The last time Cheryl Alexander saw the wolf Takaya, his limp body was being carried away from a backyard in Victoria’s high-density neighbourhood of James Bay.
Ms. Alexander is a conservation photographer and environmental consultant who made a study of Takaya’s life on a small archipelago within sight of the city lights for six years. Then, in late January, the aging wolf unexpectedly made his way into town. His urban expedition ended with a tranquilizer dart, and he was relocated to an unfamiliar territory far from his home. His last confirmed sighting was walking slowly down a gravel road. The end of his story is unknown.
His life, just on the edge of the urban environment, offered a rare glimpse into something wild. But our coexistence with these apex predators is uneasy and complex.
Wolves’ domesticated descendants have been invited into homes as beloved companions, but in the wild, they’ve been hunted to extinction in many parts of North America. The coastal wolves of Vancouver Island were wiped out through government-sponsored campaigns of hunting, trapping and poisoning.
Since the 1980s, however, wolves have made their way from the mainland to repopulate the island’s forests and coastlines. Wildlife researchers say it is unlikely that their numbers have fully recovered, as most of Vancouver Island’s old growth forests are gone, reducing the numbers of the small black-tailed deer that are an important source of food. But the number of wolves is deemed strong enough that hunting them is allowed most of the year, says B.C.'s conservation office.
There are packs of wolves living on the outskirts of Victoria now, and a lone female wolf travelled last summer throughout the suburbs with little notice. But Takaya crossed an invisible boundary when he entered the city core in January. The actual threat he posed was, experts maintain, minimal. But he was nonetheless deemed to be a potential public safety risk: A scary, wild thing in the city.
Takaya’s story, told through Ms. Alexander’s work, has given him celebrity status. He’s featured in a CBC documentary that has played internationally, and her home is filled with artwork and letters from people who wanted to share their sense of connection. Ms. Alexander had just finished a draft of a book on his life when she received a text message asking, “Is your wolf in James Bay?”
He was. How or why he left the islands is unclear, but Ms. Alexander was present when he was cornered and captured. She begged for a chance to see him – in all her years of tracking him, she had never touched him. But she was kept back with the other onlookers. Conservation officers wouldn’t say where they relocated Takaya, but since he was moved, Ms. Alexander has scoured the coast, looking for any sign that he is still alive.
“I feel sad. It’s not the end I had wished for him,” she said, sitting in the back of an open boat one day in early February, travelling to the Discovery and Chatham islands where Takaya spent most of his life. She was returning from a futile search along the west coast of Vancouver Island, past suburban communities where wolf packs have re-established territory, hoping he might be drawn to the shoreline where he is adept at hunting marine mammals.
First spotted in 2012
It’s not clear where Takaya came from, but he was first spotted on Discovery Island in the spring of 2012, perhaps dispersing from a pack as a young male, looking for his own turf to rule. That means he is likely at least 10 years old – a venerable old wolf, well past the average life expectancy for his kind.
Wolves are pack animals with large territories, they can have a range of 1,000 square kilometres. Takaya was the sole predator on about two square kilometres of land – but with access to plenty of shoreline where harbour seals nurse their pups.
B.C.'s coastal wolves are a subgroup of the grey wolves of North America. On Vancouver Island, they can pick off seals from the rocky outcroppings on the shoreline, or pluck salmon from the rivers, but mostly they hunt the island’s abundant black-tailed deer in dense forests.
The islands where Takaya lived are not typical wolf habitat. They are covered with Garry oak, arbutus and Douglas fir, but distinctly lacking in deer. Instead, he looked to the tidal lagoons and rocky shoreline where he specialized in catching harbour seals, but also river otters, and fish. Ms. Alexander would sometimes find the remains of seal pups, their skins turned inside out. Takaya would bite their heads off and then, somehow, flip the bodies inside out, like a glove, leaving the skin and fur perfectly intact.
She first spotted Takaya in 2014, while having a picnic with her husband on Discovery Island. She began documenting him out of curiosity and wonder. But in 2016, an incident occurred: Visitors had brought their dog to the island, and they spotted Takaya. A panic ensued, the Coast Guard was called in to rescue the family and their dog from the perceived peril. The Songhees Nation intervened to keep the wolf from being trapped and Ms. Alexander decided it was time to go public with his story, to keep him safe.
Now islands feel empty
Returning to Discovery Island, Ms. Alexander was mournful, knowing he is gone. “For me it’s so poignant, all these times I have seen him on the bluff there, it was a favourite, he liked to lie in the sun." He seemed curious about her and would approach her, but she never felt threatened.
"He sometimes came close to me, but it was his choice.”
She recalled one of her last encounters with him out here. He was on the bluffs, and as she passed by on her boat she called out a farewell. "He started running after me along the shore. I thought he was going to jump into my boat.” She remained offshore, watching him, until dark.
Now, the islands feel empty, she said. "There’s a vitality that’s gone.”
She wanted conservation services to return him to these islands. She doesn’t know why he left – perhaps he got caught in a strong current in the recent winter storms, maybe it was just a seniors’ moment.
“I think the compassionate thing would have been to bring him back here."
Sergeant Scott Norris, of the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, said that wasn’t an option. “That wolf was likely trying to get off that island,” he said. Takaya’s survival chances are unknown, he said, adding that he is likely coming to the end of his life, given his age.
The policies for managing wildlife in urban areas are unclear. Sgt. Norris would prefer to let an animal find its own way out, but when it becomes a public concern, the pressure is on for action. “Any time a large predator comes into an urban area, people are concerned about being attacked,” he said. "We try not to interfere too much, but there is a fear of the unknown.”
Wildlife expert Chris Darimont, Raincoast Research Chair at the University of Victoria, believes Victoria residents were at greater risk of being attacked by one of the city’s many resident black-tailed deer, than by a wolf on the loose.
For thousands of years, wolves co-existed with people on Vancouver Island, and earned a high stature in Indigenous culture, Prof. Darimont noted.
Then European settlers arrived, bringing development and “a different world view of interacting with nature.”
He delights in the chance to study them again on the Island. “As a dad, I love observing their social dynamics. Their societies are comprised of family groups much like ours – a mom and a dad, and one or more generations of offspring,” he said. “If humans give them enough space, they are capable of marvelous and varied behaviours."
But that social structure he has observed, makes him think that Takaya was in fact lonely. “This amazing animal gave us a glimpse into his life, and we don’t know what has become of him. It’s not a fairytale ending, but I believe under his own agency and driven by his hormones, he went on a walkabout.”
This week, Ms. Alexander was alerted to a wolf sighting on Sidney Island, just 20 kilometres north of Discovery Island. She initially had a glimmer of hope that it might by Takaya, but any wolf on the island now faces a new peril: The homeowners on Sidney Island have invited hunters on Saturday to target the non-native fallow deer that were introduced decades ago.
“Hopefully, the wolf will stay out of sight,” Ms. Alexander said. "Most people don’t know what we are losing, we are so removed from nature. There is something we lose as human beings when we destroy these wild creatures.”