A Wolf Called Romeoby Nick Jans
True tale of a remarkable, seven-year friendship between a wild, oddly gentle black wolf and the people and dogs of Juneau, Alaska.See more details below
True tale of a remarkable, seven-year friendship between a wild, oddly gentle black wolf and the people and dogs of Juneau, Alaska.
Nature photographer and author Jans (The Grizzly Maze) reflects on a six-year relationship between the citizens of Juneau, Alaska, and an unusually friendly lone black wolf named Romeo. Jans recalls his early meetings with the wolf on Mendenhall Lake, including when it intercepted a tennis ball intended for Jans’s Labrador. Romeo’s popularity grew through press coverage and word-of-mouth; he became “the town’s de facto mascot” and companion to innumerable local canines. Jans’s story is marred by political strife caused by Alaska’s “controversial wildlife management” practices, with off and on aerial gunning programs targeting wolves which the human residents, “infused by a free-thinking, old-Alaska egalitarianism,” largely disapproved. Threats to Romeo’s survival escalate after a couple near-violent incidents with area dogs forces the Fish and Game agency to consider removing the wolf. Hunters set up illegal traps and a dog was mistakenly, and brutally, killed. When Romeo disappears, outdoorsman Harry Robinson investigates, leading police to a pair of sadistic poachers. Jans explains pack hierarchy and the punishing wolf life cycle, “a Darwinian gauntlet that demanded constant adaptation and complex responses,” and defends the animals as unfairly perceived to be a threat to humans. Insightful and philosophical, Jans probes the boundaries between wilderness and civilization and our responsibilities to the untamed creatures in our midst. Photos. Agent: Elizabeth Kaplan. (July)
The sweet and cautionary tale of a wolf that liked to play with dogs.The story opens in the early winter of 2003, just north of Juneau, Alaska, near Mendenhall Glacier. Juneau-based journalist Jans was out skiing on the frozen lake by his house when his eye caught a track that wasn’t laid down by a dog. Two days later, he and his dogs ran across the creature: a good-sized, black-haired wolf, easily double his biggest dog, a barrel-chested Lab. The wolf was imposing, to be sure, but as personality or genetics or the alignment of the stars would have it, it was also crazy for dogs. Jans is a fairly cool customer, and he is concerned about issues surrounding habituation and the conflict it can spawn for wild animals, but when he was caught in the beams of the wolf’s amber eyes, “a wild-edged thrill swelled in my chest.” So tolerant was Romeo—and yes, the author understands the cautions about naming a wild animal, but could this be a “friendship”?—that he became a local celebrity, with all the inevitable polarizing that caused. Wolves, Jans explains, just strike the wrong note with many humans, a reminder that we do not sit alone atop the food chain. In neat slices of natural history, the author explores what we know about the history of wolves, though he also wheels about freely, including elements of memoir here, profiles of his neighbors there. The meat of the story, however, surrounds Romeo: his trails, which he tends with loving care; his masterful ability to decode intentions; the joy and fearmongering his playfulness brings; and the bum raps and rumors that he has to shoulder for every wolf in the region.An astute, deeply respectful encounter between man and wolf.
No, not some lovesick lad; this Romeo is a black wolf that sauntered into Jans's yard in Alaska and returned to bond with him and his neighbors—and even their pets. Jans, who has lived in Alaska for 30 years, had never seen anything like it. Given the current controversy over wolves in this country, this book is essential reading. Lots of photos from award-winning writer and photographer Jans.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
“Are you sure about this?” my wife, Sherrie, breathed. She glanced over her shoulder toward the comforting glow of our house on the lakeshore, then gazed ahead where a black wolf stood on the ice in the gathering twilight. Bundled against the Southeast Alaska cold, we’d taken along just one of our three dogs — our female yellow Lab, Dakotah, who’d always been perfectly mannered and under voice control around wildlife, from bears to porcupines.
Despite some understandable jitters, Sherrie was so thrilled she was about to jump out of her skin. After all these years of trying and not seeing, there it was: her first wolf. Perfect, I thought, and easier than it ever should be. But as we walked farther out on the ice, things changed. The wolf, instead of watching from the tree line as he had several times with me, angled toward us at a trot. Then he broke into a bounding lope, snow flying beneath his paws, jaws agape. I drew Sherrie toward me and reached for Dakotah’s collar. My vision sharpened, and synapses crackled. I’d seen my share of wolves over the years, some point-blank close, and hadn’t quite shifted into panic mode. But anyone who claims he wouldn’t get an adrenaline jolt from a running wolf coming straight in, with no weapon and no place to run, and loved ones to defend, is either brain-dead or lying.
In a few heartbeats, the wolf had closed the distance to forty yards. He stood stiff-legged, tail raised above his back, his unblinking stare fixed on us — a dominant posture, less than reassuring. Then, with a moaning whimper, Dakotah suddenly wrenched free of the two fingers I’d hooked through her collar and bounded straight at the wolf. A tone of desperation sharpening her voice, Sherrie called again and again, but there was no stopping that dog. The Lab skidded to a stop several body lengths short of contact and stood tall, her own tail straight out, and as we watched, mouths open, the wolf lowered his to match. With the two so close, I had my first clear idea of just how large the wolf really was. Dakotah, a stocky, traditional-style female Lab, weighed in at a muscular fifty-six pounds. The black wolf towered over her, more than double her weight. Just his head and neck matched the size of her torso. A hundred twenty pounds, I figured. Maybe more.
The wolf stepped stiff-legged toward Dakotah, and she answered. If she heard our calls, she gave no sign. She was locked on and intent, but utterly silent — not at all her normal happy-Lab self. She seemed half-hypnotized. She and the wolf regarded each other, as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face and trying to remember. This was one of those moments when time seems to hold its breath. I lifted my camera and snapped off a single frame.
As if that tiny click had been a finger snap, the world began to move again. The wolf’s stance altered. Ears perked high and held narrow, he bounced forward a body length, bowed on his forelegs, then leaned back and lifted a paw. Dakotah sidled closer and circled, her tail still straight out. The eyes of each were locked on the other. With their noses a foot apart, I pressed the shutter once more. Again, the sound seemed to break a spell. Dakotah heard Sherrie’s voice at last and bounded back toward us, turning her back, at least for now, on whatever call of the wild she’d just heard. We watched for long minutes with Dakotah softly whining at our sides, staring toward the dark, handsome stranger who stood staring our way and whining back, a high-pitched keening that filled the silence. Half-stunned, Sherrie and I murmured back and forth, wondering at what we’d seen and what it meant.
But it was getting dark — time to go. The wolf stood watching our retreat, his tail flagging, then raised his muzzle to the sky in a drawn-out howl, as if crushed. At last he trotted west and faded into the trees. As we walked toward home in the deepening winter evening, the first stars flickered against the curve of space. Behind us, the wolf’s deep cries echoed off the glacier.
With that first close meeting one evening in December 2003, a wild black wolf became part of our lives — not just as a fleeting shape in the dusk, but as a creature we and others would come to know over a span of years, just as he came to know us. We were neighbors, that much is certain; and though some will scoff, I say friends as well. This is a tale woven of light and darkness, hope and sorrow, fear and love, and perhaps, a little magic. It’s a story of our time on this shrinking world, one I need to tell — most of all, to myself. Late at night, it fills the spaces between heartbeats, nudges me awake. By speaking, I hope not to be rid of it, nor even to understand, but just to set down all the facts, the musings, and unanswered questions as best I can. Years from now, at least I’ll know that I did more than dream, and that once upon a time, there was a wolf we called Romeo. This is his story.
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