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Congratulations to Larry Pynn on winning a Canadian Online Publishing Award for this article.
Watch a recording of the web event from October 29, 2020, to hear Larry Pynn discuss his investigation into the killing of Takaya.
Who killed stqéyəʔ, the wolf?
The simple answer is the hunter who legally shot—some would say sucker-punched—the celebrity animal known to TV viewers around the globe during a chance encounter on a logging road on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.
The fuller explanation is nuanced and says more about society’s conflicted views of predators than a single bullet fired from a hunter’s rifle.
Stqéyəʔ, the Lekwungen word for the wolf that came to be known as Takaya, is thought to have lived a celibate existence for almost eight years on Discovery and Chatham Islands, the territory of the Songhees Nation. The islands rest in the Salish Sea; a thin barrier of water separated Takaya from the faux-English tourist shops and manicured flower beds of the provincial capital of Victoria.
Solitary, but not alone.
Takaya assumed celebrity status after inexplicably surfacing on the islands off southern Vancouver Island in May 2012. Boaters, kayakers, and photographers occasionally witnessed this wild predator in his archipelago home about 1.25 kilometers from a regional population approaching 400,000.
“It was magic, such a beautiful animal,” recalls Mark Malleson, a boat skipper with Prince of Whales, a Victoria marine ecotourism company. He would take tourists through the islands as time permitted and tell the wolf’s remarkable yet largely mysterious story. No one knew where Takaya came from, whether he had been exiled by his pack, or whether he had left on his own in hopes of starting a family.
Sometimes, the wolf would reveal himself on a stretch of shoreline by lounging in the open, accepting of the gawking tourists. “Everyone would sit there, take a few minutes, and watch,” Malleson says.
Just two months after Takaya’s arrival, the BC Conservation Officer Service warned the public that repetitive human contact—be it from boating or walking on shore—could lead to the wolf becoming habituated. Conservation officers urged people to stay away, to keep their distance, but they didn’t.
No one spent more time with Takaya than Victoria conservation photographer Cheryl Alexander. She was a regular visitor to Discovery Island for decades before first spotting the wolf in May 2014. “He’d just swum across from Chatham to Discovery and was coming out of the water onto a little beach. Then he started to howl and it was unbelievable. It had such a huge impact on me,” she says. Alexander coined the name Takaya, which is a close version of stqéyəʔ and means “respectful one” in Japanese.
Alexander and her husband, David Green, a physicist turned solar LED entrepreneur, purchased 3.4 hectares—the only private land on Discovery Island—in 2017 for CAN $570,000, which allowed her a home base near the wolf. The island is small, around 115 hectares, slightly more than a quarter of the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park. A 61-hectare provincial park claims the bulk of the land; the rest is Songhees Nation reserve lands and a decommissioned federal lighthouse.
David Suzuki’s CBC television show, The Nature of Things, featured Alexander’s documentary, “Takaya: Lone Wolf,” which aired in 2019. Alexander narrated the film and served as cinematographer, creative consultant, and co-executive producer. “I’ve gained this wolf’s trust and documented his life, shooting over 1,000 hours of footage,” she commented on camera. The award-winning film was also released in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
At some point during his time on the islands so close to humans, Takaya learned to view them as harmless. In September 2019, Ian Cesarec, who patrolled the Chatham Islands for the Songhees told a local reporter: “He’s a lot like a dog, he will come within 20 feet [six meters] of me, sit down, and scratch behind his ear.”
Had Takaya maintained his exiled lifestyle, it might not have mattered. But for reasons unknown, he braved cold water and swirling tidal currents to return to Vancouver Island in the winter of 2020.
Had Takaya run out of food—or patience?
A life of isolation is not normal for a pack animal. His howls unanswered, did he finally go in search of a mate? “It was breeding season, and, unlike dogs, wolves breed only once per year,” says Chris Darimont, a professor at the University of Victoria, and a science director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
People first reported seeing Takaya on January 25 in James Bay—Victoria’s oldest neighborhood, just south of British Columbia’s government buildings. Cougars are known to occasionally make their way into the city, but a wolf? That is extra special.
