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'A Wolf Called Romeo' tells remarkable story of a Juneau wolf and his human friends

Nick RomeoThe Christian Science Monitor

On a December afternoon in 2003, Alaskan wildlife writer Nick Jans was cross-country skiing when he noticed an unusual set of fresh tracks in the snow. He was traversing the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area on the outskirts of Juneau, so spotting traces of wild animals was common. But the prints, each the size of his palm, flowed across the snow in a distinctive pattern he instantly recognized. He was trailing the tracks of a gray wolf.

Alaska is home to somewhere between seven thousand and twelve thousand wolves, but the state is so vast that the species is spread thinly across huge tracts of wilderness. A sighting anywhere is rare, but an encounter on the edge of suburban Juneau is extraordinary. Two days later, Jans spied a dark shape in the distance from his back deck. He grabbed his camera and rushed into the twilight, snapping pictures of the wolf in the fading light from a few hundred yards away.

What he imagined would be a fleeting glimpse grew over the next few months into a unique relationship. Not only did the wolf stay nearby – a rarity for animals that often cover hundreds of miles of territory – it also began playing with one of Jans’ dogs, a female Lab. A young male with no apparent pack, the wolf seemed to delight in canine company. He began to play regularly with a number of dogs whose owners frequented the recreation area. Months turned into years and the wolf continued to hover on the edges of the city, an ambassador from the wilds beyond.

Nick Jans chronicles an improbable series of relationships between the wolf and many of the people and dogs in Juneau in his latest book, A Wolf Called Romeo. The animal earned his nickname by the doting attention he paid to certain female dogs. He never attempted to mate with any of the dogs, but his fondness for females of a certain size led to one popular local theory: a female wolf had been struck and killed by a taxi near the area Romeo frequented, so some speculated that he was searching for a reminder of his lost mate.

Romeo quickly attracted a steady stream of gawkers and fans. Some took photographs, some unleashed their dogs so they could play with him, and some observed skeptically from a safe distance. Even with such a sociable wolf, certain behaviors by dogs and people seemed likely to trigger an aggressive reaction. Yet even as humans pressed uncomfortably close and the occasional terrier with delusions of grandeur snapped at him, the wolf stayed calm and playful. He soon settled into regular routines, waiting to cavort with certain dogs at particular times and places.

Anyone familiar with Alaskan politics will not be surprised to learn that local opinion about Romeo was sharply divided. Wolves polarize public opinion throughout the state; some hunters vehemently defend their right to shoot the animals from planes for sport, while other citizens want to preserve and expand the dwindling areas of protected wolf habitat. Many people in Juneau considered a wolf so close to the city a lurking danger that needed to be neutralized.

Romeo survived for years despite many mortal threats: scented traps, busy roads, illegal hunting, and even a poisoning attempt. He also had to contend with the natural dangers of starvation, injury, and attack by another pack of wolves. By almost any standard, his prolonged proximity to humans and dogs constituted incredibly rare behavior. There was no obvious survival benefit to his socializing, yet the wolf lingered persistently, a late echo of the original process that must have initiated the domestication of dogs.

Jans is a perfect narrator for this story. He’s deeply knowledgeable about the Alaskan wilderness and he evokes its harsh beauties in powerful and poetic prose. He broadens the book into a meditation on the fraught relationship between humans and wolves, often a source of wonder and profound fear. He embroiders the tale with fascinating information on the natural history of wolves and includes many remarkable photographs of Romeo. Without revealing too much, suffice to say that the ending of the book is extraordinary, a tingling reminder of the basic bond that occasionally spans the space between two species.

Nick Romeo is a regular Monitor contributor.