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Last updateSun, 14 Jan 2018 3pm

Nick Jans's A Wolf Called Romeo

by Laura HayesA Wolf Called Romeo book cover

Nick Jans's account of the wolf that spent nearly six years in the suburbs of Juneau, Alaska, begins with a tense encounter on a frozen lake:

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 and called 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. . . . She and the wolf regarded each other, as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face and trying to remember.

The wolf that Nick and his wife Sherrie encountered on that lake became a regular fixture around Juneau. Sherrie called him Romeo after seeing him laying in front of their house waiting for Dakotah, and the name stuck. Lothario might have been a better name, though, as it turned out that he was not just drawn to Dakotah, but to numerous other dogs. He tagged along with cross-country skiers and hikers with dogs and held court out on the lake, which doubles as on off-leash dog park in winter. Residents would bring dogs to the lake to interact with the wolf, who would even play fetch and seemed incredibly tolerant of poorly behaved dogs.

Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth and Romeo's time in Juneau was not entirely peaceable. Some wolf-dog interactions did not turn out well. Questions were raised about whether residents were harming Romeo by acclimating him to people. Romeo would disappear for months at a time. And then there were the wolf haters—while Juneau may be one of the most liberal communities in Alaska, it still has a strong anti-wolf culture contigent. The author received many comments in passing directed against Romeo and hunters boasted about their intentions to kill the wolf.

Jans does a wonderful job of weaving together numerous topics—attitudes toward wolves, biological facts about wolves, relationships between Romeo and various dogs (Romeo, despite his name, was never "romantically" interested in any of the dogs). He tells the story of his neighbor, Harry, who would spend hours, almost daily, hiking with Brittain, his black lab, and Romeo. All of these threads raise interesting questions—how vast is the gap between dog and wolves, can wild animals form friendships with other species, even humans? And more mundanely, who brings a pug to an off-leash dog park with a resident wolf?

The book's style is lyrical and captures the fragility of a wild wolf's life and the mystery of interspecies relationships. Toward the end of the book, Jans writes:

Of all my times with the wolf, some much more action packed and dramatic, this is the one that keeps coming back. One warm April afternoon, Romeo, Gus, and I dozed together out on the ice near the river mouth, me with my head on my pack, skis off; Gus with his head on my thigh; Romeo with his muzzle resting between his outstretched front paws. It was one of those still days when you could hear snowdrifts collapsing in hisses, the sun so dazzling off the white-crusted ice that we seemed suspended on a cloud, bathed in a light radiating from below. Now and then the wolf would slit an eye to check around, then settle back for another short snooze, and I'd do the same. Maybe twenty feet separated us, but in trusting enough to shut his eyes and sleep with me so near, he might as well have put his head alongside Gus's on my leg. There we lay, three different species bound by a complex, often bitter history, taking simple comfort in the others' presence, the sun's warmth, and the passing of another winter. That afternoon remains with me, one of those clear, still moments that grace the edge of dreams. When Gus and I finally rose, Romeo did the same, yawned and stretched, then lay back down and watched us glide away, toward the alien world from which we'd come. I recall looking back as he dwindled to a dark point against the snow, as if for the last time. I watched hard, hoping to remember.

Romeo was a presence in Juneau from December 2003 to September 2009. The end of this story is tragic, but inevitable—wolves are not long-lived in the wild and his closeness to people and his fame added to the dangers threatening his life.

While this is not, obviously, a book about pit bulls, it is an excellent read for anyone who loves dogs and is interested in their ancestors. Despite the sad and angering ending, I highly recommend this book! A Wolf Called Romeo is interesting, thought-provoking, and beautifully written.

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