A bewildered Takaya showed up in residential backyards and dashing across streets. Police warned residents to keep pets and small children indoors—evoking an image straight from “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Conservation officers tranquillized and tagged the wolf one day later, on January 26, and the next day drove it about two hours northwest of Victoria for relocation to an unspecified spot—widely thought to be the Gordon River valley—near the community of Port Renfrew on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The provincial agency didn’t have to. A predator that winds up in human company is typically killed—either because it’s become habituated or is considered a danger.
Last year, conservation officers destroyed 60 cougars BC-wide and relocated just two. Wolf encounters tend to involve livestock and are handled by the cattle industry’s Livestock Protection Program through an agreement with the provincial government that allows for trapping in response to predation. Last year, 129 wolves were destroyed in British Columbia under that program.
Takaya was healthy, had not threatened people, and, after all, was a known figure. “It was his reputation and fame that protected him,” Alexander says.
Conservation officers rejected any idea of taking Takaya back to Discovery Island. The wolf left for a reason, says Inspector Ben York, officer in charge of the west-coast region, adding the Port Renfrew area represented good habitat with the potential for marine prey similar to Discovery Island and the chance for a new start.
The conservation officers released Takaya, yellow tag attached to his ear, near dusk at 4:54 p.m. on January 27, on a desolate logging road cloaked in a low mist. The provincial agency provided a video of the wolf stepping slowly from a culvert-style metal bear trap. He didn’t run like a wild animal should—as if shot from a cannon—to escape his human captors. Instead, he simply walked down the road and out of view, a seemingly muddled figure.
The Pacheedaht First Nation in Port Renfrew believes that the relocation was doomed from the start. It would have preferred a more remote site affording greater protection, such as 16,365-hectare Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park just to the north. “We were just really saddened,” says Helen Jones, wildlife manager for the Pacheedaht, about stqéyəʔ’s death. “It wasn’t the right place to put him, so the process failed him.”
Not everyone in Port Renfrew welcomed the wolf. “Some people were intrigued by its presence, some people were threatened, and some people wanted to destroy it,” says Jones.
During his archipelago existence, Takaya thrived despite public scrutiny. He largely lived off marine mammals, mainly harbor seals, and did so without competition or threats to his safety. All that changed after his relocation to Vancouver Island. There’s a price to be paid for having more room to roam and potentially finding a mate. Takaya had to find food in his new home and contend with other wild wolves that could pose a lethal threat.
“The location for the wolf’s release was not influenced by the potential presence or lack thereof of other wolves,” York says. “The assumption is that the entire west coast of Vancouver Island and most of the mid- to north island supports and contains wolves.” That meant that anywhere on the island that represented good wolf habitat for Takaya probably already contained wolves.
For two months, Takaya survived and hunted successfully and had occasional encounters with humans and their pets.
Takaya—the social pack animal without a pack—had long been curious about dogs. In 2012, shortly after his arrival on Discovery Island, he reportedly took a side trip to Trial Island, about five kilometers away, where the lighthouse keeper had dogs. Then, in 2016, a family camping with a dog on Discovery Island called for help after they felt threatened by the wolf.
“Takaya was interested in dogs, but in a nonaggressive way,” Alexander says. “He really essentially wanted to play with them. He’d had a number of interactions, all positive.”
Wolves are known to kill dogs, but there are exceptions. Near Juneau, Alaska, a lone black wolf named Romeo associated with people and played with dogs for years before being shot by a poacher in 2009 in yet another case of habituation turned lethal. Romeo is now a mount on display at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center near Juneau.
After his relocation, Takaya regularly visited Island Road on the outskirts of Port Renfrew in the San Juan River valley. Red alders, moss-smothered bigleaf maples, and brooding Sitka spruce dominate the river’s estuary, a spot known for its Roosevelt elk population.
Island Road is also a popular spot for locals to exercise their dogs off leash. That presented Takaya with an opportunity for socialization, although conservation officers and the Pacheedaht reported no incidents of him showing aggression.
