A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

There Was Once a Wolf Who Loved Too Much. And What Happened to Him Was a Crime.

One day in Alaska, a black wolf appeared in front of wildlife photographer Nick Jans. This is the story of Romeo.

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Nick Jans

Along Came a Wolf

It was a twilit night in Juneau, Alaska, in December 2003, and Nick and Sherrie Jans were walking with Dakotah, their yellow Lab, in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area not far from their house. Suddenly, a young black wolf appeared on the ice—and began running in their direction. Awestruck but scared, the couple watched as Dakotah broke loose and charged the predator, which was twice the size of the dog. The animals stopped yards apart and gazed at each other “as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face and trying to remember,” recalls Jans in his new book, A Wolf Called Romeo. After a few moments, Dakotah ran back to her owners, and the three hurried home, listening to the wolf howl.

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Nick Jans

The Wolf Who Loved Dogs

Over the next week, the Janses kept looking for and spotting the wolf, whom they estimated to be around two years old. One day, a skier passed with her dog, and, as with Dakotah, the wolf loped ahead to meet the canine—then the two animals started to play. Jans writes, “As I watched open-mouthed, they switched to pawing and mouth-fighting like yearlings, interspersed with the wolf’s gravity-defying leaps and spins.” Here, the wolf runs with two Afghan hounds.

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Nick Jans

Unusual Affections

While the Janeses observed that the wolf liked most dogs, some he adored, like Dakotah and Jessie, a neighbor’s border collie (pictured). When the wolf saw Dakotah, Jans writes, “he’d bound over and commence to make a damn fool of himself—whining, pacing, and striking come-hither boy dog poses.” Because of this behavior, Sherrie Jans dubbed the wolf “Romeo,” and the name caught on.

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Nick Jans

Word Spreads

Gradually, crowds started coming to catch a glimpse of the sociable wolf, and some visitors seemed to forget that wolves are predators. Fortunately Romeo remained calm, though he did take off when he was approached too quickly or felt too crowded. “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,” Jans writes. The Janses, however, made a point of drawing clear boundaries: Near their house, they threw chunks of snow at Romeo to keep him from coming too close to their home and road.

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Nick Jans

Romeo Becomes a Regular

“On a typical winter day, he’d be in position before first light to meet the pre-work and early-morning dog-walking crowd, as if he’d punched a time clock; of course, he preferred his favorites, but in a pinch, others would do,” writes Jans of the wolf’s daily routine. Besides Nick Jans, two other men spent time with Romeo every day.

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Nick Jans

A Growing Controversy

For the next five years, Romeo returned to the area in fall and winter and took up his same schedule. The area had plenty of creatures for him to eat, little competition from other wolves, and abundant cover and open space. But while his admirers increased, detractors felt Romeo was a threat, and there was talk about relocating him. At the same time, a heated public debate was going on about how the state of Alaska should handle its wolf population and whether it should be limited.

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Nick Jans

What Happened Next

Romeo re-appeared in September 2009, but sometime in the last half of that month, he disappeared. After some sleuthing, a supporter found he had been shot and killed by Juneau resident Park Myers III and his friend, Pennsylvanian Jeff Peacock. Both men were arrested and ended up paying fines, serving a few years on probation, and losing hunting and fishing privileges for a limited time. In late November 2010, a memorial service was held for Romeo and this plaque was laid along a path where he once roamed.

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Nick Jans

Goodbye, Romeo

“Nothing can take away the miracle that was Romeo and the years we spent in his company,” writes Jans. “Love, not hate, is the burden we carry.”

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Nick Jans

A Wolf Called Romeo

Nick Jans’ beautiful account of his unusual relationship, A Wolf Called Romeo, is out now, and it contains additional photos from Jans. (You can also find more images on his website.) The cover photo is of Dakotah and Romeo.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest