Picture this, you’re taking a leisurely stroll down the street with your dog, just hanging out enjoying yourself, when suddenly a wolf comes out of the forest and heads straight for you. This is precisely what happened to Sherrie and Nick Jans in their hometown of Juneau, Alaska. The twosome were out with their yellow lab Dakotah, walking near a rec center, when they saw a large dog trotting toward them. Assuming it just wanted some socialization with Dakotah, they watched it get closer and closer before realizing it wasn’t a dog…
Nick Jans and his wife Sherrie like to spend their winters in their home in Juneau, Alaska with their summers spent in Florida. Nick is a hunter who has a passion for wildlife photography, he never expected one animal to change their lives so completely.
The large dog-shaped animal was revealed to be a wolf. When the couple realized their mistake they immediately ran to their dog afraid she would be attacked. When Nick gauged the size of the wolf he knew Dakotah wasn’t the only one in danger. But just when he anticipated things to get scary, the wolf did something unexpected.
Dakotah and the wolf looked at each other, a distance of about three feet between them, hoping to intuit what exactly the other wanted. They stayed like that for quite a while, staring into one another’s eyes, almost trying to place where they had seen the other before. Eventually Dakotah gave up and ran back to her humans and they continued on home. The wolf gave one mournful howl as they were leaving, sounding as if it wanted them to stay. The Janses couldn’t get the interaction out of their heads all week.
A couple times a week the Janses would take Dakotah out for a walk to that same spot, finding the wolf again and again. Another resident had their own encounter with the wolf while skiing past that same area with her pug. The wolf and pug played together like a couple of old friends. Those nearby were surprised to see predator play together harmoniously with what should have been its prey. Juneau’s population just went up by one.
Every time the wolf would make an appearance, it would play with the dogs who were not too afraid to approach it. People never once saw it behave aggressively or try to hurt any of the dogs. After some time the residents lost their fear toward the animal, no longer suspicious as to why it liked being around them.
A deep, everlasting friendship that developed between the wolf, the townsfolk and their dogs. When Nick Jans talked to the National Geographic he had this to say about it: “For want of a better word, the only thing I can say from a human perspective is that it amounted to friendship. If you wanted to be scientifically correct, it would be ‘social mutual tolerance.’ But it was more than that. The wolf would come trotting over to say hi, and give a little bow and a relaxed yawn, and go trotting after us when we went skiing. There was no survival benefit. He obviously just enjoyed our company.” For a total of six years the wolf continued to visit his friends in the town.
The wolf was friends with almost every dog in town due to his friendly nature, but he also had best friends among that population. Although he loved each dog he played with, he was besties with Dakotah and the Jans’ neighbor’s dog, Jessie, who was a collie.
Once the town noticed the wolf kept coming back, they thought it was only fitting that they name it. It was dubbed Romeo, and he became Juneau’s newest attraction. Word spread to the surrounding towns that they had a new wolf resident that didn’t act in the predatory way wolves act. He was really more dog than wolf.
Romeo may seem like a random choice in names, but the town had their reasons. Aptly named for the way he would socialize and flirt with the dogs in town, he was especially affectionate toward his Juliet, AKA Dakotah. Wolves are known to keep in small packs with an intense closeness and exclusiveness, almost like mafia family. When Romeo first met Juliet, Jans was worried when Dakotah slipped from his grasp to stand face to face in front of the wolf. But as fate would have it, Romeo was true to his name.
Jans typically leaves detailed descriptions of body language and context on Romeo’s photos. According to National Geographic Jans gave an example: “He’s being very flirtatious. Dakotah is very confident but giving a neutral signal with her tail straight out. They’re both very relaxed; there’s not the least hint of aggression. And that was very typical of how Romeo interacted with dogs.”
As the townsfolk and Jans mention, much like a human, Romeo had his own favorites. He would choose whom he wanted to get closer to, often letting guests admire him but rarely letting them get closer than 100 feet away. For certain visitors he liked to keep his distance.
Romeo exemplified a fearless bravery in the way he would interact and play with other dogs without any concern for his well-being. He just might have been the bravest wolf in Alaska. If the crowds that came out to see him got too big, he would bound back into the forest only to re-emerge the next day. Because of his behavior, he was seen as a sort of giant dog rather than a wolf.
Though he looked and acted like one, Romeo wasn’t a dog, he was a wild animal. After playing with his dog friends all day he would return to the forest. No one really knew what he did at night, though most assumed he went hunting and slept. He would disappear for a few days at a time, but he’d always return.
Off-and-on Romeo would keep returning to the town for six years. He even learned how to play fetch, mimicking the actions of his dog friends when he picked up a stick or branch. He eventually got to trust and love the locals who gave him children’s toys to play with.
Romeo took a risk every time he reappeared to play around with the dogs and locals. Though he was friendly and non-aggressive, any time newcomers would ask too many questions the topic of relocating Romeo would come up. The fear being someone not from around there could see him trotting around, get scared and shoot at him. It was for his own safety that the town had to consider this tough decision.
It was a town divided when the topic of relocation came up. No one wanted Romeo to leave and end his friendship with the dogs, but many people in the town were concerned for the safety of their families. Romeo was still a wolf with those same predatory instincts, regardless of his behavior to that point. The Romeo problem would encourage a bigger conversation about Alaska’s growing wolf population.
Romeo was a wolf who had never hurt a human or dog. The fact that they were discussing punishment for something he “might” do was very much backwards thinking according to many. It brought up questions of compassion and animal welfare in society.
The Indigenous peoples from the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland are called the Inuit, and they consider themselves to be distinct from other Native American for First Nations groups. Inuit culture views the wolf as superior to humans, believing it to have majestic powers. They pride themselves on having a profound respect for nature and animal life. Though Jans has interacted with some tribes that have a fear of the wolf, they all respect them for their immense intelligence and survival skills.
Romeo was last seen by the townspeople of Juneau in September 2009. Noticing he hadn’t been around in a while, people started getting concern for Romeo’s well-being. Not wanting to fear the worst, but being acutely aware that nature must run its course, some began to investigate what had happened to the lovable guy.
After much investigation it was discovered that members of the town had murdered Romeo. These bloodthirsty men were unable to put aside their own prejudices and allow themselves to live in harmony with Romeo. They paid the price for their dispassion, losing all hunting privileges, paying thousands of dollars in fines along with many years of probation.
Romeo was taken from us too soon, that’s undeniable, but there is a silver lining. The usually lifespan of a wolf is just three years and Romeo lived to almost double that, as he was at least eight-years-old when he died. Though it can’t be said whether his relationship with the town helped him live longer, or if it was just good luck mixed with great survival instincts. In any case, Romeo lived a long life and blessed all those who he was able to touch.
Hoping to spread word of Romeo’s remarkable behavior and attitude, the Janses wrote a book about him. May his story help unite people and overcome differences of race, religion, class, gender, and species to the betterment of the earth and the world around us. Romeo will forever be in the hearts and minds of the people and visitors of Juneau.
Not wanting for Romeo to go unremembered, Nick Jans wrote Romeo’s story down, detailing facts of his life as well as those whom he touched. A heartwarming tale of adventure, understanding and compassion when Jans is tasked with a public reading he himself can’t help but shed a few tears.
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