Loving Takaya – the Wild Sea Wolf
The stunning journey of a lone animal hero
When a lone wolf is spotted prowling a small uninhabited archipelago off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia, photographer Cheryl Alexander goes in for a closer look. What follows is a remarkable seven-year relationship that pushed boundaries as Canada’s “most famous wolf” takes on the odds
Takaya means wolf in the language
of the Indigenous Coast Salish people
and respectful one in Japanese.
Takaya is the name I gave to a lone wild sea wolf who lived for years on the shores of the Salish Sea. He’s a wolf that I fell in love with. And so might you, once you hear his story. It’s full of drama, survival, inspiration, resilience, strangeness… and yes, darkness and tragedy.
Mainly though, it’s a heroic story. I have been lucky enough to have witnessed the life of this wolf and have shared his story worldwide. His story changed me – as it may you. And I hope it changes things for all wild wolves.
Takaya’s gone now, but his howl still lingers in the island air and has crossed seas to echo in distant lands.
Who the heck was Takaya?
Takaya was a wild, west coast sea wolf, just living his wild life – alone. Pretty much beneath the radar, as most wolves do.
Then I encountered him, and fell in love with him and his life story. We had a mysterious connection from the first moment we looked into each other’s eyes. Over time, I got to know him, he trusted me. I spent six years witnessing his life. Through my photos, film and books, I have been able to open a window into the life of a lone, wild wolf.
Most people will never even see a wild wolf,
let alone get to know one.
At first, when I began to get to know Takaya, I knew virtually nothing about wolves. I knew lots about ecology, environment, other wild animals – like whales and sea creatures – but wolves, not so much. I had taught environmental studies at university, but wolves weren’t a part of the curriculum. I had spent much of my life in wild places but I had never seen or heard a wolf. I think that this is likely true for most people in the world, unless you’ve been to Yellowstone Park! This is why we need stories about wolves that bring them into our human reality – now, more than ever, when we are so divorced from the natural world upon which we all depend.
And so I began to learn. I read virtually every wolf book that exists – cultural history articles, Indigenous knowledge texts, biology and life cycle books, fiction and real-life books. One of the most significant things that I began to uncover was our human relationship with wolves.
A conflicted reality: is that granny a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Did you know that wolves and humans – two intelligent, social carnivores – have a long history of coevolution? Indigenous knowledge and evolutionary biology research indicate that our lives have long been intertwined with the wolf – we likely worked together and learned from each other, sharing hunting and survival skills. Many now believe that the wolf may have played a large role in early hominid development. Our relationship likely involved cooperation and mutualism rather than competition and violence. We may have even learned hunting strategies from the wolf. And some wolves evolved to become our domesticated companions – dogs, our best friends.
Yet somehow, we seem to have forgotten our early relationship with the wolf.
In recent human history our relationship with the wolf became conflicted. We began to perceive wolves as evil. To this day, the same attitudes that drove wolves to the brink of extinction more than a century ago still exist. Fear and misinformation perpetuate the killing and vilification of wolves, and influence the development of unscientific and unethical wildlife management policies. It is not that we lack scientific, concrete evidence about the valuable role of the wolf as apex predator in our ecosystems, it is that we have not come to really KNOW the wolf as a sentient being, worthy of our respect. Worthy of focused coexistence.
As Barry Lopez says in his book, Of Wolves and Men: ‘We killed hundreds of thousands of wolves. Sometimes with cause, sometimes with none. In the end, I think we are going to have to go back and look at the stories we made up when we had no reason to kill, and find some way to look the animal in the face again.”
When I was face to face with Takaya, I remembered, at a cellular level, our deep and mysterious relationship with the wolf.
The Power of One
Just like us, most wolves will live and die in obscurity. And just like us humans, only a few will rise out of the mass and be remembered for their lives and legacies.
