Nature photojournalist Nick Jans tells the magical story of Romeo, a gregarious wild wolf who lived at the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska, casting his spell over dogs and people alike.
By Vicki Croke
When a wild animal chooses to accept or even initiate a friendship with a person, an otherworldly border crossing takes place. By its very nature it guarantees both an exquisite joy and unbearable heartbreak.
A WOLF CALLED ROMEO by Nick Jans Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Illustrated, 235 pp, $26
I think of so many animals whose stories I’ve loved. Elsa the lioness in “Born Free,” for instance, or a charismatic burrowing owl named Cactus who buzzed happily when presented with an offering of grasshoppers, and whom the Craighead brothers wrote about in “Hawks in the Hand” back in 1939.
Out of this tradition comes wildlife author and photographer Nick Jans’s magical book “A Wolf Called Romeo.”
Just before dark in December 2003, on a frozen lake at Juneau’s perimeter, a large, handsome young black wolf stepped away from the tree line and toward the yellow Lab Jans and his wife Sherrie were walking. Frighteningly, the Lab broke free and ran to the wolf. Instead of killing the dog, though, the wolf “half-hypnotized” her with his wild essence and his irresistible charm.
Over the next six years—flirting, playing, and even snoozing right out on the ice—the wolf would become a famous figure in Alaska’s third largest city, casting his spell not just over the local dogs, but over their owners too. In fact, many became what Jans calls “black wolf junkies.” Early on, they realize this wolf is different. For one thing, most wolves, even in Alaska are invisible—they’re good at steering clear of people. This one, on the other hand, courts interaction, bringing a majesty without menace to the party. He is gregarious, playful, and unfailingly tolerant. And the “come-hither boy dog poses” he uses to lure in friends prompts Sherrie to baptize him “Romeo.”
Jans, whose house was built overlooking Romeo’s favorite frozen lake, gives us a front row seat on the unfolding saga.
Through Jans, we fall in love with the “cable-and-steel, 120-pound wolf” with the “chiseled head,” glossy, dense winter coat, and amber eyes. The “lean-ribbed and light-footed,” animal who is “As well-sculpted an example of Canis lupus as ever breathed.”
Over time, the friendly, unattached wolf meets perhaps hundreds of dogs, and gets along with all. But about a dozen become favorites. Dakotah, Jans’s yellow lab is on the list along with Sugar, a big, neutered Newfoundland mix, and a 30-pound border collie named Jessie.
Then there’s a black Lab-mix Brittain, and his owner Harry Robinson. They are probably the earliest, most steadfast, and dedicated of Romeo’s friends—dear enough to Romeo that he awaits their arrival most mornings in the parking lot.
Robinson describes his interactions to Jans,
“He’d sometimes brush past me and bonk me on the leg with his nose…He loved to make snow angels, or snow wolves or whatever you want to call them, and roll clumps of snow with his paws and push them, like he was building a snowman, and he’d look at me sometimes with that big wolf grin, as if to day, ‘Look what I just did.’”
Year after year, Romeo thrives, not just on attention, but on plentiful game. When he isn’t occupied with canine pals, he’s able to secure the six pounds of food a healthy wolf can eat each day. From the best of what Jans can see (by pulling apart the black wolf’s droppings), he deduces that Romeo consumes plenty of salmon, snowshoe hares, beavers, and red squirrels. Cleverer than most, he also manages to eat plenty of porcupines without trouble.
While the wolf also early on fills up on dog kibble, by Jans’s detective work, it appears the source is undigested matter in dog droppings rather than handouts, an important distinction considering that equating humans with food may lead to disaster. In this and all aspects, Jans is stringent about grounding this poetic story with the science of wolf behavior and ecology. Why was this wolf alone? Why was his range so small (about seven square miles when it could have been hundreds or thousands)? What had happened in his past? What drew him in and kept him here? In other words, what made Romeo Romeo? With a deep knowledge of nature and the latest research findings, Jans fills us in on wolf social structure, territory, and the history of this species’ interactions with people, and how it varies in different parts of the world. (While there’s only one confirmed human death from a nonrabid wild wolf in Alaska’s recorded history, the remote areas of India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have experienced perhaps several hundred deaths in the last two centuries.) Of course it’s common for humans to be violent to wolves. So, along with Jans, we worry about this luminous creature who finds both safety and danger living so close to civilization. Romeo does meet his share of unkind, misguided, and just plain mean people. Some brought bullying dogs to the lake, one person harassed him with a remote-control plane, a man more than once lured him toward his moving truck, illegal traps were set, poison set out, and ultimately, there were men who made up in guns what they lacked in character. Romeo is a political lightning rod for the state’s clashing opinions over wolf management. The beautiful wolf’s “death could hinge on the act of a single individual,” Jans writes. One thing this book also makes clear, as paradoxical as it may sound, is that sometimes our notions of humanity can hinge on a single, spectacular wolf.
Originally appeared on WBUR’s The Wild Life.