A HIKER SAVED THE LIFE OF AN ALASKAN TIMBER WOLF—4 YEARS LATER THE WOLF STILL REMEMBERED HIM

Deep in the Alaskan wilderness, a prospector came to the rescue of an injured mother wolf and her pups, and a lasting connection is formed.

One spring morning many years ago, I had been prospecting for gold along Coho Creek on south-eastern Alaska’s Kupreanof Island, and as I emerged from a forest of spruce and hemlock, I froze in my tracks. No more than 20 paces away in the bog was a huge Alaskan timber wolf—caught in one of Trapper George’s traps.

Old George had died the previous week of a heart attack, so the wolf was lucky I had happened along. Confused and frightened at my approach, the wolf backed away, straining at the trap chain. Then I noticed some­thing else: It was a female, and her teats were full of milk. Somewhere there was a den of hungry pups waiting for their mother.

From her appearance, I guessed that she had been trapped only a few days. That meant her pups were probably still alive, surely no more than a few miles away. But I suspected that if I tried to release the wolf, she would turn aggressive and try to tear me to pieces. Here are the proven skills to survive any emergency.

So I decided to search for her pups instead and began to look for incoming tracks that might lead me to her den. Fortunately, there were still a few remaining patches of snow. After several moments, I spotted paw marks on a trail skirting the bog.

The tracks led a half ­mile through the forest, then up a rock­-strewn slope. I finally spotted the den at the base of an enormous spruce. There wasn’t a sound in­side. Wolf pups are shy and cautious, and I didn’t have much hope of luring them outside. But I had to try. So I began imitating the high­-pitched squeak of a mother wolf calling her young. No response. A few moments later, after I tried another call, four tiny pups appeared.

They couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. I extended my hands, and they tentatively suckled at my fingers. Perhaps hunger had helped overcome their natural fear. Then, one by one, I placed them in a burlap bag and headed back down the slope.

When the mother wolf spotted me, she stood erect. Possibly picking up the scent of her young, she let out a high­-pitched, plaintive whine. I released the pups, and they raced to her. Within seconds, they were slurping at her belly.

What next? I wondered. The mother wolf was clearly suffering. Yet each time I moved in her direction, a menacing growl rumbled in her throat. With her young to protect, she was becoming belligerent. She needs nourishment, I thought. I have to find her something to eat.

I hiked toward Coho Creek and spotted the leg of a dead deer sticking out of a snowbank. I cut off a hindquarter, then re­turned the remains to nature’s ice­box. Toting the venison haunch back to the wolf, I whispered in a soothing tone, “OK, Mother, your dinner is served. But only if you stop growling at me. C’mon, now. Easy.” I tossed chunks of venison in her direction. She sniffed them, then gobbled them up.

Cutting hemlock boughs, I fashioned a rough shelter for myself and was soon asleep nearby. At dawn, I was awakened by four fluffy bundles of fur sniffing at my face and hands. I glanced toward the agitated moth­er wolf. If I could only win her confidence, I thought. It was her only hope.

Over the next few days, I divided my time between prospecting and trying to win the wolf’s trust. I talked gently with her, threw her more venison, and played with the pups. Little by little, I kept edging closer—though I was careful to re­main beyond the length of her chain. The big animal never took her dark eyes off me. “Come on, Mother,” I pleaded. “You want to go back to your friends on the mountain. Relax.”

At dusk on the fifth day, I delivered her daily fare of venison. “Here’s dinner,” I said softly as I approached. “C’mon, girl. Nothing to be afraid of.” Suddenly, the pups came bounding to me. At least I had their trust. But I was beginning to lose hope of ever winning over the mother. Then I thought I saw a slight wagging of her tail. I moved within the length of her chain. She remained motionless. My heart in my mouth, I sat down eight feet from her. One snap of her huge jaws and she could break my arm … or my neck. I wrapped my blanket around myself and slowly settled onto the cold ground. It was a long time before I fell asleep.