Gary Shroyen, a Victoria-area naturalist, regularly frequents Port Renfrew in hopes of obtaining wildlife images on his remote-trail cameras. He describes a conversation with one Port Renfrew resident on Island Road: “He said he was walking down the road and looked behind … and there was a wolf with a yellow ear tag touching noses with his dogs. He called his dogs and the wolf ran into the forest, and he continued walking on the road. He could hear the wolf running through the forest adjacent to him. Then the wolf got in front and came out of the forest again. He decided enough was enough, ‘I’m getting out of here,’ turned around, and went home.”
At 12:31 p.m. on February 25, Shroyen’s camera documented the same wolf trotting along a forested path in the area. It can be an unsettling image, knowing the tragic events to come. Alexander also set up her own trail cameras in the area after receiving a tip about Takaya’s presence, but captured only a fleeting glimpse of the wolf.
Over the coming weeks, Takaya appeared to roam well beyond the San Juan River valley.
Alexander—widely known for her work with the wolf—received random citizen reports of his whereabouts. On March 14, Takaya was spotted in the community of Shirley, more than 50 kilometers to the southeast of Port Renfrew. As Alexander wondered if he was heading back to Discovery Island, the wolf inexplicably returned to Port Renfrew.
Shroyen documented Takaya on his wildlife camera at 3:35 p.m. on March 19 farther upstream in the San Juan River estuary. “That was the last I saw of that wolf,” he says.
Three days later, T. J. Watt, a campaigner and photographer with Ancient Forest Alliance, was traveling in his van to do research work when by chance he spotted Takaya about a 10-minute drive from Island Road. For 15 years, Watt has roamed these forests in search of the province’s biggest old-growth trees. During that time, he’d had only one fleeting encounter with a wolf. “It ran across the road and disappeared.”
This new wolf acted very differently, almost nonchalant about Watt’s presence. It crossed the road, nestled down among the forest litter about 10 meters from the road, and then remained still as Watt took his photo. “I was very lucky,” Watt says. “I didn’t realize the picture I was taking might be the last.”
Then Takaya was on the move and left the San Juan River valley for the last time.
The wolf traveled eastward across Vancouver Island, about 50 kilometers from his release site, according to conservation officers. He navigated mountain streams and private forestlands interlaced with logging roads chiseled in fierce, sprawling clearcuts.
Takaya eventually found himself within Mosaic Forest Management’s private timberlands just beyond Shawnigan Lake, a recreational and residential community of tightly packed waterfront homes less than an hour’s drive north of Victoria.
This is where Takaya’s tracks end.
News of his March 24 killing shocked devotees around the globe.
Conservation officers confirmed in a written statement that a hunter had fatally shot Takaya. “We understand many British Columbians and people around the world shared care and concern for the well-being of this wolf and this update will affect many people.”
York assured me that a “thorough investigation” discovered no wrongdoing. “We found absolutely no evidence of a violation and we’re not pursuing any charges.” The hunter reported the kill as required by the Wildlife Act and legally took possession of the pelt.
Provincial documents obtained through a freedom-of-information request reveal the randomness of Takaya’s killing—and how the simplest of decisions by the hunter set forth a deadly and unforeseeable series of events.
According to the documents, the hunter was driving Mosaic’s logging roads with his dog looking for a friend’s cougar hounds that had gone missing several days earlier. He headed down a spur road and pulled over when he got cell coverage and to let his dog pee, about four kilometers beyond the company’s main gate.
That’s when Takaya popped out from a ditch, where he may have been resting in a plastic culvert. He approached the hunter’s dog.
The hunter “called the dog and was able to get it into the truck,” according to the Conservation Officer Service report. “He expected the wolf to run off as he has seen them do on many occasions, but instead it stopped on the side of the road and stood there looking at the truck. He knew wolf season was open so he decided to try to kill it …”
The hunter grabbed his Remington rifle with a seven mm magnum cartridge and pressed the trigger. Takaya dropped where he stood, 15 meters away.
The hunter told investigators that he would not have fired had he seen the wolf’s government ear tag—BC Wildlife 1-295. “He is planning on having a taxidermist friend … come over and skin the wolf tonight,” the document adds flatly.
The hunter took the hide and skull, and the carcass went to provincial veterinarian Helen Schwantje for a necropsy two days later. Her report described Takaya as 11 years of age—at the upper limit for a wild wolf—in excellent condition, with a belly full of beaver, no less.
