JUNEAU, Alaska - Funerals aren't only for humans. A special memorial service for the wolf known locally as Romeo is at 1 p.m. Saturday at the West Glacier Trail near the raft launch.
"This is a chance for people to gather in one place to remember Romeo together," said Nick Jans, a writer and photographer who knew the wolf well after first spotting him in his own yard eight years ago.
"There hasn't been an opportunity to reflect on him together like this," he said.
Those running the service agree this is a good time to share their experiences with the animal. They say it will be an informal event to pay tribute, to share personal memories of the wolf and condolences.
Jans said the service will not have long speeches. He said it's simply a time for those who cared about the wolf to reflect and share stories.
Filmmaker Joel Bennett plans to play some original recordings he made of Romeo's howls.
Harry Robinson, president of the Friends of Romeo group, said the location of the service is a tribute to the place where many people came to see Romeo. He expects the service to last around an hour, weather permitting.
Jans said a funeral is appropriate for an animal that was so familiar to people. Robinson agreed, and said it was amazing to notice how many people went to the Mendenhall Valley and Mendenhall Glacier areas to try to catch a glimpse of the wolf they'd heard so much about. He said families would take trips to see Romeo and follow him with their dogs.
Romeo was a surprisingly personable wolf who allowed people to get close, a surprise characteristic for visitors when they first saw him, Robinson said.
"It's amazing how many people didn't know he was a wolf," he said.
Robinson said Romeo has built quite a fan base. He said Romeo has been featured on the front page of a Tokyo newspaper and has a fan group in Sweden.
Bennet said there's nothing political about the event and no hidden agendas.
"It's nothing formal, no purpose other than to recognize the unique nature of an animal that seemed to want to go some distance toward communicating with people in a way that most wolves don't," he said.
Jans said there was concern because there was some uncertainty surrounding the animal's disappearance. He said he feels assured once the hide was brought out during Park Myers' trial, any doubts were laid to rest. He said that patterns on the hide were distinctive of Romeo, leaving no doubt to which animal was shot.
"The consensus was 100 percent from all of us," he said. "Everybody believes it was him."
Myers pleaded guilty to unlawfully taking big game by using a rim fire cartridge to take a wolf and unlawful possession of that wolf after a Sept. 22, 2009 incident. Romeo stopped appearing at his usual locations around that time. On Nov. 3, Myers received a suspended 330-day jail sentence and must pay $6,100 in fines and restitution for that incident and another guilty plea involving illegal bear hunting.
Jans said the time is right for a service, as everyone wanted to wait until after Myers' sentencing.
He said that for Romeo's fans, the sentencing itself felt more like a wake than a court proceeding.
Saturday's service may not mark the end of Romeo's tribute. Robinson said people are looking into possibilities of a plaque or a more elaborate service in the future.
"This is not an opportunity for closure because I don't believe there can be closure for something like this," said Jans.
Bennett said there have been other efforts here to recognize special situation animals locally.
"Juneau has a history of being kinder to its local animals than a lot of places," he said.