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Joie Henney’s alligator likes to be hugged. He snuggles up to Henney on the couch, and the duo sits together quietly and watches Animal Planet. Sometimes they take naps together, and when Henney falls asleep, the alligator — named Wally — will crawl up next to him and rest his snout on his head.
Henney, 66, is a former bull rider and has rescued alligators for 18 years in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Wally was handed off to him by a friend in Orlando, and Henney kept him around for his unnaturally gentle demeanor — he seemed to welcome human touch. The pair made their bond official in November of last year, after Henney lost four of his lifelong friends within two weeks and sunk into a deep depression. He didn’t want to go on medication, and he noticed his mood seemed to improve whenever Wally was around.
“My doctor knew I had gators, and she asked what I’ve been doing to get myself back on my feet, and I said, ‘Well, hanging out with my alligator, Wally,’” remembers Henney. “She says, ‘Why don’t you get him registered as an emotional support animal?’ I said, ‘How in the world can I register an alligator as emotional support?’ She told me he was qualified: He’s obedient, he’s trainable, and attentive to people’s feelings.”
And so, Henney relies on the companionship of what may be the world’s only emotional support alligator, making him part of a community of people who have found mental or physical relief from a non-traditional pet. The American government mandates that all domesticated creatures — from snakes to ferrets — can be recognized as emotional support animals (ESA) with a letter from a licensed mental health professional. (The jurisdiction for “service animals,” meaning animals that help people with physical disabilities, is narrower, and can only constitute either a guide dog or a guide miniature horse.)
Even with the government OK, having a non-traditional ESA can be difficult. There is significant pushback against people who’ve taken steps to classify an exotic animal as a psychological palliative. Derisive stories are routinely written about people who bring, say, an emotional support peacock or an emotional support turkey on an airplane. In early September, Twitter was fired up over a service horse who settled into the bulkhead. But the people who choose more exotic creatures for support say they’re critical to their mental health, and are eager to explain the benefits.
Tyler Arnett, a 21-year-old student with an emotional support parrot named Midnight, says choosing the bird as his companion was a simple decision. Arnett has suffered from depression and anxiety for most of his life, and in particular, he deals with a lot of night terrors that disrupt his sleep. Helping Arnett get out of bed in the morning is where Midnight thrives. “I have a lot of trouble when I’m waking up. It’s before I’ve taken my medication. I’m a little out of it and not wanting to get up,” says Arnett. “Midnight will mimic birds from our walks. He’ll be like, ‘Hey the sun’s out, it’s time to get up.’”
Midnight takes a perch on Arnett’s shoulder and together they face the day. Arnett says he likes the transparent way parrots express their feelings. The plume of feathers on Midnight’s head shoots straight up when the bird is alert, rests at a 45 degree angle when he’s comfortable, and lies flat against his neck when he’s angry. “I can tell how he’s feeling and he can tell how I’m feeling,” says Arnett. “When you own a bird, you are their flock, essentially.” Sometimes Midnight will make a call to Arnett when he’s out of sight, which Arnett responds with a reciprocating whistle. “He calms down when he knows I’m safe. It’s a very comforting behavior.”
“When you own a bird, you are their flock, essentially.”
Kimberly Chronister, a 50-year-old in Missouri who runs the American Mini Pigs Association, reports that the same feelings of calm can be derived from the pigs she’s sold as ESAs. “They’re very intuitive animals,” she says. “They smile when they’re happy, they cry tears when they’re sad.” Chronister says keeping a pig requires significantly more upkeep than keeping a dog, and that she wouldn’t recommend them universally, but for certain individuals, they make ideal mental health companions. “[Customers] choose them because they may have a child that has allergies, and they can’t have a traditional type pet. Pigs are hypoallergenic,” she says. “Very few people are allergic to pigs.”
There are also people like Jessica Wellman, 31, who deals with a “very complex” strain of Crohn’s Disease and a smattering of other ailments that affect her joints and balance. Wellman uses a guide dog to get around, but she’s also the proud steward of a miniature service horse named Honey. “Honey is right at my hip,” says Wellman. “At a very comfortable point where I can go ahead and put my hand directly onto her back. If I get off of balance, I can put more pressure on her.”
Service horses are some of the only pets that are officially sanctioned by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Studies have shown that pets, like dogs and cats, are associated with lower stress levels. But the science is still up in the air for other animals. Despite their popularity, there has yet to be a firm conclusion on whether they improve mental health. In particular, there’s almost no research on the relationship between non-traditional ESAs and better mental health — simply because there aren’t enough empath alligators out there to study.
Cynthia Chandler, a professor at the University of North Texas, focuses on animal-assisted therapy. She believes that non-traditional animals have a limited benefit. “The client can project things onto these animals,” she explains. “Some children might find snakes intriguing, and they can imagine and speculate things about that animal that they might not with more domesticated animals.”
However, Chandler reserves doubts about people who claim ESA benefits from reptiles or other exotic animals. “The reason the federal guidelines were created was because dogs, cats, and horses — domesticated furry creatures — had mental health benefits [according to studies],” she says, adding that some birds also fall under this category. Chandler says registering a creature like an alligator as a support animal risks making a laughingstock of those regulations and devalues the needs of people seeking relief. “There’s no evidence showing that having a pet gator is effective at addressing anxiety or physical illness or physical pain,” she says. “Those who want to go outside the box and have a peacock, or a hedgehog, it’s nonsense. It’s taking advantage of people who rely on ESAs.”
But Henney isn’t going to back down. “I don’t try to change anyone’s mind,” he says, when asked about the pushback. “I just let them meet Wally.” For Henney there’s nothing more therapeutic than a snuggle from an alligator.