Posts Tagged ‘Romeo the Wolf’


One of the pleasures of my Alaska trip was meeting Nick Jans. Nick Jans is the author of A Wolf Called Romeo, which is the story of the black wolf that came out to play with free-running dogs at Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier.

I may have written a few things on Romeo on this blog before. He was just that fascinating an animal. Most wolves want to off the dogs they encounter. This one decided to become friends with them and even tolerate the humans who came with them.

The book is a wonderful discussion of wolves and dogs and people and what they truly mean to us and what we mean to them. It also tells the story of an odd wolf, who lived out six incredible years running and playing with the local domestic dog contingent.

The story does not have a happy ending, but the story of a wolf coming to trust people and dogs is something so amazing that you would have to look into the fiction of Jack London to find something even remotely similar.

But this is a true story.

If you would like to know more about Romeo, Jans gave a talk on the ship about the book that was an abbreviated version of this one:

My friend Bronwen Dickey wrote a review of the book in the New York Times I just happened to have been the one who mentioned the book to her over two years ago, and I guess I played a tiny role in getting this book the wonderful review it received.

I received a copy of The Giant’s Hand, which is Jans’s new collection of short stories about life in the Inupiaq Village of Ambler  and his experiences in Alaska’s far north.



The prose in each of these stories is so beautiful. He really can capture the essence of a place with words in a way that very few modern writers are able to match.

I particularly love the stories that include the exploits of Clarence Wood, an Inupiaq hunter and wolf trapper. He is a man of particular genius about the land and its wild inhabitants, but his way of phrasing things is just so perfect if a bit eccentric.

My favorite is: “Too much think about bullshit. That’s what makes you nervous.”

I think I may have to put this on a rock somewhere.

My favorite story in the book thus far is “Crossing Paths.” It is a kind of future warning about Romeo. In the story, Jans meets a red fox near his home, and wanting to get to know it better, he starts leaving out bits of food for it. Things go well until a neighbor shoots it for fear it might be rabid.

Jans has a philosophical discussion in the story about how much wild even Alaskans are willing to tolerate. The truth is that everyone has some limit.

Romeo was not fed to bring him near to humans. He merely came by to socialize with dogs and a few select people.

But Romeo wound up like that poor red fox in the arctic. He wasn’t taken because there was a fear he might be rabid. He was killed by two poachers who just wanted to cause trouble.

As a species, we have a very odd relationship with the wild. We admire it. We want to be part of it. But we also want it to be on our terms.

Like it or not, we’ve long since left the garden. We can only be visitors here, but some of us can truly be at home for a while.

And that’s the best we can do. Unfortunately.

It goes without saying that this book is the best souvenir I’ve ever brought home. I mean I do have a t-shirt from the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, but nothing can compare to this book.

This was the trip of a lifetime.





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Not all wolf and dog interactions are adversarial.

Take the story of Romeo.

Romeo was a black wolf who liked to hang out at the Mendenhall Lake near Juneau, Alaska.

Lots of people walked their dogs there, and Romeo joined up with them.

According to most stories, Romeo lost his mate, and then he tried to bond with a female Labrador retriever that was brought to the lake on a regular basis.

He eventually extended his friendship toward virtually all dogs that were walked there.

In 2010, Romeo went missing.

Although his exact fate has never been confirmed, it has been claimed that a hunter killed Romeo.

But while he was alive, Romeo’s interaction with many different domestic dogs became something of an internet sensation.

A simple Google Image search for “Romeo the wolf” will reveal dozens of photos of a striking black wolf standing next to an assortment of common domestic dog breeds.

The juxtaposition of a Northern-type wolf with mostly Western dog breeds is quite striking.

One can see how much more robust this sort of wolf is.

One can tell that his kid of Canis lupus evolved to hunt the big game. Their massive teeth and jaws help them drop moose and bison.  Their massive heads anchor enormous jaw muscles that allow them to deliver punishing bites and break thick bones.

If the latest genomic data is correct, the modern strains of domestic dog are derived from an entirely different sort of wolf, the more primitive and slightly-built “Southern” wolves of South Asia and the Middle East.

