A Wolf Called Romeo

“A Wolf Called Romeo,” by Nick Jans. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.

From the spellbinding early pages when the author and others first set their sights on a black wolf through the delightful middle chapters where special bonds emerge and strengthen, I kept asking myself, how long can this love story continue?

Not long enough!

As a reader, I found myself emotionally invested in Romeo’s welfare and wishing I could have seen it unfold firsthand. But the talented author answers that need by quickly ushering me from the sofa into the field, tantalizingly close to the 120-pound wolf that chooses to interact with owners and dogs while becoming a celebrity in the process.A WOLF CALLED ROMEO Cover

Keeping in mind this is a state that allows aerial hunts of wolves and attitudes vary considerably toward wildlife, sometimes resulting in bar fights and hot words, I wondered how long can this mini Camelot scenario on the outskirts of Juneau last before some wacko takes aim and kills the trusting soul?

Jans characterizes that chasm: “At least half of all Alaskans, whether rural or urban, native or white, bear no enmity against wolves; in fact, consider them an asset. However, those Alaskans who wield power most often, and seem to shout the loudest these days, fall into the good-wolf-is-a-dead wolf camp.”

Romeo’s heritage is never answered – former captive wolf, a wolf hybrid or an outcast pack member? But that isn’t important in the big scheme of things.

“Romeo” is a grim reminder that good intentions aren’t always enough. While Jans approaches his subject with vigor and sensitivity throughout, providing fascinating glimpses of a montage of commitment by a wide mix of locals, he serves up punchy slices of life in the process.

No question about it, Romeo is a life changer for Jans and his wife Sherrie, after their first viewing in December 2003, “A wild black wolf became part of our lives – not just as a fleeting shape in the dusk, but as a creature we and others would come to know over a span of years, just as he came to know us.

“We were neighbors, that much is certain; and though some will scoff, I say friends as well. This is a tale woven of light and darkness, hope and sorrow, fear and love, and perhaps, a little magic.

“You can’t plan on seeing wolves, any more than you can falling in love.” But ironically, that assessment becomes literally entangled going forth, as one after another neighbor, townspeople and eventually tourists venture to Mendenhall Lake to catch a glimpse of Romeo and document it on film, which the author characterizes, “a dark beacon of life in the still, white world.”

But for how long?

Jans suspects the first viewings are more an aberration than a regular happening, but after several weeks Romeo shows no sign of leaving and begins attracting “black-wolf junkies” as word spreads. “Regardless of where the black wolf had come from,” he writes, “we could all agree on one thing. There was nothing to match this spectacle anywhere on the planet.”

On a few occasions, Romeo seizes locals’ small pet dogs, takes them into the woods and releases them, much to the amazement and relief of their angst-ridden owners. And there’s the times when a couple’s female border collie Jessie and Romeo disappear together for hours – once overnight – and reappear as a tight item.

Giving an animal a name almost anthropomorphizes the relationship with the community, which becomes an issue for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Naming an animal creates an illusion of a relationship that doesn’t exist,” says Pete Griffin, Juneau district ranger. Jans later describes that scenario as a “crazy carnival atmosphere.”

Despite this symbiotic relationship with the community, Romeo is faced with challenge of avoiding traps, vehicles and, of course, hunters.

“Over and again, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t my wolf or anyone else’s,” says Jans. “And never mind us – what did the wolf want? Romeo who waited day in and day out for each of these men (those who had almost regular interactions) and their dogs, and hung with them for hours at a time, could have voted with his feet whenever he chose and melted into the landscape, momentarily or forever.”

As noted earlier, I found myself waiting for the Romeo romance to be quashed – and it does in September 2009 when a pair of crackpot hunters kill the wolf and openly brag about it from Alaska to Pennsylvania, eventually paying very little for their crime.

“Like his Shakespearian namesake,” Jans concludes, “Romeo’s die was cast by his nature, shaped by forces beyond his and our horizon. In the end . . . all who loved Romeo, were fortune’s fools.

“During the black wolf’s time among us, he brought wonder to thousands, filled a landscape to overflowing, taught many to see the world and his species with fresh eyes. . . . He spun context into our lives, drew us closer without our realizing any more than he did.”

With detailed descriptions, engaging scenarios and thorough documentation, this sharply etched portrait brims with an adventurous spirit one minute and a sobering realism the next. Inside that framework the reader will find a magnetic blend of insight and inspiration, too.