How a Wolf Named Romeo Won Hearts in an Alaska Suburb
It seems that the question about which animals merit our highest standard of care and consideration—or at least a no-kill approach—often turns on intelligence. The “dumb beast” is clearly least like us. I find what sparks my sense of simpatico, though, is not necessarily sharp intelligence, but basic sentience: not the ability to reason, but to feel. When we encounter animals who have discernible social connections and relationships, it is deeply familiar. It resonates.
…Carolyn Gill French
NOTE: Post initially appeared on NationalGeographic.com on March 22, 2015
In the winter of 2003, a jet-black wolf appeared at the edge of suburban Juneau, Alaska. It was not the snarling villain of folklore. This wolf seemed to crave the company of humans and their dogs.
Soon Romeo, as the wolf came to be known, captured the hearts of almost the entire town. But its presence raised complex questions. Should a predatory animal, however friendly, be encouraged to live among people and their children? What if someone decided to shoot it?
Talking from his winter home in Florida, Nick Jans, a former hunter turned wildlife photographer and the author of A Wolf Called Romeo, describes how some tracks in the snow led to an encounter that would change his life; why the Inuit revere the wolf; and why there are parts of the book he still can’t read in public without crying.
This is a wonderful book full of surprises that challenge cultural stereotypes of wolves, human beings, and dogs. Set the scene. How did you first meet the wolf called Romeo?
The first thing I saw was tracks out on the lake in front of our house on the outskirts of Juneau. A few days later, I looked out from my house and there was this wolf out on the ice. I’d had 20 years of experience around wolves up in the Arctic and immediately knew it was a wolf, not a dog. I threw on my skis and found him.
The amazing thing about this animal was how relatively relaxed and tolerant he was. That’s not out of the question for wolves. Certain wolves are like dogs, and they all have different personalities. Some are more cautious or fearful than others. But this wolf was downright relaxed and tolerant from the start, as if he had dropped out of the sky like a unicorn.
It’s one thing to have a tolerant meeting with a wild wolf that goes on for a matter of minutes. But this went on for six years, so we got to know this wolf, whom we came to call Romeo, as an individual. And he got to know us and our dogs.
For want of a better word, the only thing I can say from a human perspective is that it amounted to friendship. If you wanted to be scientifically correct, it would be “social mutual tolerance.” But it was more than that. The wolf would come trotting over to say hi, and give a little bow and a relaxed yawn, and go trotting after us when we went skiing. There was no survival benefit. He obviously just enjoyed our company.
Romeo was a bit of a flirt, and like Shakespeare’s Romeo seemed to fall in love with your Juliet of a yellow Labrador. How did you accept this odd pairing? And how did Romeo challenge your own preconceptions of wolfish behavior?
The first thing is that wolves have a tendency to attack strange canines and at least beat them down, if not eat them. It’s a pretty common thing, as any good wolf biologist will tell you, that any wolf’s job in his righteous social behavior is to investigate and assault strange canines. They very seldom accept strangers.
This wolf was downright relaxed and tolerant from the start, as if he had dropped out of the sky.
A pack of wolves is typically a family group. Think of it like the Mafia. The Gambinis do not accept the Genoveses in their midst. They’re very rigorous about that. We were keeping our dog under control and she just slipped out from under my fingers, which were hooked around her collar. That first meeting, when Dakotah—our “Juliet”—and Romeo stood nose to nose, is recorded on the cover of the book.
If you look at that photo, you see the wolf is very much being a boy. He’s standing very tall, with his ears narrow and his tail slightly up, his neck ruff raised a little bit. He’s being very flirtatious. Dakotah is very confident but giving a neutral signal with her tail straight out. They’re both very relaxed; there’s not the least hint of aggression. And that was very typical of how Romeo interacted with dogs.
How did he get his name?
My wife, who did not exactly approve of this “miscegenation” because of the potential danger, was looking out the window one frosty morning and there was the wolf curled up out on the lake ice, waiting for Dakotah to come out.
With that arms folded, slightly protective tone of voice any mother with a cute teenage daughter would use, she said, “There’s that Romeo wolf again.” The name caught on because it fit. He was not only doing this with our dog, he was also flirting with others. But he certainly had favorites, just as people do: dog friends, dog acquaintances, and dog BFFs.
The local newspaper reported on the wolf’s visits, and he became a fixture. People would say, “I’m going to the lake to see the wolf.” A lot of people wanted to get close to him, but most strangers couldn’t get closer than a hundred yards. Photograph by Nick Jans
Though humans love dogs, we are not so kind to their cousins. Can you briefly explain the difference between domesticated dogs and wolves? And why humans are generally so afraid of wolves?
The fear seems rooted in our genetic consciousness. We have the big, bad wolf; we have Peter and the Wolf; we have the Three Little Pigs. There are no cuddly wolves in our mythology, though there are lots of cuddly bears: Winnie the Pooh, the Berenstain Bears, and so on. Never mind the fact that bears, especially grizzlies, are much more dangerous to humans [than wolves are].
