The Tragic, Yet Amazing Story of a Wolf’s Impact on an Alaskan Community
For centuries, wolves have remained mysterious and often feared creatures of the wilderness that are better avoided than engaged. That all changed for one small suburban Alaskan community though in 2003 when a lone jet black wolf walked out of the woods to investigate a man and his dog.
This is the story of Romeo, a wolf that made a lasting impact on everyone who met him.
Nick Jans wasn’t looking for a wolf, but a wolf found him.
Nick Jans had lived in Alaska for decades and was familiar with the Alaskan landscape and knew that wolves came with the territory. Encounters with them weren’t commonplace, however, which made one snowy afternoon with his dog Dakotah unlike any other.
Nick was sitting on his porch with Dakotah when out of nowhere a black wolf emerged from the woods.
Dakotah bolted over to the wolf.
Before Nick had a chance to grab Dakotah by the collar, she was off the porch like a lightning bolt and running towards the wolf. The dog either wanted to greet the newcomer for a round of play or was ready to defend her master from an intruder. Either way, Nick was instantly concerned for Dakotah’s safety.
What happened next he never saw coming.
Wolves are incredibly territorial.
A wolf pack is a delicate social hierarchy with a male leader of the pack who dominates over all the other wolves. It’s not uncommon for younger beta males to challenge the leader for higher ranking in the pack and when wolves encounter another wolf that’s not a member of the pack, fights to the death often ensue.
Nick was terrified that this wolf would either see Dakotah as prey or an enemy that must be killed.
Dakotah inched closer to the black intruder.
The hair on Nick Jans’ neck raised up as his dog Dakotah inched ever closer to the black wolf. Poor Dakotah looked so much smaller when compared to the much larger wild animal. Nick was prepared for the worst, but neither animal showed any sign of aggression. In fact, the two sniffed each other and then began to play “as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face and trying to remember,” Nick recalled.
Nick Jans ran inside to get his camera.
Nick still was feeling anxious about the encounter his dog was having with a wild wolf, but ran back inside to tell his wife Sherrie and grab his camera. This was a moment that he had to document because it may never happen again.
The domesticated dog and the wild wolf played for several moments while Nick snapped photos and then the wolf disappeared back into the woods.
It wouldn’t’ be the last time Dakotah encountered the black wolf.
Soon, Nick noticed the large black wolf coming around the area more often. When it appeared his dog Dakotah would whine to go outside and play with her new friend.
Being that the wolf was beginning to become somewhat of a familiar face, the couple thought it only proper that it had a name. Sherrie thought that Romeo seemed like a good fit.
Romeo begins to meet other dogs in the area too.
Romeo was without a doubt, 100 percent wild wolf and Nick made sure to never try and get too close to the animal when it played with Dakotah. When Nick and Sherrie took Dakotah to the nearby Mendenhall Glacier Park to socialize with other pups in the area, Romeo also showed up.
Just because Romeo and Dakotah got along though, there was no guarantee that the wolf would be friendly to the other dogs.
The other dogs and their owners warmed up to Romeo.
Nick and Sherrie were nervous about how a wild wolf would interact with a bunch of dogs it had never seen before. Much to their relief, though, Romeo wasn’t aggressive to the other dogs. It seemed like Dakotah had given her wild friend a boost of confidence and now it was excited to meet a bunch of new canine friends.
As for the dog owners, well, at first not everyone was excited to see a wild wolf interacting with dogs.
The other dog owners were understandably wary of Romeo.
When Romeo first showed up, many of the dog owners were nervous about the safety of themselves and their pets. Romeo was twice the size of any other dog at the park, yet never hurt any of the pets. Eventually, most of the other dog owners became accustomed to Romeo and their nerves subsided. He had become a welcomed and familiar face.
Romeo becomes a regular in the community.
Over the next six years, Romeo would return to the area each fall and winter to play with his friends. Nick said that the wolf would even bring out toys that he’d stashed. One was a Styrofoam float. Romeo would pick it up and bring it to [my friend] Harry to throw.”
