Wild wolves can be vicious predators. But sometimes, they aren't. Residents of Juneau, Alaska, had their expectations of wolves turned upside-down in 2003 when a resident wolf ended up being a friend, not a predator.
When nature photographer Nick Jans saw tracks outside of his house, they led him to an animal that would change his life. This one wolf would change the lives of Juneau's residents (and their dogs). Learn about the friendliest, most playful black wolf in recent history.
Tracks Outside Their House
In December 2003, nature photographer Nick Jans was sitting on his porch in Juneau, Alaska. While looking outside, Nick noticed tracks outside of his door. The tracks, which looked like paw prints, lead to the lake near his house.
He grabbed his wife, Sherrie, and his yellow labrador, Dakotah, to follow the tracks. The three took a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area near their home. They had no idea what they would find at the end of those tracks.
A Terrifying Encounter
While Nick and Sherrie were walking, they spotted a black figure in the snow. It was an Alexander Archipelago wolf. Before Nick and Sherrie could react, Dakotah took off running toward the wolf.
Dakotah either thought that the wolf was another dog who wanted to play, or she aimed to defend her owners. Either way, Nick was terrified. The wolf couldn't have been over two years old, but it was still far bigger and stronger than their yellow lab.
The Canines' Strange Face-Off
Instead of attacking the wolf, Dakotah stopped. She and the wolf stared at each other. Nick later wrote that it was "as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face and trying to remember."
After some time, Dakotah ran back to her owners. The wolf also turned and walked away. Relieved, Nick and Sherrie hiked back to their home. It was twilight, and they could hear wolves howling in the distance. The Janses suspected that they would see the wolf again.
No One Expected What The Wolf Would Do Next
Over the next week, Nick kept his eye out for the wolf. He wanted to snap some photos the next time he saw it. But he did not expect the wolf to visit his house. One day, while looking outside, Nick saw the wolf walk out from behind a nearby tree.
Just as before, Dakotah ran toward the wolf. But instead of having a face-off, the dog and wolf began to play. They pranced and ran around like two domesticated dogs.
Joy, Or Fear?
Nick and Sherrie had mixed reactions. Nick grabbed his camera and snapped several pictures of the wolf and Dakotah paying. Meanwhile, Sherrie was deeply concerned about her dog. According to Nick, Dakotah was "her child," and she was very protective of her.
Although the two were playing, Nick and Sherrie understood that the wolf was a wild animal. They watched closely to see if Dakotah got hurt. But she never did. The two played, and then they left.
This Wasn't A One-Time Thing
As the Janses expected, this wouldn't be the first time that the wolf would come by. According to Nick, the wolf came by nearly every morning. When the family was outside, the two dogs would play.
Sometimes, when the family stayed indoors, they would find tracks that lead up to the front door. Sometimes, the wolf would curl up outside, waiting for Dakotah to walk out and resume their playtime. The two had become good friends.
Naming The Wolf Romeo
With the wolf's consistent visits, Nick and Sherrie decided to give it a name. They called the wolf Romeo for its social behavior. They equated the wolf's frequent visits with Romeo visiting Juliet on the balcony.
The name seemed to be a spur-of-the-moment joke. "One morning, the wolf is curled up in the yard waiting for Dakotah to come out and take a pee," Nick recounted. "My wife with her arms folded says, 'There's that Romeo wolf again.'"
The Neighbors Eventually Met Romeo, Too
Dakotah wasn't the only dog that Romeo played with. One of the Jans' neighbors had a Border Collie. The Collie also began playing with Romeo outside. The two would often run into the woods together before coming back.
During another time, Nick and Sherrie visited the lake near their house. Romeo "grabbed two different pugs owned by two different people on two different sides of the lake and ran with them for a short period in his mouth and dropped them." Both were unharmed.
Not Even The Skier's Dogs Were Safe
Even visitors soon learned of Romeo's presence. According to Nick, he saw a skier walk by with her dog. Just as with Dakotah, Romeo pranced out of the woods to play with the dog.
Nick later wrote, "As I watched open-mouthed, they switched to pawing and mouth-fighting like yearlings, interspersed with the wolf's gravity-defying leaps and spins." Perhaps Romeo was starved of social interaction, or maybe he was separated from his pack. Either way, he was eager to play.
People Eventually Warmed Up To Romeo
At first, the people of Juneau were wary of a wild wolf playing with their dogs. But after seeing how gentle Romeo was, their concerns melted away. The wolf was larger than the biggest dogs at Mendenhall Glacier Park, but he was there to have fun.
The dogs seemed to like Romeo, too. They quickly warmed up to his presence and treated him as any other dog. Clearly, Romeo just wanted some new canine friends.
Romeo Behaved Just Like A Big Dog
Romeo acted more like a big dog than a wolf. According to Nick, "he would bring out toys that he'd stashed" and carry them to people in the park. Even the Alaskan residents got to play with Romeo and become his friend.