I awoke at dawn, stirred by the sound of the pups nursing. Gently, I leaned over and petted them. The mother wolf stiffened. “Good morning, friends,” I said tentatively. Then I slowly placed my hand on the wolf’s injured leg. She flinched but made no threatening move. This can’t be happening, I thought. Yet it was.

I could see that the trap’s steel jaws had imprisoned only two toes. They were swollen and lacerated, but she wouldn’t lose the paw—if I could free her.

“OK,” I said. “Just a little longer and we’ll have you out of there.” I applied pressure, the trap sprang open, and the wolf pulled free.

Whimpering, she loped about, favouring the injured paw. My experience in the wild suggested that the wolf would now gather her pups and vanish into the woods. But cautiously, she crept toward me. The pups nipped playfully at their mother as she stopped at my elbow. Slowly, she sniffed my hands and arms. Then the wolf began licking my fingers. I was astonished. This went against everything I’d ever heard about timber wolves. Yet, strangely, it all seemed so natural.

After a while, with her pups scurrying around her, the mother wolf was ready to leave and began to limp off toward the forest. Then she turned back to me.

“You want me to come with you, girl?” I asked. Curious, I packed my gear and set off.

Following Coho Creek for a few miles, we ascended Mount Kupreanof ­ until we reached an al­pine meadow. There, lurking in the forested perimeter, was a wolf pack—I counted nine adults and, judging by their playful antics, four nearly full­-grown pups. After a few minutes of greeting, the pack broke into howling. It was an eerie sound, ranging from low wails to high-pitched yodelling.

At dark, I set up camp. By the light of my fire and a glistening moon, I could see furtive wolf shapes dodging in and out of the shadows, eyes shining. I had no fear. They were merely curious. So was I.

I awoke at first light. It was time to leave the wolf to her pack. She watched as I assembled my gear and started walking across the meadow.

Reaching the far side, I looked back. The mother and her pups were sitting where I had left them, watching me. I don’t know why, but I waved. At the same time, the mother wolf sent a long, mournful howl into the crisp air.

Four years later, after serving in World War II, I returned to Coho Creek. It was the fall of 1945. After the horrors of the war, it was good to be back among the soaring spruce and breathing the familiar, bracing air of the Alaskan bush. Then I saw, hanging in the red cedar where I had placed it four years before, the now­-rusted steel trap that had ensnared the mother wolf. The sight of it gave me a strange feeling, and something made me climb Kupreanof Mountain to the meadow where I had last seen her. There, standing on a lofty ledge, I gave out a long, low wolf call—­something I had done many times before.

An echo came back across the distance. Again, I called. And again the echo reverberated, this time followed by a wolf call from a ridge about a half­ mile away.

I had no fear. The wolves were merely curious. So was I.

Then, far off, I saw a dark shape moving slowly in my direction. As it crossed the meadow, I could see it was a timber wolf. A chill spread through my whole body. I knew at once that familiar shape, even after four years. “Hello, old girl,” I called gently. The wolf edged closer, ears erect, body tense, and stopped a few yards off, her bushy tail wagging slightly.

Moments later, the wolf was gone. I left Kupreanof Island a short time after that, and I never saw the animal again. But the memory she left with me—vivid, haunting, a little eerie—will always be there, a reminder that there are things in nature that exist outside the laws and understanding of man.

With four tiny pups to feed, the mother wolf would need to stay nourished.

During that brief instant in time, this injured animal and I had some­how penetrated each other’s worlds, bridging barriers that were never meant to be bridged. There is no explaining experiences like this. We can only accept them and—because they’re tinged with an air of mystery and strangeness—per­haps treasure them all the more.

This story originally appeared in the May 1987 issue of Reader’s Digest.

