Freya, a 1,300-pound walrus who spent the summer lolling about on boats and basking on piers in Oslo fjord, delighting many locals, has been killed by Norwegian authorities, who say she was a threat to human safety.
“I am firm that this was the right call. We have great regard for animal welfare, but human life and safety must take precedence,” the head of Norway’s fisheries directorate, Frank Bakke-Jensen, said in a statement.
The young female walrus — nicknamed after the Norse goddess of beauty and love — has been making a splash in the Norwegian capital since mid-July, apparently lapping up the attention in what some media reports described as her “hot girl summer.” Verdens Gang, a Norwegian tabloid, set up a 24-hour live camera to film her exploits.
The decision to euthanize Freya caused an immediate backlash on social media, with many people denouncing the decision as a national shame. Some raised questions about why authorities didn’t attempt to move the walrus to a safer area.
Bakke-Jensen said moving the marine mammal was thoroughly considered with the help of experts at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research. Authorities concluded that the complexity of the operation meant that “this was not a viable option,” he said.
He added that there were “several animal welfare concerns associated with a possible relocation.” He did not detail those concerns.
Transporting animals carries big risks. A beluga whale trapped in a river northwest of Paris died this month as rescuers were attempting to get the 13-foot mammal back to the coast, despite a huge operation that involved 80 people — divers, scientists, police and firefighters.
After realizing it was too weak to survive, authorities decided to euthanize the suffering animal, they said. It was not clear how the whale, which weighed more than 1,700 pounds, had strayed so far from the Arctic waters that make up its natural habitat.
Freya had also been sighted along the coasts of several European countries in recent months, including Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands. (The young walrus once hitched a lift on a Dutch submarine. Appropriately, it belonged to the Walrus class of vessels.)
De onderzeeboten van de marine behoren tot de Walrusklasse. Blijkbaar lijken ze meer op deze robbensoort dan wij dachten. Walrus Freya heeft https://t.co/JJ5CCX3Kc5. Dolfijn uitgezocht voor een knuffel! #twinning #friendsforever #walrus #freya #denhelder pic.twitter.com/bIFpele7ed— Koninklijke Marine (@kon_marine) October 26, 2021
Walruses normally live in the ice-covered waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and Alaska. There are approximately 25,000 Atlantic walruses and 200,000 Pacific walruses in the wild. They typically rest on sea ice between feeding bouts.
The marine mammals are protected in the United States. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit last year ruled that the Trump administration acted improperly in its decision to deny listing the Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered in 2017.
As the climate warms, wildlife advocates worry melting sea ice is causing walruses to rest more often on land — and driving them farther from their traditional fishing habitats.
Walruses are also being exposed to more shipping, tourism, industry and noise, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The animals are easily spooked and can stampede in an attempt to reach the safety of the water.
“As our environment changes consistently we are going to have more and more species which are found outside of their normal range, and I believe it is our responsibility to learn to live alongside these animals and work towards better management of human wildlife conflicts,” Krista van der Linde, a marine species program manager at WWF, said in an email.
The New Zealand-based researcher, who has experienced firsthand the challenges of managing encounters between humans and marine mammals such as leopard seals — which venture to the Pacific nation from the Antarctic — said she believes it was “ethically wrong and unnecessary to euthanize this animal, and a much better approach would have been educating members of the public on how to keep themselves safe.”
In one recent video from Oslo, a trio on a Jet Ski pulled up within feet of a boat where Freya was napping, while several onlookers watched from the jetty. Officials on Sunday published a photo of scores of people crowded on a pier within feet of the animal, their faces blurred for privacy.
“Through on-site observations the past week it was made clear that the public has disregarded the current recommendation to keep a clear distance to the walrus,” Bakke-Jensen, the Norwegian fisheries official, said. “The possibility for potential harm to people was high and animal welfare was not being maintained,” he added.
Rune Aae, a researcher at the University of South-Eastern Norway, who had been tracking the walrus via the Facebook group “Freya the walrus — where is she now?,” criticized Norway’s decision to euthanize Freya as “hasty” and “completely unnecessary.”
School holidays are almost over for the summer, and the curious onlookers who have gathered to observe the walrus in the waters of Norway’s capital will soon disperse, Aae wrote Sunday.
Another walrus, nicknamed Wally, was spotted off the coast of Britain last year and made it as far as northern Spain before apparently heading back to the Arctic.
Ellen Francis contributed to this report.