The hunter’s bullet entered near the left shoulder and tore the wolf apart. An inspection of his right side, surprisingly, revealed 10 fractured ribs, an injury thought to have occurred a few weeks before he was shot.
It’s a further testament to Takaya’s strength and skill that he managed to travel widely and forage for himself despite a painful injury. How it happened—perhaps hit by a vehicle—will likely never be known.
The wider question of who killed stqéyəʔ extends beyond a single act of aggression.
Provincial hunting regulations permit the rather liberal killing of wolves. Each licensed hunter on Vancouver Island can shoot up to three per year out of an estimated population of 250—a very rough figure the government concedes is based more on anecdotes than hard science.
Bryce Casavant, a former conservation officer, now with Pacific Wild, an environmental conservation group, has a problem with arbitrary bag limits, arguing that the cumulative impact of habitat loss due to logging and urban expansion and of increased public access, including tourism, are not taken into consideration. “We don’t know what it’s doing to our wolf populations on Vancouver Island,” Casavant says.
Alexander feared Takaya would be shot or trapped ever since his relocation.
“It’s very definitely the government regulations and mentality that need to be addressed rather than just this individual hunter who unfortunately was in the position where he shot a famous wolf,” she says.
The provincial government reports that hunters kill, on average, 20 wolves per year on Vancouver Island, while trappers take another seven. Those kills are not enough to jeopardize the population, but it underscores a troubling attitude to predators, says Darimont. “This is not an issue of the population’s numerical sustainability, it’s an ethical issue. I think it’s wrong to kill something with no intention of eating it. Let’s face it, it’s pretty gross behavior … and it casts all hunters in a bad light,” he says.
Darimont coauthored a 2009 study published in the journal Conservation Genetics reporting that government-sanctioned eradication programs, including bounties, started around 1920 and virtually wiped out wolves on Vancouver Island by 1950. They were back by the 1970s, island-hopping their way from the BC mainland to Vancouver Island.
To better inform management of the species, the regional fish and wildlife department in the mid-island city of Nanaimo has embarked on a study to compare the DNA of wolves on Vancouver Island with those in the interior and the mainland coast. Hunters and trappers are encouraged to submit air-dried tissue samples such as an ear tip or skin flap from the abdominal area of any wolf killed.
“You talk to old-timers who have been on the [Vancouver] Island a long time and they’ll tell you they never saw wolves in the 1960s and early ’70s, until they started to come across from the mainland,” says Sean Pendergast, a fish and wildlife section head with the provincial government. “Was that because they were fewer on the landscape, or we didn’t have the road network to get to these remote areas?”
In Takaya’s case, his familiarity with people made him a vulnerable target—and hunters chiefly blame Alexander and her steady interactions with the wolf over the years for that. The shooter has chosen anonymity to avoid personal attacks from an incensed public, but those who know him are speaking out.
“She broke the wildness of this wolf,” says Danny Smith, a BC trophy-and-meat hunter who has appeared as a hunting personality on Wild TV. “It trusted her.”
A freedom-of-information document contains an internal email from Victoria conservation officer Peter Pauwels that seems to share that opinion of Alexander: “We have a lot of concerns with what she’s done over the years.”
David Mech, a wolf expert and senior research scientist with the US Geological Survey, agrees that when wildlife no longer associates humans with danger, it can be at risk. Even national parks afford no protection for wolves once they venture beyond park boundaries. “It’s not surprising for a human-habituated wolf to be shot or killed,” he says.
The provincial government had also made up its mind on that point. “It (Takaya) is habituated to people due to years of Discovery Island well-wishers encroaching on its space,” conservation officer Sergeant Scott Norris said in an internal government email.
Smith also questions Alexander’s financial motives. “There’s money to be made from this type of situation. ‘Buy my book, buy my pictures.’” On her website, she is selling photos of Takaya for up to $175, with 30 percent of the proceeds going to conservation groups. Her book, Takaya: Lone Wolf, is due for release this fall.
Alexander asserts that she’s put more money into telling Takaya’s story than she’ll ever get out and that she doesn’t need the cash. “My central aim is to contribute to people’s understanding of wolves … and to ensure that Takaya’s life means something for wolves and wilderness protection.”
