A walrus named Freya showed up in Norway. Did she have to die?
By Claire Moses
Last week, as the Oslo Fjord was basking in the sunshine and full of swimmers, boaters and children enjoying their last week of summer vacation, it had a visitor: a 1,300-pound walrus named Freya.
This week is different. Not only has school started again and the weather turned, but the walrus, who had been a source of delight and had become something of an international celebrity, is dead.
On Sunday morning, Norwegian authorities killed Freya, saying she posed too big a threat to humans who failed to listen to repeated warnings to stay away from her. Moving her out of the area was “too high risk,” officials added.
Environmentalists and Freya’s fans on social media said the decision to kill her, just three days after the warning that she might have to be put down, was hasty and unnecessary.
But the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries said in a statement that it was the only option after the public did not heed the warnings.
“I am firm that this was the right call,” the director general of the directorate, Frank Bakke-Jensen, said in the statement. “We have great regard for animal welfare, but human life and safety must take precedence.”
The Norwegian Institute of Marine Research had considered moving Freya out of the area, Bakke-Jensen added, but “the extensive complexity of such an operation made us conclude that this was not a viable option.”
Moving a 1,300-pound mammal isn’t easy. Freya would have needed sedation and then to be caught in a net to prevent her from drowning before being moved out of the area.
In Norway, Freya has dominated the news since she arrived in June, with trackers, Facebook groups and almost daily articles chronicling her plight. A Facebook page called “Freya the Walrus — Where is she now?” had been tracking her. Since Sunday, the group, which has more than 1,000 members, has been awash with sad comments and condolences.
The country’s prime minister, Jonas Gahr Store, said he supported the conclusion that Freya should be put down, telling a broadcaster that it was “the right decision.” Freya’s body will now be examined, according to the Directorate of Fisheries. It is unclear what will happen to it afterward.
Freya made appearances off the coasts of Britain and various other European countries, including the Netherlands and Denmark, for at least two years.
“Now she comes to this posh, overpopulated beach, and she is dead,” said Trine Tandberg, 62, who runs a children’s theater in Oslo. She said that she had been following the news reports about Freya closely.
“She hasn’t done anything to anyone,” Tandberg said. “That’s what’s making so many of us really, really angry about this whole thing.”
The Oslo Fjord, where Freya had been spending her time, is a densely populated area that includes Oslo, Norway’s capital. About 2 million people live in the region, in a country of just over 5 million.
Walruses are social animals and rarely venture somewhere alone, which might be why Freya seemed to like being around people and why she had sought out a busy area.
“I’m surprised by the speed of the decision” to kill her, said Fredrik Myhre, a marine biologist for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Norway. “They should have been more patient.”
One option would have been to control the crowds that went to see Freya, cordoning off the area or fining people who ventured too close, experts said. Other possibilities included making loud underwater noises or spreading the scent of predators to deter her from the area, according to Dan Jarvis, director of welfare and conservation at British Divers Marine Life Rescue, a charity based in England.
But those options were not simple: Deterrent sounds and smells could also disturb other animals in the fjord and scare them away, Myhre said.
Experts in other countries where Freya had visited over the past two years expressed disbelief at her fate.
“Norway very quickly chose for the very last option,” said Annemarie van den Berg, director of SOS Dolfijn, a Dutch marine rescue organization that had been involved with Freya when she appeared in the Netherlands last year.
“Freya never stayed in the same place too long,” van den Berg said. When Dutch authorities dealt with Freya in the fall of 2021, she said, they focused on keeping people away from the animal.
While Freya might seem cute when napping in the sunshine, van den Berg added, “She’s a mammal and therefore dangerous.”
The Norwegian fisheries directorate had repeatedly told people to stay away from Freya, but the advice had mostly been ignored, a spokesman said last week. The authorities warned that the walrus faced the prospect of being killed if they could not persuade onlookers to stay away.
Swimmers had approached the animal closely in her final days, taking selfies and sometimes even throwing things at her, a spokesman for the directorate said. Despite the warnings, no human injuries were reported.
Myhre, the marine biologist, put the responsibility for Freya’s fate on those who would not listen to calls to keep their distance. People wouldn’t take a selfie next to a 1,300-pound bull, Myhre said, adding, “You shouldn’t do that with a walrus either.”
Jarvis, the director at British Divers Marine Life Rescue, acknowledged the threat posed to humans by such wild animals, but he said that was not enough reason to kill Freya.
“We don’t go around killing all the great white sharks just because one of them at one point might attack someone,” Jarvis said.
Last year, Jarvis was part of the team that dealt with Wally, another walrus, who spent about six weeks off the coast of southwest England in an area crowded with boats. To try to stop Wally from causing damage to the vessels, local authorities provided him with a platform to lie on.
Glenn Murphy, who runs a boating and fishing business in the Oslo Fjord, said locals’ reaction to Freya’s fate had been mixed, mostly because of the risks that someone could have been hurt or killed, including children.
“To me, it looked like she was looking for companionship,” Murphy said. “That could’ve inadvertently turned into a horrible accident.”