Man says his emotional support alligator, known for its big social media audience, has gone missing

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — A Pennsylvania man who credits an alligator named Wally for helping relieve his depression for nearly a decade says he is searching for the reptile after it went missing during a vacation to the coast of Georgia.

Joie Henney has thousands of social media users following his pages devoted to Wally, the cold-blooded companion that he calls his emotional support alligator. He has posted photos and videos online of people petting the 5 1/2-foot (1.7 meter) alligator like a dog or hugging it like a teddy bear. Wally’s popularity soared to new heights last year when the gator was denied entry to a Philadelphia Phillies game.

Now Henney said he is distraught after Wally vanished while accompanying him on an April vacation in Brunswick, Georgia, a port city 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah. He said he suspects someone stole Wally from the fenced, outdoor enclosure where Wally spent the night on April 21. 

In social media posts, Henney said pranksters left Wally outside the home of someone who called authorities, resulting in his alligator being trapped and released into the wild.

“We need all the help we can get to bring my baby back,” Henney said in a tearful video posted on TikTok. “Please, we need your help.”

Henney said he didn’t have time to talk when The Associated Press reached him by phone Wednesday morning. He did not immediately return follow-up messages.

The man from Jonestown, Pennsylvania, has previously said he obtained Wally in 2015 after the alligator was rescued in Florida at the age of 14 months. Henney told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019 that Wally helped alleviate depression following the deaths of several close friends. He said a doctor treating his depression had endorsed Wally’s status as his emotional support animal.

“He has never tried to bite no one,” Henney told the newspaper. 

No one has filed police reports about the missing alligator in Brunswick and surrounding Glynn County, according to spokespersons for the city and county police departments.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources confirmed that someone in the Brunswick area reported a nuisance alligator on April 21 — the day Henney said Wally went missing — and that a licensed trapper was dispatched to capture it. The agency said in a statement that the gator was “released in a remote location,” but stressed that it doesn’t know if the reptile was Wally.

It’s illegal in Georgia for people to keep alligators without a special license or permit, and the state Department of Natural Resources says it doesn’t grant permits for pet gators. Pennsylvania has no state law against owning alligators, though it is illegal for owners to release them into the wild, according to its Fish and Boat Commission.

David Mixon, a wildlife biologist and coastal supervisor for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has handled plenty of alligators reported in people’s yards and swimming pools. He has also shown gators kept in captivity in presentations to school groups and Boy Scout troops. 

He said even alligators that seem docile can be dangerous, and he always makes sure to hold their mouths closed with a hand or, preferably, a band. 

“They’re unpredictable, and they’re often reactive to stimulus,” Mixon said. “There’s lots of videos and pictures where people handle gators, and they do it without getting hurt. But the more time you spend around them, the more likely you are to be injured.”

State wildlife officials in neighboring Florida, home to an estimated 1.3 million alligators, have recorded more than 450 cases of unprovoked alligators biting humans since 1948. That includes more than 90 gator bites since 2014, six of them fatal.

In areas where people can legally own alligators, it is possible for them to be considered emotional support animals, said Lori Kogan, a psychologist and Colorado State University professor who studies interactions between humans and animals. 

Unlike service animals that help people with disabilities such as blindness or post-traumatic stress, emotional support animals have no special training, Kogan said. They also don’t have any official registry, though health professionals often write letters of endorsement for owners with a diagnosed mental health condition.

“People can get very attached to a variety of animals,” Kogan said. “Can you get attached to a reptile? Can it bring you comfort? I would say yes. Me personally? No.”

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