Regardless, she believes that the blame for any habituation must be shared. “He kept his distance … but he’d see people quite frequently and they weren’t harming him. He would not expect that a hunter would pick up a gun and shoot him.” She also doesn’t buy the argument that wolves should naturally be wary of people. “The fear has come from how we treat them. That’s the sad part of this.”
Darimont agrees that due to human habituation Takaya “clearly didn’t show the fear response that is common in wild wolves,” but he argues lax laws permitting the killing of wolves are the greater issue. “That wouldn’t matter if Takaya hadn’t found himself in an environment where it’s that easy and that common for people to kill wolves,” he says.
The debate over Takaya’s death extended to the disposition of his remains.
Songhees Nation chief Ron Sam was originally shocked to hear about the animal’s shooting death. “I didn’t even know you were allowed to hunt wolves on Vancouver Island. I don’t think it’s needed. To be told it’s a trophy, a pelt, I don’t agree with it,” he says.
Sam soon focused his thoughts on bringing stqéyəʔ home. “We’ve made a few offers to the hunter to try to work through this, through the province.” Some band members see the wolf as the embodiment of their late chief Robert Sam (Ron Sam’s uncle) who died in 2012, though two months after stqéyəʔ’s arrival. “[Our late chief] is still out on the land looking after us, that’s what some people took it as. That’s where we’re coming from.” Chief Ron Sam wants stqéyəʔ buried on their Chatham Island reserve lands.
As Takaya’s body remained caught between two competing desires, I received a tip that the wolf’s pelt was with Mike Moss, a taxidermist in the Victoria suburb of Saanich, for mounting. On April 22, I visited Moss at his home in Hummingbird Village, a residential development on land leased from the Tsawout First Nation.
A stocky man wearing a camouflage shirt gave me a cold reception. “I’m not interested in talking to you whatsoever,” Moss said, shutting the door.
And when contacted, another Victoria-area taxidermist, Terry Woodworth, said: “I don’t want hide nor hair of that wolf around here. I don’t need the publicity.”
It turns out the shooter wasn’t the only one keen on converting Tayaka into a mount. So was Alexander—for public rather than private viewing.
Freedom-of-information documents show that on March 31, Alexander wrote to the provincial government saying that, if it comes into possession of the skull and hide, “I request that they be returned to myself so that Takaya’s legacy can be continued through public exhibitions at museums.” She suggested Takaya might form an exhibit at the Royal BC Museum or Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature, both located in Victoria. “Takaya will contribute an enduring BC legacy for wolves and wildlife around the world.”
That didn’t happen.
On April 30, the Ministry of Environment provided me with a brief statement: “We understand that the hunter and Songhees First Nation have reached a resolution that will see the body returned to the Nation. We are grateful that a resolution has been reached, so that Songhees can carry out appropriate ceremony for healing and closure. They have requested privacy going forward.”
All that’s left to ponder is Takaya’s legacy: just another dead wolf, or something more enduring and meaningful? Could the wolf, as Darimont suggests, become British Columbia’s version of Cecil the lion, shot by an American trophy hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015?
International outrage over that killing generated almost 95,000 news stories yet “did not lead to widespread policy changes,” according to an Indiana University study published in 2017. Among the modest responses: France banned the import of lion trophies; the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated lions as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a measure initiated prior to Cecil’s death; and Hawai‘i and New Jersey passed laws banning the trade in lions.
In British Columbia, campaigns against trophy hunting have achieved some success. The provincial government in 2017 buckled under years of public pressure and banned the widely unpopular hunting of grizzly bears—for both trophies and human consumption.
Representatives of the Songhees and Pacheedaht First Nations are opposed to trophy hunting of wolves, and their voices may yet carry weight. The problem is, after an initial flurry of outrage at Takaya’s shooting, public concerns soon shifted to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
For now, this remains a story of irreconcilable social values.
In the clash of those who love wolves and seek to live peacefully among them versus those with a desire to kill for trophies—with full support from government policy—the latter is destined to win and the animals to lose.
The double tragedy for Takaya is that society stole his wildness and then ultimately took his life.