Romeo is the sort of wolf who would have contributed his genes to domestic dogs.

In the thousands of years that existed before humans regularly spayed and neutered and confined dogs, wild genes had a way of working their way into the population.

Unattached wolves like Romeo would sometimes mate with the domestic bitches they encountered.

Dog and wolf initially started out as a cultural distinction.

Humans regarded the wolf as wild and the dog as tame.

They are still the same species, but now each has adapted to its niche.

Just as the Romeo’s subspecies has adapted to hunting large game in frigid environments,  the wolves who became dogs adapted to living in the human world.

Here are two types of wolf that have specialized and adapted to very different environments.

One of them has hitched its evolutionary wagon to the Homo sapiens star.

And it has thrived beyond any reasonable expectations for a relatively large carnivoran.

The other subspecies is doing okay.

But it will never have the success or the range of the human-adapted one.


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Romeo was wolf who befriended many dogs at the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.

For some reason, he didn’t take up with a other wolves.

He tried to join up with domestic dogs.

Maybe there were reasons for this attraction to domestic animals.

One story goes that he lost his mate, and he then went searching for a new one. He discovered that Labradors were his type, and he spent years trying make one his new mate.

The more likely story is mentioned in this article, which is a commemorative of this gentle black wolf.

He was probably a two-year-old wolf that dispersed from his natal pack in search of a mate and a territory to call his own.

Judging from his temperament, he was probably not happy hitting on surly wolf bitches. Wild wolves are much more aggressive with pack mates than most domestic dogs are.

So he took off after sweet Labs and other gentle domestic dogs for friendship and “romance.”

Nick Jans, a wildlife photographer, who really got to know Romeo had a Labrador bitch with whom Romeo was particularly infatuated. That’s how he got the name. He was “in love” with a retriever.

Tons of photos of this wolf exist, many of them wonderful juxtapositions of a northern wolf and a domestic dog. Both members of the same species, but one supremely adapted to living with man and the other supremely adapted to living in the frozen wilds, where recalcitrant moose is the main food source.

His head was so much larger than those of any dog– a very important trait of northern wolves. Big heads possess larger muscles that can control far more powerful jaws.

You have to have those if you’re going to grapples with the great Elch on a regular basis.

Romeo was suspected of running off with a few dogs, but the evidence for that is somewhat lacking. We do know that wolves in Alaska are quite cannibalistic, and they eat other wolves that encroach on their territories, as well as any domestic dogs that happen to be running lose.

And there is always this photo of Romeo carrying pug in his jaws.

The pug survived this whole encounter:


My guess is that Romeo considered large dogs to be adults of his own species.

However, a pug has traits that wolf might associate with a wolf pup. It has smaller size and a shorter muzzle.

Adult wolves will actually show very strong parental behavior towards their offspring. Domestic dogs will carry their pups when they are very small, but wolves will carry them even after they are few months old.

All Romeo was doing to the pug was trying to take care of a puppy.

My retriever treated adult Jack Russells as if they were puppies, much to the chagrin of the Jack Russells.

So why wouldn’t a wolf make this error?

Romeo disappeared in the September of 2009.

Hunters were blamed, of course.  There was an illegal wolf kill near Juneau in the September of 2009.

But no evidence suggests that any hunter is to blame.

He more likely died of natural causes.

Rome was truly a remarkable animal.

Many people have poo-pooed the various historical accounts of amicable relationships between wolves and dogs that I have posted on this blog. (The one I have found about a bunch of wolves that had playing with a mastiff in seventeenth century Newfoundland is my favorite.)

I keep being told that those wolves have be feral Native American dogs. They have to be because we all know that all wolves are aggressive towards dogs, and they have always been this way.

It is more likely that before widespread persecution wolves were much more willing to have friendly relations with both dogs and people. Lots of reasons for this difference in behavior are possible.

One is persecution was a Belyaev experiment in reverse in which emotionally reactivity, nervousness, and fearfulness were selected for in the wolf population. If a wolf had these traits, it was less likely to be shot, poisoned, or trapped.

