When one imagines an emotional support animal, images of furry dogs or purring cats might be the first to come to mind. But for Joseph Henney of Dover, Pennsylvania, it’s a 5.5 feet long (1.7 meters) alligator named Wally who helps him navigate the waves of life’s emotional tides. The huge reptile is actually the emotional support alligator of Henney!

An Unconventional Bond

Joseph Henney’s childhood on a farm introduced him to a diverse array of animals, from cattle and snakes to coyotes and hogs. But none would forge as unique a bond as he would with Wally. A video of them strolling through Philadelphia’s Love Park thrust them into the limelight, capturing hearts worldwide.

This heartwarming duo’s journey began during one of Henney’s darkest periods. Grief had become a constant companion after the loss of three family members and four lifelong friends within a short span. “I shut down in a big, deep depression,” Henney recalled.

Rejecting prescribed anti-depressants, Henney found an alternative source of solace in an unexpected arrival: a baby alligator named Wally, brought to him by a friend from Florida. Henney soon found that this tiny creature brought immeasurable joy and laughter to his life.

More Than Just An Alligator

Over time, Henney realized that Wally was no ordinary alligator. From playful games of hide-and-seek to pulling off Henney’s blankets and pilfering his pillows, Wally displayed behavior atypical of his species. According to Henney, Wally could even sense human emotions, often offering comfort when needed most. “People come from all over the world to get a hug,” he proudly shared.

Perhaps the most touching testament to their bond was during Henney’s bouts of severe depression. He recalled, “I laid on the couch, and I’d wake up with Wally laying on my head. Despite the jaw print on my face, I knew he was there with me during my lowest moments.”

Such was their connection that Henney began bringing Wally everywhere – from the doctor’s office and drive-throughs to splash parks and even a wedding, where Wally took on the role of the ring bearer!

Wally, the emotional support alligator
Wally, the emotional support alligator

A Healing Embrace

Joseph Henney’s struggles with depression were profound, but Wally, with his constant cuddling and comforting presence, played a pivotal role in Henney’s healing process. When Henney’s doctor proposed medication to address his depression, Henney declined. On a subsequent visit, the doctor was astounded by his improved demeanor and inquired about the change. Henney’s reply? “I hung out with Wally.”

Recognizing the unparalleled solace Wally brought to Henney’s life, the doctor provided a letter designating Wally as an emotional support animal. This decision, while unconventional, had transformative effects on Henney’s life and those around him.

A Lifelong Passion and Community Love

Henney’s love for reptiles traces back to his childhood when he nurtured injured snakes back to health on the family farm. His passion evolved, and for nearly two decades, he has worked with alligators.

Wally’s therapeutic essence isn’t just limited to Henney. Volunteers at Henney’s rescue reptile center share similar sentiments. Belle, a devoted volunteer, jovially remarked on her bond with Wally, “Well, I’m Wally’s girlfriend, everyone says.”

Wally’s therapeutic presence has made him quite the sensation in public spaces. From restaurants like Silver Springs Diner in Mechanicsburg, where he’s treated like a celebrity, to birthday parties where toddlers ride on his back, Wally’s charm is undeniable. The unsuspecting patrons at malls often mistake him for a dog, only to be pleasantly surprised!

The Therapeutic Nature of Wally

Justin, who met Wally during a festive visit to the mall, exclaimed, “As soon as you hold him, it definitely works.” Another visitor, Leah, likened Wally to a weighted blanket, a tool often used for anxiety relief. Feeling Wally’s rhythmic breathing and steady heartbeat added to the therapeutic experience.

Meg, initially intimidated at the sight of Wally, echoed similar feelings after getting closer. “After holding Wally, I really think he can sense people’s emotions. It’s kind of incredible. He works.”

A Living Antidote to Loneliness

The positive impact of this unique companionship cannot be understated. Henney’s depression has markedly improved, attributing much of his healing to Wally’s unyielding presence. In moments of loneliness, Wally’s intuition shines, as he offers a reassuring hug, making Henney feel loved.

In recognizing the profound bond they share, Henney’s doctor endorsed the registration of Wally as an emotional support animal – a status they renew annually.

Their story is a testament to the limitless forms that love and support can take. As for those who might doubt the genuineness of this bond, they should note – the tears Henney sheds for Wally are genuine, not crocodile tears.

Video: Emotional support alligator helps a man with deep depression

Meet Wally, the emotional support alligator


M. Özgür Nevres

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