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Explained: Why has Norway killed Freya, a walrus that had won people’s hearts?

The 600-kg animal that had been seen off the coasts of several European countries for the past 2 years, was attracting huge attention. People had been swimming with it, taking photos, and putting themselves at risk from it.

Freya the walrus sitting on a boat in Frognerkilen in Oslo, Norway, Monday July 18, 2022. Authorities in Norway said Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022 they have euthanized a walrus that had drawn crowds of spectators in the Oslo Fjord after concluding that it posed a risk to humans. (Tor Erik Schrøder/NTB Scanpix via AP)

Authorities in Norway on Sunday (August 14) said they had killed a 600-kg young female walrus that had taken to hanging out in the waters off Oslo, because she was a “threat to human security”.

The five-year-old animal that was first spotted in Oslofjord on July 17 had become a huge favourite of crowds, who had named her Freya after the Norse goddess of beauty and love.

Why was Freya killed?

“The decision to euthanise (the walrus) was taken on the basis of a global evaluation of the persistent threat to human security,” the head of Norway’s fisheries directorate, Frank Bakke-Jensen, said in a statement, The Guardian reported.

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“We carefully examined all the possible solutions. We concluded that we could not guarantee the wellbeing of the animal by any of the means available,” he said.

A report in The New York Times quoted Olav Lekver, a spokesperson for the fisheries directorate, as saying they had no option. “She (Freya) was in an area that wasn’t natural for her.” The animal was killed “according to regulations”, the spokesperson said, without giving details.

What threat did Freya pose to humans?

The Oslofjord is rather crowded in the summer, and Freya had “won hearts” in Norway, according to media reports. People went close to the huge wild animal, swimming alongside her, taking pictures of her, and sometimes even taking children dangerously near her.

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Freya herself had shown no urgency to leave. The waters off Oslo are rich in shrimp, molluscs, crabs, and small fish that walruses typically eat — also, walruses are social animals who generally don’t like to be alone, and Freya possibly didn’t mind the human company.

She clambered on to boats that wobbled and creaked under her weight, and slept on them and on piers for hours. Freya was also filmed chasing a duck and attacking a swan — and according to Lekver, the government spokesperson quoted by The NYT, she “chased people on paddle boards and kayaks”.

The government had repeatedly asked people not to go near the animal, but they would not listen. Last week, an ultimatum had been issued that Freya would have to be put down unless people changed their behaviour, but the warning was not heeded.

But are walruses dangerous animals?

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No, they are not aggressive usually — unless it is a young bull trying to assert himself, or a protective cow with her calf that we are talking about. That said, they are wild animals — the males can weigh a tonne and a half, females up to 900 kg, and they have tusks that in the bigger bulls can reach up to a metre in length and up to several kilogrammes in weight — and are best not startled or provoked.

“She’s not aggressive,” The NYT had quoted Rune Aae, a teacher of biology at the University of South-Eastern Norway, in an earlier article on Freya last week. “But if she wants to play with you, you will lose, no matter what happens,” Aae, who would regularly update a Google map of the walrus’s sightings, had said.

Walrus watchers in the Arctic are typically cautioned to stay at least 150 metres away from a herd on land, to not approach the animals from multiple directions in order to ensure they don’t feel threatened, to walk slowly, and to always keep safe passage between the herd and the sea. In water, swimmers and paddlers are told to stay away from the animals that can sometimes attack with their tusks.

How did Freya show up in Oslo?

Before it arrived in the waters off Oslo, the walrus had been climbing on to boats moored off the southern Norwegian village of Kragero, and had been sighted before that off the coasts of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden for at least two years, according to an AFP report. “This is a unique situation,” Vegard Oen Hatten, another spokesperson for the fisheries directorate, had told The NYT. “It’s the first time an animal has stayed out of their natural habitat for so long.”

There are an estimated 225,000 walruses in the wild, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Their natural habitat is the ice sheets and icy Arctic waters off Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and Alaska. Climate change and melting Arctic ice is causing a loss of walrus habitat, and some experts believe Freya might have been trying to find a way north. Last year, a walrus that was christened Wally had hung out in the waters off southwestern England for approximately a month and a half.

First published on: 15-08-2022 at 09:51 IST
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