The taxidermied black wolf, two to three times bigger than any dog, surveyed the room from his post above the door, looking as regal and lazy as he had in life. Stopping below his perch, I gave him a sad smile in recognition. I had arrived to volunteer at the Discovery Southeast Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Bookstore and, being my first time working retail, I was nervous. As I turned towards the gift shop I inexplicably felt better knowing Romeo, or what’s left of him, was there.
Romeo, as he came to be known, was a lone black wolf that showed up in our town the winter of 2003. Living in Southeast Alaska, it is not uncommon to share our back yard with black bears, but a wolf was rare. Locals know you shouldn’t approach or feed large wild animals. But Romeo began to approach us, or more specifically, our dogs. At first people called their dogs away but Romeo would approach tail wagging and nose sniffing. He just wanted to play. Eventually locals took it in stride. Romeo became an accepted part of our winter community. He ran with humans and dogs before work and in the afternoons played on the frozen lake with dogs while owners skied. There were those that still believed he was a danger, but he never obviously hurt any animals or humans so authorities never had reason to take action. The end came seven years later when a big game hunter from out of town illegally poached the large prize.
Although local, my experience with Romeo was minimal. Once while skiing with my father can I remember him saying, “Look, Romeo!” as he pointed to a black speck in the distance. Having limited understanding of the situation, I have, up until now, maintained the position that nobody should have let their dogs play with the wolf. I also refused to read Nick Jans’ first-hand account, A Wolf Called Romeo, in which I assumed he glorified the wolf. I only picked up the book in a desperate attempt to find an example of writing about one’s own backyard when stuck on a writing class assignment. The book pulled me in. I couldn’t put it down. I felt Jans presented thorough research to support his argument that Romeo had not been human-conditioned. By the end, I was in tears.
Coincidentally, I finished the book just before the taxidermied Romeo was installed inside the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. I attended the exhibit opening to be part of the final chapter of Romeo’s saga from friend, to illegally poached animal, to wildlife display. I was shocked to learn that one of the stipulations for the release of the poached hide is that the display not mention Romeo or his story by name. The Troopers maintain that the wolf must have been human fed and conditioned. So only those of us who knew Romeo in life or have read the book, will understand the significance of the mounted Black Wolf.
It never crossed my mind that this insider knowledge would come in handy.
“Hi! Here’s Square. It’s, uhhh, pretty self explanatory. Thanks for helping!”
The woman in a bookstore logo shirt rushed off. I had been there less than a minute. Nobody had asked if I’d worked a cash register before (I hadn’t) and they barely bothered confirming I was the one who had emailed about volunteering (I had). I cautiously poked at the ipad in front of me. I had volunteered a couple hours of my Saturday to work at the Bookstore and this was my introduction. Left alone, as the tourists queued impatiently with minutes left to catch their busses, I put on a smile, took the first item, and began stabbing at buttons on the screen. Three purchases, and countless hits in the abdomen by the cash drawer surprisingly springing open, I finally got the hang of things.
Tourists passed by with souvenirs and books. Finally a familiar cover landed on the counter. There was that proud, mysterious, king of wolves nose-to-nose with a beautiful yellow Labrador on the cover.
“Oh good choice! I loved this book!” I said to the woman across the counter from me, an elderly lady with long, well manicured nails.
“It’s for my granddaughter. I hope she’ll like it,” she responded.
“Did you see the wolf in the other room?” I asked, pointing in the direction I had come from earlier. “You should take a photo of it so you can tell your granddaughter you saw this wolf.” I tapped the cover.
“Thanks! I will!” This exchange suddenly put me at ease in my temporary position. Having read the book, I could now share “secret” insider knowledge. I’d had a sneaking suspicion Romeo would bring me good luck today.
Plan Your Visit
Visit The Black Wolf (i.e. Romeo) at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Visits are free October-March 10-4pm Friday-Sunday. For more information visit the website here.