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Suggested Reading: 'A Wolf Called Romeo' by Nick Jans

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Romeo challenges us: Rethink divides & relationships

By David Clanaugh

Nick Jans’s A Wolf Called Romeo (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt: 2014) skillfully interweaves a personal and community chronology of the interactions among the people of Juneau, Alaska, their dogs, and the black wolf Romeo. Jans intersperses this chronology with scientific information about wolves (as apex predators that face tough survival challenges), the conflicted social history of human attitudes toward and interactions with wolves (including on-going mythologies), his own personal journey from wolf hunter to wolf advocate, and the stories of folks ranging from Romeo’s best human friend to the two men who killed the wolf and received slaps on their wrists from the Alaskan legal system.

Having observed and participated in wolf politics in our region for many years (including a “close encounter” with two wolf pups in Voyageurs National Park), I think the book offers many occasions for reflection about our struggles in the Upper Lakes Region as we seek a more fruitful way forward.

Romeo first appeared in December 2003 on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska’s green-leaning and relatively progressive capital of 30,000. For nearly six years the wolf interacted with many of the community’s residents and played with their dogs until he was shot and skinned in September 2009.

The interactions sparked much conversation and disagreement about the proper place for a wolf in the community. Many residents were hostile toward Romeo with an attitude of “the only good wolf is a dead wolf.” Had Romeo been living in another area of Alaska with fewer witnesses advocating on his behalf, he would have had a much shorter life. The same could be said for a wolf like Romeo in much of the UP and the Upper Lakes Region.

In the Juneau context Romeo’s presence provoked people to explore the appropriateness of naming a predator that many humans consider a competitor, threat, and mere thing. Acknowledging the individuality and agency of a non-human creature levels the relational and moral playing field, nudging the human from a position of privilege and mastery. It is easier and more convenient to consider the Other to be an It instead of what Martin Buber would call a Thou – yet, does choosing ease and convenience mask  and distort deeper realities?

Invoking the name Romeo helped many people recognize his intelligence, adaptability, reasoning, and ability to constructively evolve during interactions with humans and dogs. Romeo developed a particularly close relationship with “wolf whisperer” Harry Robinson and Harry’s dog, Brittain. Harry believed that a companionate friendship marked by loyalty, trust, and mutual care had developed; poignantly, Harry dreamed about Romeo’s tragic death as it was coming to pass. Jans’s account of these interactions pushes us toward greater openness when it comes to non-human creatures.

The book also explores the cultural divides among humans as they are played out by our responses to apex predators. Romeo’s Juneau sojourns elicited displaced human misunderstanding, resentment, anger, and disrespect – in a sense, he served as an easy distraction for folks unwilling to work on bridging divides among themselves.

Perhaps, if humans did a better job of bridging divides among ourselves, we would have less need for scapegoats beyond and within the fragile membrane separating us from other creatures. If we banished the “wolf” of hunger and economic insecurity from human doorsteps in an environmentally responsible manner, might we be better equipped to end our war against other species? We often talk about the need for healing and peace during the Holiday Season; does Romeo’s story urge us to act in more concerted and coordinated manner for justice within and among the species?

Jans’s book, during its autobiographical moments, offers a lot of honesty and vulnerability which heightens its credibility. Jans cross-examines himself and other wolf advocates as much as the “bad folks” who had no stock for Romeo and wished him dead. And Jans provides details about the villains of the story that point to their brokenness and invite empathy: socialization in violence, involvement with drugs, abuse of others, other problems with the law, and a craving to be noticed. A sense of common humanity erodes the polarizations that had contributed to Romeo’s death.

There is an exploration of shifting and conflicting masculinity at play from when Jans as a young man hunted and trapped wolves with a degree of bravado, to the influence of his life partner, Sherrie, who advocated for animal rights, to the book’s poignant ending in loss, grief, and sorrow. I found myself longing to nurture the broken and incomplete solidarity among the folks who cared and then mourned for Romeo. These different and, at times, conflicting and even passive-aggressive ways of caring provided space for folks full of hatred to act out their hurt toward Romeo and those who loved him.

What I found particularly useful is how Jans prods us to examine the motives and types of self-interest behind our attitudes and actions toward the non-human world. Was the “wolf whisperer,” for example, engaged in a type of romanticism and projection that some folks took to extremes through various New Age outlooks?  Was professional photographer John Hyde more invested in capturing commercially lucrative photos than in respecting and protecting Romeo?  Was Jans himself overly interested in getting the story and having it published?  Jans’s plaintive question is one we should adapt to the situation at hand and ask ourselves as an antidote for self-righteousness: “If we, the three people who knew Romeo best, couldn’t unite in his best interests, who could or would?”

Yet, this book moves beyond recrimination through much nuance and complexity, including a deep respect for Romeo as a sentient creature capable of choices, adaptations, and agency. Romeo thus provides a type of absolution for humans who think they are totally in charge within this world. We may wrestle with the balance between purity of intention and crass self-serving behavior as well as selfless caring and self-absorbed jealousy, yet this wrestling is likely endemic to being alive, embodied, mortal, and fallible — a reminder of limits to our power. Ultimately agency extends far beyond the human realm and will continue in an evolving world, even if we humans perish by flaunting and abusing our agency.

In pointing to how we must take greater responsibility for passing the buck to systems that neither care nor grieve, the book’s conclusion challenges us to confront how we have overly delegated power to the state and other systems when it comes to resolving conflicts and meting out justice. The perpetrators of Romeo’s death may have had their days in court, but the tepid verdicts and sentences didn’t do justice to the violations of both creature and community. What the community discovered through a lukewarm prosecution, cunning defense, and hands-off judge was that “the wolf belonged to the state [and] . . . its law-abiding citizens were nonentities . . . [The state had] provided justice to neither wolf, nor dead bears, nor us – just to itself on its own terms. The system had taken care of itself; it was up to us to do the same.”

Too many of us dealing with complex financial, legal, and political systems know the hollowness of functionaries going through the motions, saying they want to do the right thing, and then deflecting accountability as they take the easy road that serves their narrow self-interests. Too many of us also know what it is like to have people whom we trust and take at face value defer to a flawed or downright broken system after they have calculated how to take as much as they can from a situation and postured to get off the hook, then telling us to get over it and be at peace when the system provides an unjust windfall. Such interactions reinforce a culture of violence.

I think Jans’s story points us, as environmentalists, to our greater task of saying “no” to the shortcut of working deeply flawed systems in ways that may yield short-term victories, but result in accruing long-term injustices. This is hard because we increasingly feel a sense of vulnerability, urgency, and even desperation. Doing this will require the relational work that Jans identifies when he addresses the lack of engagement, connection, and bigger picture advocacy among himself and other core Romeo supporters – not to mention those who bore ill will or indifference toward this majestic and giving creature. And finally, it will require taking seriously the Romeos of the world beyond ourselves who retain agency and may be more our allies than we ever realized.

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