We need to know the stories of individual wolves, sentient beings much like us, in order to develop a real empathy for this wild creature. Each wild wolf has a life story. Their stories often mirror our own individual struggles to survive and thrive. However, rarely will we know what these stories are. Their lives take place out of our sight and our comprehension. Wolves are illusive and almost impossible to observe in the deep way necessary to get to know individuals. And we are much more likely to protect and conserve if we can relate to an individual wolf and not just think of wolves as a ‘population’.
Only a handful of people have succeeded in seeing through the veil of wilderness to get to know an individual wolf.
Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton was perhaps the first person to really introduce us to a wolf with a personal story. In 1894 he wrote Lobo’s story and sold it to a magazine. David L. Witt writes in his book, Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist:
“Lobo was an animal hero appearing in what may have been the first environmentalist literature, changing the way Americans looked at wildlife. At least some part of this change in perspective comes out of the process of naming. Nameless things can be killed with impunity, while a named character can receive our empathy.”
Rick McIntyre, a wolf advocate from Yellowstone, gave us a wolf trilogy about three individual wolves (Wolf 8, 21 & 302). Another Yellowstone wolf was O6 – one of the most revered and widely known wolves to date. When she was shot by a trophy hunter, distressed cries were heard around the world.
Another wolf, Romeo, became a legend after Nick Jans told the story A Wolf Called Romeo, of an exceptional wolf who won the hearts of dogs and people living in Juno Alaska.
Wildlife conservation photographer, John Marriott, through intensive research projects, has given us an unparalleled window into the lives of individual wolves living in two Canadian packs – the Pipestone wolves and the Kootenay wolves.
Through the technology of collaring for research we have also come to know stories of individual wolves who make exceptional journeys as they disperse. OR 7 (aka Journey) has become a legend for his long trek to find new territory and a mate, travelling from the northeastern corner of Oregon as far south as California, before eventually settling in southern Oregon and raising a family.
And, of course, some researchers will have gotten to know individual wolves. Stories of these are told in the book, Wild Wolves We Have Known.
Each of these individual wolves have ignited our imagination and fueled a long-lost connection with the wild in each of us. Their stories have also inspired us to fight for their protection and to make room for the wild wolves in a planet experiencing the Anthropocene age. If we lose wolves from the landscape, we lose a part of ourselves.
If we lose wolves from the landscape, we lose a part of ourselves.
Takaya was an unusual wolf in many respects. He was a member of a unique population of wolves live along the west coast of British Columbia, in the Great Bear Rainforest, and on Vancouver Island. These wolves are called coastal or sea wolves. They inhabit the areas west of BC’s Coast Mountain Range and are genetically distinct from the inland grey wolves. Sea wolves swim easily between islands and depend upon the sea for a substantial amount of their sustenance.
Most sea wolves live in remote, wilderness locations and remain unseen by humans. So why did Takaya choose to live on a small island archipelago just off the coast of Victoria, BC, Canada –uninhabited but only a stone’s throw from a city of nearly half a million people? This was an extremely rare event.
Takaya had chosen an unusually tiny territory (1.9 sq kms) for a wolf. Local authorities said he couldn’t survive. No deer or other land mammals to hunt. No year-round source of fresh water. No other wolves nearby. Experts said that he would be a danger, as he was so close to the city. Conservation Officers tried to trap him, and failed twice. They debated shooting him. Eventually, they decided to leave him alone and see what would happen. They expected him to leave.
Except, he didn’t. Takaya learned how to thrive in his islands.
He adapted to the resources available to him in his chosen island territory, lived almost exclusively on marine mammals – primarily seals and a few river otters. Toss in a few goose eggs and he had his meals.
For eight years Takaya lived peacefully alongside his human neighbours. He could look out from his lands and see houses, cars and boats passing by. And he could hear the city noises… sirens, construction, traffic, music and dogs barking.
With his excellent sense of smell he would have also been familiar with the scents of the human world that wafted across the sea.
Takaya was a pioneering wolf. A wolf pushing the boundaries of what is considered to be a wolf’s normal ecological niche.
Peter Steinhart, in his book The Company of Wolves, describes these wolves as “gamblers on the future of the species, like humans who go off to cross unknown seas or explore remote frontiers; they are, in an evolutionary sense, probes sent off to establish wolf genes on new ground”.
