Wally likes to comfort his friends when they feel sad or stressed. He’s good at giving out hugs.
So it’s no wonder Dani and Jake Newman chose him to be in their wedding last weekend.
He did almost steal the show, however, since he’s an alligator.
He waddled down the aisle July 3 wearing a special tuxedo with his handler, Joie Henney, and they delivered the rings to the reptile-loving couple for their dinosaur and steampunk-themed nuptials at Acorn Farms in Mt. Joy.
Photo by Donna Welch
This wasn’t Wally’s first time in the spotlight. The 6-year-old gator works as an emotional support animal and educational “speaker” at schools, offices and events. In recent years, he’s been spotted walking with Henney at the Capital City Mall and at various locations visiting his “friends.”
Dani, an autistic woman, met Wally a few years ago and immediately fell for him. That was soon after Wally was rescued in Florida by friends of Henney, who eventually took him in at his rescue in York County. With over 50 years of experience between the rescuers, they all immediately recognized his unique personality.
Most alligators are known to bite and nip when they are afraid, or testing a new situation, said Henney, who has worked with gators for about 25 years.
But Wally has never done that.
Another distinction: Wally has never eaten a living thing. One of Henney’s most popular demonstrations is when he puts his hand into Wally’s open mouth and puts his palm on the reptile’s tongue. Wally refuses to close his mouth.
Along with that, Wally seems to have empathy and understanding of humans and their differences.
“We have a reptile that actually shows emotion, shows emotions when somebody’s either special-needs or sick, or sad,” Henney said.
Henney experienced Wally’s comfort first-hand when he was going through a depression a few years ago. While most reptiles might not even notice, Wally started doing things far out of the norm of gator behavior.
He would blow bubbles in the pool, which would elicit laughter or a smile. He also has his own way of putting his arm around a person, which is like his version of a hug.
Wally does little things like too, like lying down near the top of Henney’s head and being cuddly in a way that gators don’t ever do. Wally’s companionship and comfort helped him cure his depression in less than three months.
And it was that experience that led Henney’s doctor to suggest that Wally, all 5 feet 3 inches of him, could become an emotional support animal.
“I realized, Wally was not just being a nice alligator,” Henney said. “He was picking out people who really needed hugs and attention.”
Dani met Wally through working with Donna Welch, who started as her Community Support Specialist nine years ago.
Welch found out about Wally after a chance encounter with Henney at the York Central Market. After Welch met Wally, she saw his potential too and began introducing him to groups and clients, including Dani, who developed a strong kinship with him.
“I guess when you hold him, you just feel comfort,” Dani Newman said. “He’s like a blanket, a blanket of comfort you know. And he helps you relieve that sadness or stress.”
Dani Newman has always been attached to animals, she said, especially since she was in therapy as a younger child.
The alligator has helped her overcome her extreme fear, shyness and tendency to withdraw, Welch said.
With a lot of work and a lot of time with Wally, Dani has felt comfortable in ways she never imagined, Welch said, even walking in a fashion show with the alligator when her anxiety wouldn’t let her do it any other way.
Photo by Donna Welch
She then introduced Wally to her boyfriend, Jake, and the three now “have a special bond,” Henney said.
The bond overpowers any jealous tendencies Wally might have had.
In the past, Wally sometimes would become territorial if he felt like a female volunteer or friend was replacing him. He wouldn’t act out violently, but instead, just remove himself from the situation and not let anyone pet him.
But when the day of Newmans’ wedding came, Henney said Jake’s presence helped Wally know where he needed to go: right down the aisle.
Still, it was like he sensed something was changing, and there was a flash of his jealousy.
“[When] they went to get the rings, he acted like he was going to take off with the rings,” Henney said. He described it as Wally saying, ‘she was my girlfriend first,’ because “that’s usually the way he is.”
Wally helped make this couple’s day even more unique, something that was important to Dani. That’s why they decided on a Steampunk-Dino theme. She wore a Victorian-style navy and cream regal-style dress, and he wore a top hat.
“It’s really nice and special,” Dani Newman said.
Just like Wally.
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