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Bookends: The story of Juneau’s friendly Black Wolf February 18, 2015

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Bookends: The story of Juneau’s friendly Black Wolf

By Dan DavidsonA Wolf Called Romeo

September 23, 2014

– 810 words –

 

A Wolf Called Romeo

By Nick Jans

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

288 pages

$20.69

 

In 2003 Nick Jans, his wife, Sherrie, and their yellow lab, Dakotah, met a wolf in the Juneau wilderness not that far from their back door. In fact, they could still see the lights of their house, and Sherrie looked back at them wistfully as the huge black wolf stood on the lakeshore ice, and then angled towards them at a smart trot.

Nick had met the wolf several times already at this point and part of the reason for this excursion was to give Sherrie the opportunity. The wolf, you see, was unusual, and the way it behaved with their dog that evening just went to show exactly how unusual he was.

Dakotah may have been neutered, but the wolf, who would eventually come to be called Romeo by a large number of admirers, behaved as if she was his special she-wolf. There was no attempt to mate with her, but the playful eagerness with which he bounced around her made it obvious he liked her.

It would turn out that Romeo liked a lot of dogs and that the encounters Nick had with him, encompassing behaviour like fetching balls be had thrown for his own three dogs, and simply being a silent companion on ski trips on fine days, was not unique to Jans and his family.

In tracking down the full story of Romeo’s interactions with humanity and canines over the next six years, Jans was able to find other pairings of dog, wolf and man that went well beyond his own experiences.

The wolf lived his own life quite independent of humanity. There were a few people who made the mistake of feeding him but, as far as Jans and others could tell, they were the exception rather than the rule. Romeo lived off the land, and lived solitary for some reason, managing to take his fill of rabbits, birds, mountain goats and other wildlife.

He acquired a large number of human admirers and, when a small segment of the public agitated that something ought to be done about this menacing wolf, inspired the creation of a group called the Friends of Romeo. These well meaning folk sometimes did more harm than good, but they were reflective of the general good will with which the wolf’s annual sojourns in the area were greeted.

From his home Jans could watch groups of people and their dogs gathering to see the wolf playing with Harry Robinson and his dog, Brittain. Other groups would gather near the home of photographer John Hyde, whose two chocolate labs were the bait that kept Romeo within a good distance for photographs.

Jans always worried that the wolf would lose too much of whatever fear of humanity would have stood him in good stead as a defence mechanism. And there were stupid people who allowed their puny canines to act aggressively around the wolf, and them complained when he did something about it, only rarely causing any injury. Still, this didn’t seem to happen.

Along with Romeo’s story Jans provides us with quite a lot of wolf lore and some of the experiences he has had with wolves in his thirty odd years in Alaska, writing and taking photographs for a variety of publications over time. He gives his own tale of personal evolution from a hunter and trapper to an admirer of live animals as part of the story.

The last two chapters are hard reading and it is the knowledge of Romeo’s death at the hands of a couple of dastardly “hunters” – cold hearted killers really – that moved Jans to write this book. The two men were tracked down and, for the death of Romeo and a number of other animals, including some “suitcase bears”, were taken to trial and got off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. There were fines that were never paid, community service never carried out, and revoking the hunting privileges of two mean who had already broken the hunting laws beyond fixing was hardly something that was going to slow them down.

On the other hand, this book should do much to make them infamous.

As for Romeo, there is a bronze plaque on the Big Rock on Mendenhall Lake where he used to frolic with friendly humans and their dogs. It says, “Romeo, 2003-2009. The spirit of Juneau’s friendly black wolf lives on in this wild place.”

I have watched this book grow over a few years of visits to the North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway. In both draft form two years ago, and in finished form this last May, Nick Jans has been unable to read from the book without tearing up in places. I shed a few myself while I was reading it.

 

-30-

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