In the Belyaev experiment, the onset of the fear period in the tame silver foxes also developed later than the wild-type foxes. If the reverse experiment selected for an earlier onset of the fear impact subperiod, then wolves would have a very hard time socializing as they once did.

It would also negate part of Raymond Coppinger’s theory that hunter-gatherers would have to collect wolf pups before they were 21 days old in order to socialize them to humans. Perhaps what we are seeing in modern wolves is an unusually early onset of this subperiod that is the result of selection from persecution.

And maybe the ancient wolf population experienced the onset of this period in a way more similar to domestic dogs,  which experience this subperiod when they are 8 to 10 weeks old. Modern wolves experience this subperiod when they are less than three weeks old, which is why Coppinger makes so much noise that a hunter-gatherer man could not have captured wolf pups and tamed them.

Another is reason is that wolves are not able to live as they once did. Crazed persecution and now regular wolf control programs have disrupted the pack systems that once existed. Wolves do not grow up in the same environment that they once did. Their puppyhoods are spent in very unstable situations, which certainly does affect their development. These wolves that live on moose in Alaska don’t live like the wolves that lived on the Great Plains, where bison meat was always available. They also don’t live like wolves that were living on the Mammoth Steppe, where there were always abundant prey species.  It also means that wolves are more likely to turn toward cannibalism just to survive.

All of these factors affect wolves and their behavior.

The modern wolf is a truly victimized species, and it can explain why they don’t normally act like Romeo.

But maybe Romeo wasn’t always the exception.

Wolves had to have been incredibly easy to domesticate. We’ve not been able to do this with any other large carnivore, though as I mentioned earlier this week, we tried with cheetahs. The Ainu people of Japan used to capture Hokkaido brown bear cubs and raised them for a ritual slaughter. (The Ainu revere the brown bear as the “god of the mountains.”) No one has domesticated a brown bear (though Doug Seuss has come close!) or a cheetah.

But we have not only domesticated the wolf, we’ve made our domestic wolf our closest animal companion.

Romeo helps provide some clues on how domestication could have happened. Wolves dispersing from their natal packs could have joined up with humans or with camp wolf populations that had developed from pups that the hunter-gatherers had raised.

He was truly a remarkable animal, one that should have warranted at least some scientific inquiry.

Of course, hew as but one individual wolf, and wolves and dogs are individuals. It is folly to make too many generalizations about them.

But he still was so utterly beguiling. That’s why residents of Juneau loved him so much.

For whatever reason, he didn’t consider dogs to be food or people to be dangerous.

He tried to join up with us.

Perhaps he was doing what some wolves did tens of thousands of years ago, when they first caught wind of the naked bipedal apes and decided that they might be of some use to them.

Romeo was an historian.

He told us of a past that we never wrote down and are only now trying to glean from the archeological and genetic evidence.

But he all he wanted was to have a mate who wouldn’t bite his face off.

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From the Anchorage Daily News.

Romeo was a black wolf that lived near Juneau who loved to play with dogs. (I have written about him here.)

Well, he hasn’t been seen since September, and because he is estimated to be 7 0r 8 years old, he may have died of old age.

Or a neighboring wolf pack has killed him.

Or a bear.

Or maybe it was the former governor.

Or maybe he found a bitch wolf, and they were able to form a pack.


Well, here’s some footage of Romeo from last winter.  He’s hanging out with his Labrador friends.



How Romeo came to be so friendly with the local dogs is the subject of several stories. One of which goes that Romeo’s mate was killed by a cab, and Romeo was left on his own. Not seeing other wolves with which he could form a relationship, Romeo began to see out dogs for companionship.

BTW, it has been rumored that Romeo has killed small dogs, and this photo is often offered up as evidence. That’s a pug he’s carrying in his mouth. The truth is the pug was not injured at all. Romeo was just playing. Apparently, someone took their pugs out to the Romeo’s area in hopes of enticing him out for a photo session. Romeo grabbed one pug and ran off with it, but he ran off for only about ten feet before dropping the pug.

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