are, not surprisingly, probably the most common emotional support creature — and the most likely to be accepted as emotional support providers.
But back to Wally, who’s been the subject of a slew of articles this week nationwide.
Henney’s been willing for years to take home reptiles that have been rescued after someone abandoned them or they otherwise ended up in shelter. And WallyGator was just such a case. But as the years passed, man and reptile developed a bond.
They watch TV together, visit splash pads — with the alligator on a leash, of course — and put in lots of car ride time sitting side by side, among other shared joys. The emotional support part was reportedly the doctor’s idea, after Henney told him how happy WallyGator makes him feel.
Had their friendship bloomed a few years ago, WallyGator might have become a world traveler. But it’s hard to go too far without flying and airlines and the U.S. Department of Transportation have cracked down hard on what kind of animal is allowed on an airplane as an emotional support animal.
In 2019, as the Deseret News reported, you could get almost anything certified as an emotional support animal and flying friend. A reporter here got a friend’s cat certified by going online, answering a couple of questions honestly — who doesn’t feel better with a fur baby nearby for cuddles and kisses? — and got a certification of need that declared the feline an emotional support cat.
Neither airlines nor landlords were wild about how easy it was to certify an animal and policymakers across multiple types of venues have made some changes since then.
Airlines like Delta have begun only accepting in-cabin dogs that have been specially trained as service animals for people with disabilities. As its web page states — and it’s pretty much the same across the skies — “Delta no longer recognizes emotional support animals as service animals.”
Those who are traveling with service animals have to fill out a form and let the airline know in advance. The animals also have to be able and willing to fit under the seat or ride on the passenger’s lap.
As Travel and Leisure pointed out, “mocking emotional support animals” was getting pretty easy. And some did post safety risks, “like the time (one) bit an American Airlines flight attendant, and (there are) ethical implications to consider, including the for-profit sites that allow you to essentially purchase an ESA certificate for your pet to avoid paying cargo fees on your flight. In some ways, the airlines’ crackdown was a long time coming and could benefit passengers who have to share their space with animals who simply are not equipped for air travel.”
But the article noted a downside, too. Some people aren’t getting the actual emotional support that they need, as landlords and others crack down in the face of all the abuses that occurred.
“The problem is that like many issues involving mental health, there isn’t a binary correlation between ESAs and a passenger’s well-being — and what might look like an opportunity to save $250 on a roundtrip flight for one passenger might serve as an emotional necessity for another,” the Travel and Leisure article said.
While for some an emotional support animal designation is a way to avoid pet rent, for others — as the Deseret News article pointed out — an animal may serve a much greater role for emotional wellbeing.
The Americans with Disabilities Act has some pretty firm definitions: “The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”
And we go back to WallyGator yet again.
USA Today recently captured news of WallyGator playing with locals in a city park. “‘We were just walking by LOVE Park and saw this kid playing with an alligator in the fountain,’ Britt Miller told the Philly Voice news site. She also documented Wally’s visit on Twitter. ‘Of course, there was a ton of people around taking pictures. The girl (who had the alligator) seemed to be with her family, who were sitting off to the side. They were super friendly. People were picking up the alligator, petting it, all sorts of stuff.’”
Henney hopes that WallyGator will be crowned America’s Favorite Pet, ABC affiliate WPVI reported. Wally’s got a big TikTok following and kids reportedly love seeing the peaceful, easygoing house pet amble onto the splashpad or visit public venues.
In 2019, The Associated Press reported that WallyGator likes backrubs and being hugged and will let almost anyone carry him. He likes being held.
But it’s wise to remember that alligators are generally not so easygoing and snuggly, as Henney notes.
“He’s a very special gator, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone get one. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you will get bit,” he told The Washington Post.