One of the most unusual and poignant aspects of his life in the islands was that for eight years he lived alone and remained without a mate. Wolves are very social, family animals and so his solitary existence was highly unusual. His lonely howls were often heard by people in the nearby city areas when the wind and seas were still. It seemed, that for eight years, this lone wolf still hoped for a female to join him. And one young wolf almost did during his last year on the islands – but that’s another story!
His strange situation captured my curiosity, and soon, my heart. I admired his ability to creatively adapt – to survive. I spent six years filming and documenting the intimate details of his daily life.
Through an award-winning documentary film – Takaya: Lone Wolf on The Nature of Things, CBC – a book of the same name and two children’s books, I have shared the story of Takaya. There was something about his presence and bearing, his beauty, independence and elemental wildness, that deeply moved people. And he survived alone – without a mate. He was our connection to the wilderness and to our sense of isolation and aloneness – especially during the pandemic years.
He was our connection to the wilderness and to our sense of isolation and aloneness – especially during the pandemic years.
Doug Paton is a Victoria resident who encountered Takaya: “I had hard stuff going on in my life when I saw Takaya, and he gave me courage to carry on, to make different choices. I started doing things differently. I don’t know how he did it, what it was about him, how it changed me. I’m forever appreciative to his spirit or whatever it was that touched me in that moment where he just stood in front of me. It broke through something in me that was selfish and self-centered – like poor me – I saw this lone wolf was getting on with life and thought that if the wolf could survive alone, then so could I. I changed my life.”
The Bad & the Ugly
All good ‘hero’ stories have an elemental struggle, challenges to overcome, and often, something tragic. Takaya’s is no exception.
During the eight years that Takaya lived on the protected lands of his island archipelago he was safe. He was insulated from the dangers that most wolves face trying to live in a wilderness encroached upon by humans. Most wolves will die before they are five to seven-years-old. Inter-pack fighting will kill some, but many die from human causes: wolf culls, trapping, recreational hunting, and car accidents.
Then, in January 2020, for reasons unknown, Takaya left the safe haven of his islands and swam to the city’s shore. He strode through the streets of Victoria for two days and was seen on sidewalks, in parking garages, on patios and even almost entered a Senior’s centre. His time in the city was dramatic – but this is a separate story to tell.
On his second day in the city, he was tranquilized and relocated. He was released onto a logging road in the coastal rainforest, just 85 kilometres from his island home.
His new location did not have the protections of his old territory.
Yet, for two months Takaya thrived in this unfamiliar and challenging place. He survived once-in-a-millennium floods and an accident that resulted in 10 broken ribs. He had adapted to hunting a new kind of prey – seals were in short supply in the coastal rainforest! He’d avoided traplines and hunters in the hills. He had found a way to move safely between the territories of two other local wolf packs. He had made friends with dogs. He was on what is called, the ‘return portion of the mythical hero’s journey’ – heading home after overcoming great odds.
Then tragedy struck.
Takaya experienced the brutal nature of our fractured human relationship with the wolf.
On March 24, 2020, Takaya was two-thirds of the way back towards his home territory when he was shot to death by a trophy hunter. I believe that he was heading home. When shot, Takaya wasn’t being aggressive, just simply curious about the hunter’s dogs. As Takaya stood quietly watching from 15 metres away, the hunter aimed his gun. Takaya was killed for simply being a wolf. His death sparked outrage and deep sorrow among the global community that had gathered around him.
It would be easy to blame this individual hunter for Takaya’s death – and they are not blameless. Evil really does sometimes lurk in the hearts of humans. But, in reality, the blame for the death of Takaya – and thousands of wolves like him – lies with the cultural attitudes and policies that informed the hunter’s choice to pull the trigger. It lies with our fraught relationship with the wild and the animals who live there. It lies with the laws and regulations of our government wildlife managers who consider the life of a wolf as no better than vermin and who encourage hunters to kill wolves. Takaya’s killing was declared legal.
If Takaya’s story ended here, it would be a tragedy of epic proportions.
