JUNEAU - On a September day like any other, Juneau resident Harry Robinson and his dog, Brittain, left home to meet a friend for their morning stroll. But the friend, usually so dependable, never showed.
The trio-minus-one made the customary rounds, searching for signs of the third, who was nowhere to be found.
The missing friend was called Romeo. Though he may have never been aware of it, his name appeared in headlines around the world. Animal lovers everywhere wanted to hear about Juneau's resident black wolf, a creature that seemed to bridge the gap between humanity and the wild animal kingdom. He attracted crowds to his regular hangout near the Mendenhall Glacier for years until his unexplainable disappearance last September.
Juneau resident Nick Jans, an avid naturalist and wildlife photographer, shared an abundance of experiences with Romeo over the years since they met. He last encountered Romeo a little over a year ago. It was spring but a thick layer of ice still covered Mendenhall Lake, the same location Jans first encountered the creature. But on that crisp April day, Jans gave little thought to the possibility that the encounter might be their last.
"He came over and kind of said 'hi,' we said 'hi,' and that was it," Jans recalled.
That final encounter was much like their first, which took place about seven years prior, also on the ice. Jans had spotted wolf tracks while skiing one day and later encountered their owner, then a nameless two-year-old black wolf who was acting "goofy, gangly and clumsy like a teenager."
The wolf took a liking to Jans' dogs and quickly became a regular playmate.
"He developed a huge crush on our female lab, Dakotah, and that's how he got his name," Jans said. "He would hang around our back door and sometimes be waiting in our yard. My wife Sherrie said, 'There's that Romeo wolf again.' The name stuck."
Dakotah wasn't the only canine to develop a kinship with Romeo. Many dog owners came to the Mendenhall Glacier area hoping for a wolf encounter.
Brittain, Robinson's husky-lab mix, hit it off with Romeo from the day they met.
"He was very friendly," Robinson said, remembering the meeting. "They were touching noses and tails were wagging."
Romeo was rarely seen with others of his kind, a rarity considering the pack nature of wolves. That instinct led him to pursue friendships with other dogs, Robinson said.
"He was very protective of my dog," Robinson said. "We became essentially his pack mates."
Not everyone viewed the wolf's residency as a community asset. Romeo's presence and interaction with the community's canines was becoming a controversy. The wolf was targeted as a suspect in a few cases of pet disappearances, though there was not enough evidence to convict him.
The group Friends of Romeo was initiated in 2006 by a handful of concerned individuals, including Robinson. Robinson attributed the group's formation as an effort to represent Romeo "because he couldn't talk for himself." Its members gathered evidence to negate claims that he may have been involved in dog disappearances and argued against relocating him, a proposal that had been discussed.
After Romeo's disappearance last fall, the Friends took on the role of searching for signs of him. A sizable amount of reward money was pledged by Friends and other concerned citizens around the country soliciting for information on "missing" posters that were hung on bulletin boards around town.
Dedicated sleuthing by this group of concerned locals led to the investigation that resulted in the arrest of two hunters, Park Myers of Juneau and Jeff Peacock of Lebanon, Penn., on May 21. The two were charged with a number of hunting violations, including an illegal wolf kill that took place last September.
Evidence that the wolf killed was Romeo hasn't been officially confirmed, but Robinson said he is "99.9 percent sure" that the hunters' bullet is responsible for his friend's disappearance.
"In all the years I've known him, I never once felt remotely threatened in any fashion whatsoever," Robinson said. "He was a friend and loyal companion for many years. He was everything you would want in a human friend in an animal."
"The extent of bonding that went on between Romeo and Harry was remarkable," Jans said. "It was real - a phenomenal story."
Neither Jans or Robinson ever attempted physical contact with Romeo, though they both had many opportunities.
"As far as I know, if anybody could have pet him it probably would have been me, and I've never pet him," Robinson said. "There was no real reason to do that, and there were lots of reasons not to."
Jans described his relationship with Romeo as "very super close," but after the first two years he deliberately began to distance himself from the animal.
"He was fetching tennis balls with our dogs," Jans said. "And he had a high degree of recognition for people. But we realized that we were part of a problem and we didn't want to contribute to it, so we backed off."
Romeo was never reported as showing aggression toward a person, though a 2007 incident with a pug raised some concern amongst community members. Jans witnessed Romeo take the pug in his mouth and begin to run off with it, but he described the wolf's behavior as more playful than aggressive.
"Harry shouted 'no,' and Romeo dropped the pug," Jans recalled. "The wolf could have easily killed that pug in one bite. He was tolerant of (lousy) behavior by people and (lousy) behavior by dogs."
Jans aptly described Romeo's disappearance as a "Shakespearean tragedy" that led to a tragic finale. But the fact that he wasn't hunted earlier in his life sets him apart from other wolves, Jans said. This wolf was allowed to express his tolerance to people without being seen as a threat, and in turn Juneau got a chance to know him.
"I never expected that I'd end up having this incredible, ongoing wildlife encounter," Jans said. "In all my wildlife encounters, which have been many over 30 years, ... this animal is the most singular that I've ever met. But I don't feel like anything that happened to me was unique. There were hundreds and thousands who have their own Romeo stories."
"There will never be another wolf like him here, never ever," Robinson said.
A service is in the process of being planned to be held in Romeo's memory. For more information, contact the Friends of Romeo group by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Libby Sterling may be reached at email@example.com.
Wolf Song of Alaska
P.O. Box 770950
Eagle River AK 99577-0950
Phone: (907) 622-9653
Fax: (907) 622-9654
Web Site: http://www.wolfsongalaska.org
'The Alaska Wolf Cache'
New Memberships: http://www.wolfsongalaska.org/ad_membership.htm
Renew Memberships: http://www.wolfsongalaska.org/ad_membership_renew.htm
Wolf Adoptions: http://www.wolfsongalaska.org/adopt_wolf.html
Gift Wolf Adoptions: http://www.wolfsongalaska.org/giftadopt_wolf.html