When you get down to the genetic difference between a wolf and a domestic dog, whether it is a Chihuahua or a Great Dane, all dogs are 99.98 percent genetically a wolf. That 0.02 percent obviously looms huge, because if you raise a wolf cub from the time it opens its eyes, it may make a wonderfully bonded animal, but it will not be a dog, no matter what you do. It will act like a wolf and be a wolf. It takes generations to shape the soul of a wolf and its physical shape into “man’s best friend.”
The fear of wolves seems rooted in our genetic consciousness, and in many stories, like Little Red Riding Hood (illustrated above by Gustave Dore, c. 1880), the big bad wolf is a menace. But all dogs are 99.98 percent genetically a wolf. Photograph by Universal History Archive, UIG/Getty
Indigenous peoples see wolves in a completely different way. Take us inside that mind-set.
The Inuit are not just attuned to the natural world. They are part of it. A couple of them became my friends, and I traveled with one in particular. He was a superb tracker and amazing hunter. I went along with him and learned what he had to teach me.
The Inuit would not even say the word “wolf,” or amaruk in Inuktitut. They would use aliases because they believed if you talked about an animal, it could hear you. They believed the animal wasn’t just an equal, but a superior being with magical powers.
As the ultimate hunter in a landscape of hunter-gatherers, wolves were revered. But many Inuit communities also had the same unreasoning fear of wolves that you see in European culture. I had several Eskimo hunters tell me to be extremely careful and keep my rifle by me because when wolves came around your camp, they might be trying to grab you.
But the Inuit also sought out wolves to breed with their semi-domesticated dogs. They wanted some of that blood in their dogs—the wolf’s intelligence and the wolf’s incredible endurance and toughness.
You tried to keep Romeo a secret from the Juneau community, but after a few winters even the local newspapers were writing about him. Did the Juneau community surprise you by its reaction to the wolf?
The reactions covered a continuum. Everything from “the only good wolf is a dead wolf” and “let’s kill this one now,” to “this is a spiritual creature that is beyond us”—the New Age version of a wolf.
From the time he first started showing up, it was reported in the paper, and it went from a handful of people to hundreds of people within a couple of months. He became a fixture. People would say, “I’m going to the lake to see the wolf.” But some people were extremely hostile to the whole idea. Some people didn’t care one way or another. It was a wild animal. They wanted to go out there and ski or play with their kids, and as long as the wolf kept his distance, that was fine. It’s Alaska, after all.
Author Nick Jans shows a plaque at the memorial held for Romeo in November 2010. The average life span of a wolf in the wild is three years, and Romeo was at least eight years old at the time of his death. Photograph by Klas Stolpe, Juneau Empire/AP
A lot of people were fascinated by this animal and wanted to get close to him. He more or less allowed it, although he had a very elastic sense of personal space. Typically, most strangers couldn’t get closer than a hundred yards. But if it were someone he knew and whose dogs he knew, you’d find yourself within touching distance of him. There were a number of times when I could have reached out and brushed my hand along his back as he went by. But I never did.
You began to withdraw from spending time with Romeo, but he used to wait for you to bring your dogs out for a walk. Should the local people have continued to interact with the wolf?
It was a slippery slope. Not just for the people, but also the [wildlife] management agencies. What if this wolf goes somewhere else where he might be in more danger? At least here he was spending most of the winter in an area where hunting and trapping was illegal.
The average life span of a wolf in the wild is three years. Romeo was already full grown when he showed up, and then he lived among us for six-plus more years. So he was at least eight years old at the time of his death. So we must have been keeping him safe because he outlived a wild wolf by nearly three times.
How do you explain Romeo’s behavior? Was he just more dog than wolf?
He was a pure wild wolf. He was not a pet, as some suggested, that had been released, because then he would have been coming to us for food. He was his own gatekeeper and came and went as he pleased. Sometimes he disappeared for weeks. He clearly was catching and eating wild food with great skill.
Wolves that are socially tolerant to humans must have appeared to us not once, but many times over our history. Clearly, dogs came from wolves. But the question is, Where and how? The latest theories suggest there were multiple points of domestication. So there must have not been one wolf like Romeo. There must have been a number of wolves in the past that came to lie down by our fires.
Like humans, wolves are predators. Yet Romeo shows us a different side of wolf nature. Talk about the role of play and how it is a part of even wild creatures’ natures.
When you have a very intelligent, social animal like a wolf, play—just as it is for dogs—is an important practice and a rehearsal of necessary survival skills. When you watch dogs playing, what are they doing? They’re play-fighting a lot of the time. They’re chasing; they’re engaging in predatory behaviors, games of chase. Play also cements the social structure of a pack. And Romeo was an unbelievably playful animal. He would run into the middle of a game of fetch and steal the tennis ball, run off with it, throw it up in the air, and bat it with his paws.
For my friend Harry Robinson, who had an incredibly close relationship with the wolf, the wolf would bring out toys that he’d stashed. One was a Styrofoam float. Romeo would pick it up and bring it to Harry to throw. He clearly understood the same sort of behaviors that we see in dogs. Any highly intelligent animal, from killer whales to wolverines, will engage in play when they have leisure and aren’t engaged in survival.