Over time, people became certain that Romeo was not a threat. Nick's name for the wolf caught on, and he soon became a real-life urban legend. He was soon accepted by the community as "the wolf who plays with people."
He Even Played Fetch!
Romeo didn't just own toys; he wanted people to play with his toys. According to Nick, "one was a Styrofoam float. Romeo would pick it up and bring it to [my friend] Harry to throw."
Harry wasn't the only one. Several people in Juneau shared moments with Romeo--how do you think he got the toys? Perhaps Romeo saw other dogs played fetch and wanted to join in. Or maybe it's an innate canine urge to play fetch.
Was He A Wolf Or A Dog?
Although Romeo was a wild wolf, he displayed many behaviors of a domesticated dog. He played, he craved interaction with people, and he played fetch. Wolves and dogs are not the same species, but Romeo acted so similarly that some visitors mistook him for a large dog.
Nick claimed that Romeo "clearly understood the same sort of behaviors that we see in dogs." The evidence came from Nick's photographs. He took many pictures of Romeo interacting with people and pets.
It Was So Safe That You Could Even Sleep By The Wolf
The three species--humans, dogs, and wolves--got along ceremoniously in Juneau. Their relationship was so peaceful that people could (and did) fall asleep next to Romeo without harm.
Nick recounted, "One of my fondest memories my whole time in Alaska was lying with my head on my pack, with my dog Gus' head on my knee and the wolf lying 15 feet away, and we all took a nap out there on the ice. Everybody trusted each other enough to shut our eyes and just be."
Living In Harmony For Six Years
Romeo lived with Nick and Sherrie for a long time. Being a wild animal, he never entered their house. But he played with the dogs and humans of Juneau for six years, from 2003 to 2009.
Romeo became so well-known that visitors would stay near the tree line to search for him. Many took photos of Romeo, but Nick's are the most professional and highly publicized. Others walked around the lake with their dogs, hoping that Romeo would come to play.
Romeo Connected Humans With The Wild
Many wild wolves keep people away from the woods. It makes sense; they are very dangerous when they become aggressive. But Romeo brought people closer to nature and changed many peoples' perceptions of wolves.
For the locals, Romeo represented living in harmony with wildlife. Juneau is surrounded by forest, mountains, and an enormous lake. The people of Juneau live with the earth every day, and in the same vein, they enjoy sharing their life with Romeo.
...But Some People Were Still Wary
While many people treated Romeo like another dog, others were still wary around him. Understandably, they knew that a wild wolf could still pose a risk to people, even while playing. Many did not want to hang so close to a wild animal.
There are many stories of wolf attacks, especially in icy, forested areas like Alaska. Residents are used to staying safe around wolves. There was some controversy over letting Romeo wander so close to humans.
However...This Journey Would End In 2009
Nick said that Romeo "was downright relaxed and tolerant from the start . . . as if he had dropped out of the sky like a unicorn." Romeo built a friendship with many dogs, from Border Collies to Poodles.
Unfortunately, Romeo could not live forever. Wolves live for an average of six to eight years, and Romeo was nearing the end of his life. When he passed away, he would strike the hearts of thousands of people.
Romeo's Tragic Passing
Just like his namesake, Romeo died in a tragic way. In 2009, he was shot illegally by hunters. The residents of Juneau and the Mendenhall Glacier Park mourned his passing. Many still remember him fondly.
The two men who shot Romeo were arrested. They had their hunting and fishing licenses temporarily revoked. The wolf's death sparked a conversation about hunting and the conservation of wildlife. Meanwhile, the residents searched for a way to memorialize Romeo the wolf.
A Plaque In Romeo's Name
The residents of Juneau memorialized Romeo through a monument. They erected a plaque by artist R.T. "Skip" Wallen near Nugget Falls. "The spirit of Juneau's friendly black wolf lives on in this wild place," the plaque reads.
The monument also shows a depiction of Romeo. It is visible even in deep snow. Tour buses pass by this plaque, and tour guides tell the tale of Romeo the wolf. This monument is a sign that the residents of Juneau will never forget him.
He Still Exists In Peoples' Hearts
Photographs and videos pay tribute to the wolf who befriended many dogs and humans. He is still being discussed to this day. "Nothing can take away the miracle that was Romeo and the years we spent in his company," wrote Nick.
Nick enjoyed Romeo's company, but he wasn't the only one. Romeo was a Juneau regular; he would show up along walking trails every day to greet hikers and their dogs. He will always be missed.
...And In A Book
Nick Jans found another way to memorialize Romeo. In 2014, Nick published his book, A Wolf Called Romeo. The novel documented his experiences with the friendly wolf and featured his professional photos.
A Wolf Called Romeo made Romeo an international sensation. People highly reviewed the book, talking about how it tugged at their heartstrings. If you are curious about a first-hand account of Romeo, pick up this book. Just the photos alone are worth it.
A Black Wolf Museum Display Is Also Coming
In 2016, another subtle homage to Romeo was in the works. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center teamed up with Nick Jans and the U.S. Forest Service to create an educational display about black wolves. Nick raised over $25,000 for the project.
