Nearly everyone who is lucky enough to call this world’s untamed landscapes home has experienced the thrill of seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat. Perhaps it was the glimpse of a twitching tail crossing a road, or a moose’s antlers hidden in the high willows, or maybe the shimmering ripples of a beaver’s wake in a glistening mountain pond. Most people would agree that this closeness with wild creatures going about their lives is one of the benefits of such privileged proximity. What though would be the emotions stirred if the creature emerging from the woods were a wolf—a massive black wolf.
For author, Nick Jans, that exact scenario became a pivotal moment in his life, an encounter that led to six years of unforgettable experiences and ultimately to devastating heartbreak. Jans, a professional photographer and writer, has written a deeply moving account of that moment and what followed in his recent book, “A Wolf Called Romeo.” He documents the extraordinary life of one wolf who, for unknown reasons, chose the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska for his home, and proceeded to become the friend of nearly every dog he met, as well as admired by a few blessed humans, including Jans.
The cover of Jans’ book features one of the earliest encounters of Romeo and Jans’ gentle yellow lab, Dakota. “She and the wolf regarded each other, as if each were glimpsing an almost forgotten face and trying to remember.” The moment passed, the spell was broken, and Dakota turned back to her owners, leaving the wolf howling mournfully before it headed off into the darkening world of an Alaskan twilight. But that meeting soon became the first of many.
People who spend any amount of time in nature experience a “did that just happen?” moment. For Jans, his wife, and the other residents along Mendenhall Lake, that question soon became a mantra, with the presence of the friendly wolf in their midst continuing for years. After that first extraordinary meeting, the family became obsessed, even canceling a planned trip to Mexico to remain near the wolf, whose presence was magical and fleeting. As time went on, though, and Romeo’s presence increased, something told them to keep their sightings and encounters quiet. They knew that not all attention would be good.
Alaska is certainly not unfamiliar with wildlife, and the notion of wandering bears and moose is normal, but the very idea of a wolf so close to a city was unsettling for some, and Jans sensed early on that Romeo might be living on borrowed time, flaunting his wildness so close to civilization. Historically, myth doesn’t paint wolves nicely nearly everywhere across the cultural spectrum. But, in spite of the European tendency to fear the wolf, Native Americans honor them and still live in symbiosis with them, acknowledging their vital role in the ecosystem upon which all living things depend.
Previous efforts to eliminate the wolf in North America were aggressive and violent, and wolves were all but exterminated in one of this country’s darkest environmental assaults. The controversies surrounding recent efforts to reintroduce the wolf shows that emotions are still high concerning this much misunderstood animal.
This was the climate into which Romeo appeared, a lonely wolf who day by day seemed doomed to a trajectory that would have him living up to his tragic Shakespearean name. As Jans watched Romeo interact with more and more dogs, he increasingly felt that Romeo was making himself an easy target for someone determined to make a statement with a well-placed bullet or arrow.
“Romeo paradoxically divided and united a community: a living breathing focal point for the broad, ongoing topic of wolves and people in Alaska.” Each spring, fans of Romeo would suffer mixed emotions as Romeo would disappear, knowing that his best chances for survival were farther away from human dwellings. But each winter, when the dark figure would again loom against the whiteness of the glacier, his sonorous howl penetrating to the marrow, Jans would feel his life grow richer, as though the wolf were weaving himself into their lives. Each year, he marveled at the renewed chance to get to know one unforgettable wild creature, as an individual, a unique being with quirks and a distinct personality.
At times, the book reads like poetry, with an overarching longing that leaves the reader yearning for something visceral and unattainable. Jans also provides a good overview of wolves, in general, a template against which he measures the unconventional traits of Romeo. The writing is beautiful, a probing tribute to the ethereal nature of nature’s majesty. Romeo’s life is a tragedy, moving as slowly as the glacier looming over the lake, slowing grinding to an inevitable end.
In writing the story, Jans hoped that “years from now, at least I’ll know that I did more than dream, and that once upon a time there was a wolf called Romeo.”