But it does not.
There is a certain irony in that tragedy and loss has enhanced the good from Takaya’s story.
The young lone wolf who emerged from the sea in 2012 could not have known that he would become a legendary hero whose life and death has inspired love, as well as artistic and political activities around the world. That his life would become an inspiration to people and would be instrumental in the fight to protect other wolves. That he would be the source of many new strands of human connections across cultures, languages and continents.
Takaya has become an iconic wolf, arguably Canada’s most famous wolf. But his story has reached far beyond the borders of Canada.
His story has spread far and wide, resulting in an outpouring of tributes. I have received hundreds of pieces of artwork from 100+ artists in over a dozen countries (England, Scotland, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, Slovenia, Germany, France, Australia, Egypt, Vietnam, as well as many provinces from Canada and various American states), including paintings, creative writing, sculptures, music, films and podcasts.
To date, two International Art Festivals have been held in Victoria with a third planned for this fall. These festivals raise funds to support wolf education and advocacy.
Other creative tributes have included body tattoos, naming of boats and pets and a company and even a guitar, museum exhibits, car art and license plates, felted art, pillows, a tribute beer, tatted rugs, hidden rock, notes in bottles at sea, articles in magazines, calendars, tees and hoodies, educational programs and school units, municipal resolutions, and even a financial planning advice framework.
Huge pieces of public art have also been created to pay tribute to Takaya:
Canadian mural artist Paul Archer painted a stunning mural on the walls of a lighthouse building in Takaya’s islands. It is a popular attraction for passing boaters, tourists and whale watchers.
Ian Lowe, a Coast Salish metal artist, created a steel sculpture of Takaya which is now installed on the island bluffs and gleams with the sun’s rays.
Japanese-Canadian artist Kent Laforme was commissioned by local philanthropists to create a sculpture of Takaya and his marine environment from a 19,000 lb piece of island marble. It will be installed on the shores of Vancouver Island overlooking Takaya’s home in the Salish Sea. Much like the sculpture of the dog Hachiko, a legend in Japan, this memorial is likely to draw people visitors from all over.
Tanya Bub, a driftwood artist, created a large sculpture of Takaya using only driftwood from the beaches upon which he had roamed. It was originally installed in the reception area of the historic Empress Hotel in the Victoria harbour area. When they began renovations, Driftwood Takaya moved to other venues, delighting visitors and children alike.
And perhaps best of all, I continue to receive correspondence on an almost daily basis from people who have been touched by Takaya’s story, describing how it has given them hope, delighted and educated them, and inspired action. How they too have fallen in love with this wolf.
From these outpourings, Takaya’s Legacy Project was established in order to celebrate Takaya, to share his story with a wider community, and to showcase the stunning and diverse collection of tributes that have been created in his honour. This organization will extend Takaya’s legacy by raising funds to support organizations that preserve wild spaces, protect wild creatures, and end the recreational and government-mandated killing of wolves.
Takaya, arguably may have made a greater contribution to the wellbeing of wolves than any other individual animal. Stories like Takaya’s are a powerful way to engage people. Science and research are essential in the area of natural history but stories are what will create real change. Life stories of animals can help us to care for other species, to fight for their right to exist, and to encourage us to protect the natural environments which they need to survive.
Echoes of his howls will be heard for years to come.
What’s so good about this?
There is a power in individual stories. We can learn from one wolf’s wisdom, loneliness and resilience. Renowned chimpanzee-loving scientist and UN Messenger of Peace Jane Goodall urges us to learn from Takaya, who is now, thanks to Cheryl Alexander, the world’s most famous wolf:
The story of Takaya and Cheryl reminds me of my long-ago relationship with chimpanzee David Greybeard. It is only if you observe a complex animal over time, and with an open mind and heart that you can get a true understanding of the sentience of that animal, his or her being-ness. Cheryl exemplifies this approach – she is not afraid to become emotionally involved. And she knows how to tell a story that can be understood and enjoyed by anyone, to help create a better and more informed relationship between humans and wolves.Jane Goodall