The name "Romeo" will not appear on the display, which is designed to inform rather than memorialize. The exhibit will explain why we should protect these wolves. "Those of us who knew Romeo or his story will understand the rest," Nick told Juneau Empire.
Another Alaska Resident's Experience With Wildlife
Pam Aus lives on Unalaska, a member of the Aleutian Islands off of mainland Alaska. The island has a tough climate, fostering fog and rain for most of the year. But Pam lives there for the wide array of wildlife.
Unalaska has hundreds of grasses and flowering plants, along with a host of seabirds. Many species of birds stop by the Aleutian Islands at some point in the year. But Pam had no idea that one of these animals would come to her door.
Pam Was Well-Known On Her YouTube Channel
Pam was fairly well-known for her YouTube channel, which had over 60,000 subscribers. She often filmed videos of the wild birds that flew by her island. Her two cats, Gizmo and Suitcase, also appeared in many of her videos.
Pam has been filming wildlife for 11 years. Some of her most popular videos featured bald eagles and black foxes. However, her most viral video was yet to come, and she didn't even know it yet.
Strange Noises Outside Of Her Door
In 2012, Pam was working at her computer after returning home from her job at a shipping salvage company. She heard strange noises right outside of her home. She didn't know what they were, but she knew they were from an animal.
Like the devoted YouTuber she was, Pam grabbed her camera and headed outside. She was slightly worried about her two cats, who were on her deck. "Okay, I keep hearing these calls for me," she told the camera.
At First, Nothing Seemed Off
When Pam walked onto the deck, she first saw her cat, Gizmo. He was sitting on the rail like nothing was wrong. Gizmo couldn't have been making the strange sounds; he was sitting still, enjoying the snow.
But Pam couldn't find her other cat, Suitcase. Could he have been making the noise? The two cats were usually together, but now, one couldn't be found. Had something happened to him? Or was he causing the ruckus?
She Just Missed It...
Just when Pam thought that her cat has disappeared, Suitcase jumped onto the porch. The noises continued, and Suitcase clearly wasn't making them. So where did they come from?
Pam began to think that the animal making the noises must have been hidden in the wilderness. As the sounds died down, Pam began to head back into her house. That's when she saw it: a large bald eagle, sitting on her porch like he owned the place.
A Life-Changing Encounter
"Oh, Mr. Eagle keeps calling me!" Pam exclaimed on camera. She had filmed bald eagles for her YouTube channel before, but she had never seen one this close. It is rare for a bald eagle to get this close to humans.
On top of that, Suitcase and Gizmo didn't seem to mind its presence. Eagles eat small mammals and have large talons; they could easily hurt the cats. But both seemed to be in harmony with one another.
What's This? Another Visitor?
Unbeknownst to Pam, the eagle wasn't alone. There was another bald eagle near her home! The other eagle was sitting on a lamppost at the end of her driveway. Eventually, it approached the porch and sat with the other eagle.
So now Pam had two bald eagles and cats on her porch. All of them were hanging around, not bothering each other, like a Disney film. It was a rare moment, but it was about to get better.
Even More Animals!
All of a sudden, Pam heard some rustling to her left. When she turned the camera, she saw a fox! Foxes are also predators of cats. But this fox didn't bother any of the other animals. It hung around the porch like nothing was wrong.
Pam was suddenly on Noah's ark. In all of her years of filming wildlife, she had never seen this many animals together. It is unusual for so many wild animals to come together.
The Video Was A Hit
After Pam's encounter with all of the animals, she posted the video on YouTube. She forgot about it until her daughter pointed out how many views it received. Her total views had risen from 1.7 million to 2 million!
People were sharing the video on social media and commenting about how it looked like a Disney film. It was by far Pam's most popular video. She seemed to be one with the rest of nature!
Making International Headlines
Eventually, major news networks wanted to report on the video. "Good Morning America and ABC News--a journalist from Australia wants to do a story," Pam said. "Fox News wants to put the video on one of their nighttime shows."
The inter-species friendship was a lovely break from more bleak news. People loved seeing all of the wild animals gather together, not minding the human or domesticated cats on the porch. It seemed so unreal that some people said it was fake.
Funnily Enough, Other Residents Were Not Amused
While people from around the world gawked at the footage, residents of Unalaska were not as amused. Pam says that bald eagles (which are the state bird) are as common as pigeons there.
"[My neighbors would] go, 'big deal, I could have taken that on my porch,’" Pam said. Many residents were tickled that some people accused the video of being fake. Others wondered how Pam even maintains a YouTube channel with such slow internet speeds.
The Animals Gathered Together For Comfort
While Pam's video looked peaceful, many of her other works are not as pretty. Pam will often film the brutality of nature, such as eagles eating their prey. But Pam believes that the animals gathered on her porch because of the brutal winter.
Since the winter had been especially cold, the animals were likely walking around in search of food. But the eagles and fox did not attack Pam's cats. They seemed to band together for comfort in the winter--a brief moment of friendship.