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The Story Of A Tragic Wolf Called ‘Romeo’ Who Loved Too Much And Deserved Much Better

ROMEO

On a twilit night in Juneau, Alaska, in December 2003, and Nick and Sherrie Jans were walking with Dakotah, their yellow Lab, in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area not far from their house. Suddenly, a young black wolf appeared on the ice—and began running in their direction. Awestruck but scared, the couple watched as Dakotah broke loose and charged the predator, which was twice the size of the dog. The animals stopped yards apart and gazed at each other “as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face and trying to remember,” recalled Jans. After a few moments, Dakotah ran back to her owners, and the three hurried home, listening to the wolf howl

The locals named him Romeo, and soon his presence was noted by the entire town. Most found it fascinating that Romeo was so friendly, while others assumed that this naturally predatory animal would give into his natural instincts at any moment, potentially attacking their pets and children.

During this time Nick Jans started documenting Romeo. When he did, he uncovered an emotional story, the heart of which describes the tenuous relationships between wild animals and the humans around them.

“The first thing I saw was tracks out on the lake in front of our house on the outskirts of Juneau,” Jans said in an interview with National Geographic. “A few days later, I looked out from my house and there was this wolf out on the ice. I’d had 20 years of experience around wolves up in the Arctic and immediately knew it was a wolf, not a dog. I threw on my skis and found him.”

ROMEO

According to Jans, Romeo seemed totally relaxed and friendly.

And it wasn’t just one interaction, either: Romeo remained his curious, friendly self for the better part of six years.

“For want of a better word,” Jans said, “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.”

Romeo’s behavior was definitely unusual, as many wolves tend to assert dominance by attacking dogs and other animals.

he wolf got his name because Jans and his family noticed how Romeo was kind of a flirt — particularly with their “Juliet,” a dog named Dakotah. Here, they’re standing nose-to-nose in what seems to be an all-too-perfect photo moment.

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Romeo survived for years despite many mortal threats: scented traps, busy roads, illegal hunting, and even a poisoning attempt. He also had to contend with the natural dangers of starvation, injury, and attack by another pack of wolves. By almost any standard, his prolonged proximity to humans and dogs constituted incredibly rare behaviour. There was no obvious survival benefit to his socializing, yet the wolf lingered persistently, a late echo of the original process that must have initiated the domestication of dogs.

Romeo stayed in the area for as long as he lived — and he lived three times longer than most wild wolves do.

“Romeo was the single most transformative event of my life,” Jans said. “The amazing thing was Romeo’s understanding. It wasn’t just our understanding and tolerance. It was the combination of his and ours and the dogs’. We were these three species working out how to get along harmoniously. And we did.”

What happened to Romeo?                                                                                                   Romeo disappeared in late September 2009. After some sleuthing, a supporter found he had been shot and killed by Juneau resident Park Myers III and his Pennsylvanian friend Jeff Peacock. Both men were arrested and ended up paying fines, serving a few years on probation, and losing hunting and fishing privileges for a limited time. In late November 2010, a memorial service was held for Romeo and this plaque was laid along a path where he once roamed.

“Nothing can take away the miracle that was Romeo and the years we spent in his company,” writes Jans. “Love, not hate, is the burden we carry.”

Nick Jans’ beautiful account of his unusual relationship is now in a book called A Wolf Called Romeo.

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A Tragic Wolf Called ‘Romeo’ Loved Too Much, And He Deserved Better.

On a twilit night in Juneau, Alaska, in December 2003, and Nick and Sherrie Jans were walking with Dakotah, their yellow Lab, in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area not far from their house. Suddenly, a young black wolf appeared on the ice—and began running in their direction. Awestruck but scared, the couple watched as Dakotah broke loose and charged the predator, which was twice the size of the dog. The animals stopped yards apart and gazed at each other “as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face and trying to remember,” recalled Jans. After a few moments, Dakotah ran back to her owners, and the three hurried home, listening to the wolf howl

The locals named him Romeo, and soon his presence was noted by the entire town. Most found it fascinating that Romeo was so friendly, while others assumed that this naturally predatory animal would give into his natural instincts at any moment, potentially attacking their pets and children.

