GRANTVILLE, Pa. (WHTM) – Sitting there on a secluded park bench on the lap of his person, you almost wouldn’t know he’s now a global celebrity.
But you would certainly recognize he’s an alligator.
Wally — the world’s only emotional support alligator, according to Joseph Henney — is already well known around central Pennsylvania. Nexstar’s WHTM first profiled him back in 2019, following Wally and Henney to a nursing home where residents took delight in petting the gator.
Other times, Wally is visiting sick children at local hospitals, wearing a red vest that identifies him as an emotional support animal.
Ah, but then came last week. Henney and Wally were in Philadelphia for a local TV appearance about the fact that Wally is a finalist in the America’s Favorite Pet competition. With him were Mary Johnson, whom Henney describes as his best friend, and her two children, Eddie, 11, and Emmy, 7.
It was a hot day. The five of them — the four humans and Wally — went to a local splash pad. As tends to happen when Wally shows up, people started calling their friends.
“And they were coming from like a mile, or two miles away, to come get a picture or a hug and kiss from Wally,” Henney said. (That’s right: Wally not only likes — but demands — kisses on the lips.)
Henney and his friends posted a TikTok video from the splash pad. Other folks posted their own. And pretty soon, people from a lot farther than a mile or two were interested.
“Television networks from all over the world — Ireland, Australia, Africa, England, Italy — they’re all calling, doing Zooms and stuff like that,” Henney said. “It’s just, everybody loves Wally. Everybody loves Wally for what he stands for.”
But what is it that he stands for?
“He helps needy people. He puts … smiles on people’s faces,” Henney said, getting choked up.
Henney also hoped that fans would take a lesson from Wally, and “try putting a smile on somebody’s face today,” he said. “Tell ’em you love ’em.”
For all the joy Wally now seems to bring to the world, the first person Wally took care of was Henney himself.
“I lost three family members and four lifelong friends,” Henney said. “That all happened in two weeks, and my doctor wanted to give me antidepressants. I refused,” he said.
Instead, Henney adopted a rescue gator from Florida.
“He was just doing things I had never seen alligators do,” said Henney, who runs a reptile rescue organization.
Recued gators can’t be safely returned to the wild; other gators Henney has rescued have gone to zoos or wildlife refuge parks. But Wally, he kept for himself.
“If I’d lay there and fall asleep, he’d cuddle up beside me, put his head on my shoulder, his arm around me, which I really thought was extremely weird,” Henney said. “And he followed me around like a puppy.”
Henney later registered Wally as an emotional-support animal, figuring that Wally supported him through some of his most difficult times.
Wally’s legend grew, and Henney uses Wally’s charm to raise money for expenses — vet bills, food, and so forth — even though the money doesn’t completely cover the expenses.
You don’t get rich rescuing reptiles, Henney said, “but at least we save their lives.”
Henney and Wally also help other nearby organizations, including the Capital Area Therapeutic Riding Association (CATRA), which provides therapeutic horseback riding, and Cocoa Packs, which fights childhood hunger.
In retrospect, hard as it was to believe, Henney knew Wally was special before the two even met based on what he’d heard from Disney officials in Florida, who found Wally and other gators — including two others Henney took in — were coming a little too close to humans. The folks who captured him also told Henney something interesting.
“He was the only one who really didn’t try to bite somebody” during the capture, Henney said. “And they couldn’t understand that, which I doubted that myself.”
But then Henney and Wally got to know either other.
“He just never attempted to bite, and we didn’t understand that,” Henney said. With most gators, “anything you touch inside their mouth is an automatic slam shut.”
But Wally? “I can put my hand and rub his tongue, and he will refuse to bite,” Henney said. “He’ll actually open his mouth wider and move away. He will not close his mouth. He won’t kill anything to eat.”
Really. Henney has tried.
“He just made friends with — he’d swim around with the rats in the pond,” Henney said.
Wally’s story also caught the eye of the production team for the Disney+ series “Loki,” about the fictional Marvel character played by Tom Hiddleston. Michael Waldron, the show’s head writer, told Marvel in July 2021 that he had already come up with an idea to incorporate an alligator into the show — a character which soon came to be known as “Alligator Loki.” But when it came time to choose a real-world animal for the VFX team to model the character after, “Loki” writer Eric Martin confirmed they looked to Wally, ComicBook.com reported.
“While #AlligatorLoki is wholly a creation of @michaelwaldron’s weird mind, we did have a real world visual reference for him,” Martin tweeted in July 2021, along with a video of Wally and his owner. “Meet Wally.”
Lest anyone get any ideas about getting their own emotional-support alligator, Henney reminds the world that the reason Wally gets so much attention is precisely because of how unusual he is.
“Wally is the first in all history,” Henney said. Even the other gators born with and raised alongside Wally turned out like typical alligators.
“And I feel honored with that. But I don’t push that. Do alligators make good pets? Not really,” Henney admitted.
“There’s none other like him”