PUBLISHED: 4:45 PM on Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Behavior modification called for wolves, people
Perhaps Juneauites can be forgiven for failing to understand how to behave around wild wolves. Antique children's stories depict Canis lupus as a large-toothed villain, but more recently the media has glamorized wolves, turned them into celebrities, and symbols of a fast-disappearing wilderness. For some here in the capital city, wolf -human encounters have taken on a mythic quality and represent a glorious, but effervescent moment with the sharp edge of Alaska's frontier.

Local wildlife officials are calling for an image makeover. Wolves are wild, they point out, and say they need to be treated with respect and distance. They're particularly concerned about Juneauites who are treating a lone wolf called Romeo like a pet.

Their concerns are shared by the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. The non-profit organization focuses on advancing the survival of wolf populations through education. In the "Fear of Wolves, a Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans" published by the center, authors look at 400 years of wolf attacks worldwide and find that although rare, they result from four factors: rabies, habituation, provocation or a highly modified environment. Authors point out that habituation is a growing, but manageable problem.

They write that people should never feed wolves and they should never get too close to the wild animals.

"If a wolf approaches, try to scare it off by making loud noises," they write. The authors also observe that human- wolf encounters consistently have worse consequences for wolves than for humans.

Biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have started using pyrotechnics-essentially a loud bang-to try to scare Romeo, but they say that some locals also need to change their behavior. U.S. Forest Service wildlife officers have increased their presence around Mendenhall Lake following concerns about people use treat it as a place for their pets to romp with Romeo.

Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin says officers haven't started issuing citations but have been warning people to keep their dogs away from the wolf. The wild animal also has sparked a debate among Juneau residents about how to keep wildlife wild.

It's a Sunday afternoon in February below a cobalt blue sky.

From Skater's Cabin, the frozen Mendenhall Lake looks like a winter playground with a majestic glacier for a backdrop.

Skaters, skiers, photographers and at least 60 dogs frolic in the sunlight. It's no wonder that Romeo regularly comes out to tussle.

Dogs run free, unencumbered by leashes, and that concerns Chris Foley who is walking back to his car after skiing across the lake where he saw the wolf.

"I think he's a tragedy waiting to happen. He's going to become so habituated to people thinking he's a pet that at some point his natural instincts are going to take over and people are going to be upset about the consequences. I just saw a guy with his black lab. He walked right up to the wolf so the dog could play with it and he could take pictures," Foley said.

There are facts about Romeo surrounded by urban lore. Romeo supposedly earned his nickname for his love of dogs, and there are stories of people who bring him food.

Forest Service officials first saw a wolf fitting Romeo's description in winter, 2004. Even then biologists were worried about Romeo's friendliness and warned people not to get too close. A year later a dog owner accused Romeo of killing his pet. The dog owner asked that the wolf be killed or moved. Neither suggestion was taken.

Alaska Fish and Game biologist Neil Barton has been studying Romeo since then. He said there are other wolves around Juneau, but this one is unique.

"It is not only is comfortable around people, dwellings and dogs, but it almost thrives with the attention," he said.

The wolf captured a pug in a striking photo that appeared last month in the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Daily News. The wolf released the pug, unharmed.

With the photo came heated arguments about what to do with Romeo. A blog site on the Juneau Empire captured the contrasting views. HappyTrees wrote: "Sweet god!!!!!! Don't harm a hair on that little wolfs body!!!!! I love him so much!!!!! Shame on you violent humans who wish to do harm to my friend..."

Blogger Akguide responded: "Transplant Romeo to an area that is open to hunting so my non-resident clients can come up and blast him during one of my guided wildlife experiences for a $30 wolf tag."

Two young children walking a dog around a Montana Creek neighborhood just after the provocative photo appeared and agreed they would never let their dog play with a wolf.

They like the idea that a wolf lives nearby, but said people should keep their distance from wild animals.

"If it saw us and came towards us that would be kind of scary, but if we just saw it from far away, that would be kind of cool," said eight-year-old Gabe.