During this time Nick Jans started documenting Romeo. When he did, he uncovered an emotional story, the heart of which describes the tenuous relationships between wild animals and the humans around them.

“The first thing I saw was tracks out on the lake in front of our house on the outskirts of Juneau,” Jans said in an interview with National Geographic. “A few days later, I looked out from my house and there was this wolf out on the ice. I’d had 20 years of experience around wolves up in the Arctic and immediately knew it was a wolf, not a dog. I threw on my skis and found him.”

lifebuzz-b0112ad59033e68b137766a1f4bd21fb-limit_2000
ROMEO

According to Jans, Romeo seemed totally relaxed and friendly.

lifebuzz-8a7a4b896aca36347a53911001df32a2-limit_2000

And it wasn’t just one interaction, either: Romeo remained his curious, friendly self for the better part of six years.

lifebuzz-79d7c399e4ca7f8254c59b3f38b9f361-limit_2000

“For want of a better word,” Jans said, “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.”

lifebuzz-4c37ad0be54e52a7f107014cc3a29aa7-limit_2000

Romeo’s behavior was definitely unusual, as many wolves tend to assert dominance by attacking dogs and other animals.

The wolf got his name because Jans and his family noticed how Romeo was kind of a flirt — particularly with their “Juliet,” a dog named Dakotah. Here, they’re standing nose-to-nose in what seems to be an all-too-perfect photo moment.

lifebuzz-58ac1a0bf3848e6b7025ad6bdb8fb768-limit_2000

Romeo survived for years despite many mortal threats: scented traps, busy roads, illegal hunting, and even a poisoning attempt. He also had to contend with the natural dangers of starvation, injury, and attack by another pack of wolves. By almost any standard, his prolonged proximity to humans and dogs constituted incredibly rare behaviour. There was no obvious survival benefit to his socializing, yet the wolf lingered persistently, a late echo of the original process that must have initiated the domestication of dogs.

lifebuzz-dff2dc99743c4309765d387d075f0a06-limit_2000

“When you get down to the genetic difference between a wolf and a domestic dog, whether it is a Chihuahua or a Great Dane, all dogs are 99.98 percent genetically a wolf. That 0.02 percent obviously looms huge, because if you raise a wolf cub from the time it opens its eyes, it may make a wonderfully bonded animal, but it will not be a dog, no matter what you do. It will act like a wolf and be a wolf. It takes generations to shape the soul of a wolf and its physical shape into man’s best friend.”

lifebuzz-d4d7d7759312ba2472282a6da9858fc5-limit_2000

Romeo stayed in the area for as long as he lived — and he lived three times longer than most wild wolves do.

05-a-wolf-called-romeo-close-up-fsl

“Romeo was the single most transformative event of my life,” Jans said. “The amazing thing was Romeo’s understanding. It wasn’t just our understanding and tolerance. It was the combination of his and ours and the dogs’. We were these three species working out how to get along harmoniously. And we did.”

lifebuzz-b37ac6ad0826d2d19bdd19a77ad10a23-limit_2000

What happened to Romeo?                                                                                                   Romeo disappeared in late September 2009. After some sleuthing, a supporter found he had been shot and killed by Juneau resident Park Myers III and his Pennsylvanian friend Jeff Peacock. Both men were arrested and ended up paying fines, serving a few years on probation, and losing hunting and fishing privileges for a limited time. In late November 2010, a memorial service was held for Romeo and this plaque was laid along a path where he once roamed.

02-a-wolf-called-romeo-plaque-fsl

“Nothing can take away the miracle that was Romeo and the years we spent in his company,” writes Jans. “Love, not hate, is the burden we carry.”

Nick Jans’ beautiful account of his unusual relationship is now in a book called A Wolf Called Romeo.

Please SHARE to let others read this beautiful but tragic story. You can also SUBSCRIBE to receive news and updates straight to your inbox.