When you think of an emotional support animal, what comes to mind? It would be fair to assume the first thought to enter one’s head would be a dog, if not some kind of bipedal mammal — and most likely not a reptilian carnivore with razor-sharp teeth.
In enters WallyGator: a five-and-a-half foot, 70-pound TikTok famous alligator with over 72,600 followers on the platform owned by Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native Joie Henney. While it is legal to own alligators in Philadelphia, that isn’t the case in many other states — nor is it likely that the majority of pet gators, if any, qualify as emotional support animals. Or is it?
Since Wally’s uptick in popularity on the internet back in August, “alligators” as a related topic to the Google search query “emotional support animal” has seen a 300% increase in search frequency, most likely for the purposes of curious internet users seeing and reading about WallyGator for themselves. However, with the increase in popularity of keeping various species of reptiles as house pets and the common need for emotional support animals, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that people with legitimate mental health conditions, unique cases of PTSD, or related conditions could be looking into obtaining a support gator of their own.
As we’ve previously covered, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has provided guidance on how the Fair Housing Act (FHA) interfaces with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regarding emotional support animals. HUD classifies assistance animals into two different categories in order to distinguish their roles from one another: service animals (primarily dogs), and other trained animals that do work, perform tasks, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities. Per HUD’s guidelines, because Wally is not a dog, he, therefore, cannot qualify as a service animal – so, how does HUD define Wally and his role, exactly?
HUD states if the service animal status is not readily apparent, to limit inquiries to two questions: “Is the animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?”, and if the answer to either question is no, then following denial of service animal status under federal, HUD states that the animal can still qualify as a support animal or other assistance animal, depending on what needs to be accommodated.
In Wally’s case, Henney received approval to use him as a support animal after expressing to his doctor he did not want to be medicated for depression following the deaths of several family members and close friends in a short period of time, and more recently, his untimely cancer diagnosis. Even before rescuing and adopting Wally, Henney has worked with and rescued reptiles (particularly alligators) for over thirty years, and his vocation is one he is very passionate about – so it stands to reason his support animal of choice would be one he’s so accustomed to working with.
Because the ADA makes the same distinction that an emotional support animal would only be classified as such due to its mere presence providing comfort as opposed to employing any training to respond to a situation, HUD’s guidelines technically, but clearly grant Wally his status as a legitimate emotional support animal under federal law.
While Wally’s status is protected in the eyes of the law, HUD also states that a housing provider can refuse a reasonable accommodation request for a support or assistance animal if said animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals or would result in substantial physical damage to the property of other which cannot be reduced or eliminated. However, before denying such a request due to a lack of information, a housing provider is encouraged to engage in a “good-faith” conversation with the owner of the support animal to gather information about the animal and mitigate any potential misunderstandings regarding its purpose.
Luckily for most property owners, WallyGator is very much an anomaly, and most folks aren’t scrambling to obtain an emotional support gator of their very own, anyway. Henney himself calls Wally a “very special gator” (he’s trained Wally to understand commands and to keep his mouth closed around other people) and actively discourages others to adopt a pet alligator if they’re not actively predisposed to working with alligators, stating “if you don’t know what you’re doing, you will get bit”.
Check out ApplyConnect’s HUD guidance breakdown: https://www.applyconnect.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Emotional-support-animals_-HUDs-Guidance-cliff-notes-AC-Version.pdf