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Reading "Romeo" on his own turf

Nick Jans' new book on Juneau's famous black wolf is rich territory for local readers

Posted: August 21, 2014 - 12:01am
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Alaskan author Nick Jans holds a plaque made by artist R.T. "Skip" Wallen at the memorial ceremonies for Romeo the black wolf in November 2010 at Mendenhall Lake near the West Glacier Trail, the site of the wolf's many interactions with local residents.   KLAS STOLPE / JUNEAU EMPIRE FILE
KLAS STOLPE / JUNEAU EMPIRE FILE
Alaskan author Nick Jans holds a plaque made by artist R.T. "Skip" Wallen at the memorial ceremonies for Romeo the black wolf in November 2010 at Mendenhall Lake near the West Glacier Trail, the site of the wolf's many interactions with local residents.

If the book “A Wolf Called Romeo” had been written as a work of fiction, Nick Jans could reasonably be accused of inventing an unrealistic story. As an account of actual events, it strains the limits of credulity even further.

For readers who live in Juneau, however, scene of the events Jans describes, there is no room for disbelief when reading Jans’ book, only renewed wonder and a desire to understand. For us, unlike many who will read it, the story of this calm and sociable black wolf is not some crazy, exotic tale from the Far North. It’s part of our community’s history, a story many of us carry in our own memory. Despite our proximity — or maybe because of it — this is still an amazing story.

“A Wolf Called Romeo,” released last month, is built around Jans’ first-person account of Romeo’s appearances in the Mendenhall Valley during a six year span from 2003 to 2009. Weaving through his detailed chronicle are other residents’ stories (such as that of Harry Robinson, who spent probably the most time around Romeo), as well as facts and myths abut wolves, elements of natural history, wildlife management and dog behavior.

Jans, who now lives in Haines, said in a recent interview that though the book is in many ways personal, on the whole, the story belongs to Juneau.

“This story isn’t my story, it’s Juneau’s story, and I just happen to be the person who was in a position to tell it as best I could. I’m humbled by the experience,” Jans said.

Like any good adventure story, the book provokes contemplation of larger issues, easily moving beyond the specific circumstances of Romeo’s life to broader philosophical ideas about the relationship between humans and animals, between urban and wild spaces. At times it reads like an allegory, with Romeo standing in for the wilderness and all it inspires: awe, fear, gratitude, lack of control. Though there are no easy answers, the book offers a compelling reminder about respect, the uniqueness of individual life — human or animal — and the dangers that face our wild neighbors.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘tipping point’ because it gets overused, but we really are at a tipping point if you’re talking about the future of wild spaces, wild animals and especially wild carnivores,” Jans said. “This story is very much a marker of our time.”

Jans said weaving these different strands together into one narrative made writing the book a serious challenge.

“It was a very difficult book to write,” he said. “It was actually the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, just because there were all these different gyres that had to overlap.”

Ultimately what he ended up with, he said, was a very long personal essay. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and released July 1, the book has enjoyed immediate success. It was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month and is currently the No. 1 best-seller in Amazon’s biology of dogs and wolves category (the Kindle version is No. 2), as well as No. 7 in the biography and memoirs of environmentalists and naturalists category. One Amazon reviewer called it “unequivocally the best man-wild animal book I have ever read.”

Jans’ “Romeo” book was also named one of the “10 Best Books of July” in the Christian Science Monitor, where it was reviewed by a writer named Nick Romeo (presumably no relation). The initial printing of 19,000 copies had already sold out by the end of July, prompting the publisher to call for a second printing before the first month was out. Jans, who has been giving presentations all over the country, said this trajectory is by far the steepest of any of his previous 10 books.

“It’s nice to be successful, of course, this is what I do for a living ... but the most important thing to is to tell the story. I think it’s an important story,” Jans said. “My best hope for this book it that it will make a difference for some people.”

In telling Romeo’s tale, Jans has several major advantages. For one, Jans and his wife, Sherrie, lived in the last house before the glacier. From their windows, they could see the frozen lake that often served as a playground for Romeo and the various dogs and humans who came to visit him. The Janses, dog owners and avid lovers of the outdoors, frequently interacted with the wolf around their home before deciding it wasn’t a good idea (for the wolf’s sake). They still kept a close eye on what was going on and became vocal advocates for the wolf’s safety and well-being.

Another reason Jans makes an interesting narrator is his past. As he shares in his the book, Jans regularly hunted wolves and other big game when he arrived in the state, working alongside Inupiat hunters near the village of Ambler, 45 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Calling himself a “slow learner,” Jans said he never felt very good about shooting wolves and eventually came to realize that killing what he loved was a bad idea. His memories of the wolves he killed in those years have bothered him ever since, making Romeo’s appearance years later particularly meaningful.

“There’s really no other word for it but haunted,” Jans said. “I felt like Scrooge when Marley’s ghost shows up at his bedside, but instead it’s this wolf. It seems to have followed me down from the Arctic.”

“Besides writing this book being the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, seeing this wolf ... was the transformative event of my life as well. You’re permanently changed. It’s not the kind of thing you ever get over. And I’m not the only one. It was absolute magic.”

Romeo the wolf showed up near the Mendenhall Glacier in 2003, approaching dogs and their owners with little apparent social anxiety — highly unusual for a wolf, a creature notoriously difficult to spot in Juneau or elsewhere. He continued to frequent the area for the next six years, often drawing crowds who flocked to see a wild wolf up close. It is generally agreed that Romeo was interested in the dogs, not the people, perhaps compensating for his loneliness of living without a pack (though nobody knows for sure).

Romeo’s presence in Juneau became fairly polarizing as time went on, with some saying it was only a matter of time before he killed a dog (or worse), and others trying to protect him from overly relaxed local residents and their dogs. When he was killed by a couple of hunters in 2009, many blamed the years of socialization, but Jans points out that he arrived that way, seeking contact, and lived a much longer life than a normal wild wolf.

“To say that (his death) was a foregone conclusion is to me misleading,” Jans said.

Generally, wildlife officials advocate avoiding wild animals, for their safety as well as your own. In most cases, Jans agrees.

“I don’t think you can or should be friends on a normal basis with wild animals. I don’t think this is a template. It’s this complete anomaly, but still one that contains a lot of truth in it.”

One of those truths, for Jans, is an awareness of animals as individuals. Romeo was “an intelligent, sentient personality,” a presence unique from other presences.

“When you look at any animal, I don’t care whether it’s a songbird, a sparrow, an eagle or a whale. It’s an individual, it’s just that one,” he said. “The more you tune in to that, the more respect you have for all life.”

That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t hunt, he said, just that respect is key.

It’s worth noting that the interaction among humans in this story provides the book’s central conflict, pointing up the frustrating fact that we often have very little control over how other people decide to behave in the place they live, even if we find their habits repellent.

Jans said as time has passed, he’s moved away from feeling anger toward Romeo’s killers. Holding on to bitterness does no good, he said.

“It’s a dead end. You have to let it go,” he said.

Ultimately, though it can still move him to tears, Jans doesn’t see Romeo’s story as a tragedy, but as a remarkable story of connection and community, and of the incredible wild animal that was briefly a part of Juneau’s everyday life.

“You could look at this story as a tragedy. It’s also a story of cooperation and tolerance and hope,” he said. “And as long as people know the story, he’s still alive.”

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