The wolf may have been a distant cousin of the dogs at the park, but he clearly expressed similar behaviors and fit right in with the other canines.
Nick couldn’t help but be amazed each time he saw Romeo.
“There’s something sexy about getting tight with big, wild carnivorous things, and that aura sucked in all kinds of people and rendered addlepated a few who should have known better,” Nick would later write. “We were these three species working out how to get along harmoniously. And we did.”
Between 2003 and 2009, visitors to the Mendenhall Glacier took a lot of joy in watching the young wolf play and interact.
People came from near and far to see Romeo.
The friendly black wolf’s reputation had spread and it wasn’t uncommon over the years for residents and tourists to visit the park just for the chance to see the black wolf. People would spend an afternoon just watching the beautiful wolf run and play with dogs on the ice. Nick said that at times the play “verged on ballet.”
Naturally, some people were nervous about a wild wolf interacting with domesticated dogs. How the state handled and controlled its wolf population was a matter of hot debate in Alaska.
Romeo broke the myth of the “big bad wolf.”
People have feared wolves for centuries. During the Middle Ages, wolves were killed off by hunters in England and Scotland. During the 19th and early 20th century, wolves were also nearly eradicated in the United States before being placed on the endangered species list.
While most visitors to the park were happy to see Romeo, there were still some people who were too blind to see him as anything more than a threat.
Romeo the wolf’s time comes to a tragic end.
Nick and Sherrie knew that Romeo was no ordinary kind of wolf. Romeo “was downright relaxed and tolerant from the start,” Nick recalled before adding, “as if he had dropped out of the sky like a unicorn.” The wolf found not one but dozens of like canines and their people and built bonds that could only be called friendships,” Nick would write for Alaska Magazine.
Unfortunately, his time would come to a tragic end that mirrored the Shakespearean character he was named after.
Poachers killed Romeo.
Romeo’s time on the planet was relatively short and sadly, in 2009 he was killed by two poachers. A Pennsylvania man who hunted with a guide would eventually plead guilty to illegally baiting two black bears and killing Romeo.
Judge Keith Levy told Jeffrey Peacock before imposing his sentence “I can’t ignore the fact that a lot of people in the community feel that this case is different and that the wolf involved was something special to this community.”
Romeo made a HUGE impact on his Alaskan community.
Both men involved in the killing of Romeo were found guilty and the impact the wolf made on his community can’t be understated. “The profound loss of this animal to the community is overwhelming,” Harry Robinson, founder of the Friends of Romeo group said. “I myself personally took elderly citizens out just to see him.”
It was evident that Romeo would be greatly missed by many Juneauites.
Nick and Sherrie share Romeo’s story.
Nick and Sherrie Jans knew that Romeo’s story could touch the lives of others outside of Alaska just as the wolf had impacted theirs. Shortly after Romeo passed away, Nick wrote the book A Wolf Called Romeo. The book would go on to become an Amazon best-seller and garner rave reviews.
“Jans is an exceptional storyteller — no nature writer can top him in terms of sheer emotional force — and he frames even the smallest moment with haunting power,” read a review for The New York Times.
Romeo’s legacy is honored.
Romeo made a huge impact in the short time Nick and Sherrie Jans knew him. He became a connection to the wild and needed to be remembered. The people of Juneau decided to have a memorial service for Romeo, and a plaque was made in his memory.
With an image of Romeo, the plaque read: “Romeo 2003-2009. The spirit of Juneau’s friendly black wolf lives on in this wild place.”
What would become of Romeo’s physical body?
Because Romeo was illegally shot and killed, his body was turned over to the state. Rather than simply allow the lone black wolf to be forgotten, part of the court’s decision was that Romeo be handed over to the U.S. Forest Service for a permanent educational exhibit at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
It would be an expensive endeavor and $10,000 would need to be raised. Nick said that “in death as well as life, [Romeo] proved a lightning rod for human emotions.” Making this exhibit happen wouldn’t be easy.