A walrus affectionately known as Freya — who became something of a local hero in Norway and an online celebrity this summer — was euthanized by wildlife authorities after their warnings that people should keep their distance were not heeded.
Freya had been spotted in the Oslo Fjord along Norway's southeastern coast in recent weeks, drawing crowds of spectators. She rose to fame for her tendency to climb onto boats to sunbathe — occasionally causing them to sink under the strain of her 1,300-pound body.
Despite repeatedly warning the public to stay away from the walrus, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries said they had "observed several potentially dangerous situations." People had been seen swimming with Freya, throwing objects at her, and beckoning her to the edge of the water for photos, they said. A photo released by the directorate showed dozens of onlookers, including many children, standing very close to the marine mammal.
The decision to euthanize Freya was "made based on an overall assessment of the continued threat to human safety," Frank Bakke-Jensen, director general of the directorate, said in a statement Sunday. Officials did not say how the walrus was killed, but said it was done "during a controlled effort in the early hours of Sunday local Norwegian time" and was "conducted in a humane fashion" that complied "with current routines and regulations."
"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," the directorate said. "Therefore, the Directorate has concluded, the possibility for potential harm to people was high and animal welfare was not being maintained."
Though the directorate had initially said euthanasia was "out of the question," they later said it could become necessary if the "public's negligent behavior and failure to follow the recommendations from the authorities" continued. They had considered plans to relocate Freya, but "several animal welfare concerns" and the "extensive complexity of such an operation made [the directorate] conclude that this was not a viable option," they said.
Walruses are native to the Arctic, so Freya's presence in the region was unusual. Freya was believed to be from Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean over 1,200 miles from Oslo.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, walruses are considered a "vulnerable" species, the category one step below endangered. Though hunting used to be the species' greatest threat, "today the biggest danger it faces is climate change," the World Wildlife Fund has stated.
Bakke-Jensen said the directorate had "considered all possible solutions carefully" but "concluded that [they] could not ensure the animal's welfare through any means available."
"We have sympathies for the fact that the decision can cause reactions with the public, but I am firm that this was the right call," he said. "We have great regard for animal welfare, but human life and safety must take precedence."
But Rune Aae, a University of South-Eastern Norway biologist who operated a Google map tracking Freya sightings, called the euthanasia of the beloved walrus "too hasty a conclusion." The map, as well as the government efforts to track Freya's whereabouts, meant that "everyone would be able to know where Freya was and could act accordingly, i.e. not engage in water activities near her," Aae said in a Facebook post. With summer coming to an end, the number of spectators would also soon be reduced, Aae added.
Aae also noted that Freya was likely to leave the Oslo Fjord on her own accord soon, "so killing her was, in [his] view, completely unnecessary," adding that the decision to kill her was "a shame."