When was the last time a wild walrus ever injured anyone?
OSLO, Norway––Was Freya the walrus killed by Norwegian directorate of fisheries on August 14, 2022 in Oslo fjord to protect herself, or to protect human swimmers and boaters, as the Norwegian government alleges?
Or was Freya really killed to protect the heavily subsidized Norwegian whaling and sealing industries from the political consequences of the Norwegian public falling in love with a marine mammal?
Among the only public defenders of killing Freya were directorate of fisheries director general Frank Bakke-Jensen, whose mandate includes defense of whaling and sealing, but not any aspect of protecting public safety, and prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre.
Støre, a hard-line right winger, owes his position to voting support from the coastal regions where whaling and sealing are entrenched traditions, while showing any sympathy toward either marine mammals or terrestrial wildlife tends to be seen as suspect.
Norwegian prime minister defends killing Freya
“I support the decision to euthanize Freya,” Støre told the Norwegian national television network NRK hours after the killing.
“It was the right decision,” Støre insisted. “I am not surprised that this has led to many international reactions. Sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions.”
Much of the outrage over killing the 1,300-pound female walrus came from England, the Netherlands, and Denmark, where Freya stopped earlier during a 16-month odyssey around the North Sea, more than a thousand miles south of normal walrus habitat in the Arctic ocean.
But much criticism of killing Freya also came from within Norway.
“Norse goddess of beauty & love”
“Freya, named for the Norse goddess of beauty and love,” reported Jon Henley for Associated Press, “had become a popular attraction since arriving on July 17, 2022 in the waters off the Norwegian capital, where crowds approached to watch as she basked in the sun or dozed on boats.
“Norway’s fisheries directorate,” Henley recounted, “said the walrus was euthanized ‘based on an overall assessment of the threat to human safety’ after the public ignored warnings not to get too close to her, often with small children, to pose for photographs.
“Other reports,” Henley continued, “showed people swimming with the walrus, throwing things at her, and surrounding her in large numbers. On one occasion police had to evacuate and seal off a bathing area after Freya chased a woman into the sea.”
“Who decided to euthanize Freya, & on what grounds?”
Spokespersons Siri Martinsen and Christian Steel of the Norwegian animal advocacy organizations NOAH and Sabima, Norwegian marine biologist Rune Aae, Oslo city council member Eivind Trædal, and Truls Gulowsen of the [Norwegian] Nature Conservation Association were among the outspoken critics of the killing,
Steel demanded release of “full documentation of who decided to euthanize Freya, and on what grounds,” Henley summarized.
Said Steel, “The directorate cannot keep this a secret just to make things convenient for itself. They have a reason for it. There must have been professionals in the picture who have made an assessment that this animal was stressed.”
“An embarrassing collective failure”
Gulowsen called the killing “an embarrassing collective failure,” acknowledging that people “behaved like idiots faced with nature.
“Elsewhere,” Gulowsen told media, “authorities managed to keep people away, and people managed to show consideration [for Freya]. But here in Oslo fjord, no one could be bothered––so we killed her instead.”
Zoologist Per Espen Fjeld, who also defends the Norwegian whaling and sealing industries, had argued for about a month that Freya should be shot, old VG on Monday it was “obvious” that Freya would have to be put down eventually, adding that the decision was entirely justifiable and had no consequences for the future of the species.
“You cannot expect 1.6 million people not to swim in Oslo fjord,” Per Espen Fjeld said. “People were out swimming and suddenly there it was, a meter away. If you get hit by even a little bit of 600 kilograms of muscle and blubber, everyone knows what happens.”
Per Espen Fjeld vs. Pia Ve Dahlen
But Per Espen Fjeld cited no precedent for a wild walrus ever injuring anyone. The ANIMALS 24-7 archives from the past 36 years include not even a report of a wild walrus injuring a traditional Inuit hunter in the act of trying to kill the walrus with a harpoon.
Changing the subject, Per Espen Fjeld pointed out that “There are 30,000 walruses in the North Atlantic. The difference between Freya and animals we issue death sentences on daily, because it is profitable or convenient for us,” Per Espen Fjeld wrote in a media statement, “is that Freya is an exotic feature in the media and has been given a name. A pure Bambi effect,” Per Espen Fjeld complained.
Countered Norwegian marine biologist and author Pia Ve Dahlen, “It’s crazy that a wild animal, who usually doesn’t care if a polar bear trudges past, died because we couldn’t keep away. I get so tired of the Norwegian approach that ‘No, now it must be shot’ if possible. As soon as these fascinating animals do something we consider inconvenient, the first thing we think about is shooting them.”
Said Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries director general Frank Bakke-Jensen, in a somewhat self-contradictory written statement, “According to veterinary experts the walrus seemed stressed by the massive attention [she received] and the welfare of the animal was compromised.
“Therefore, the Directorate concluded, the possibility for potential harm to people was high and animal welfare was not being maintained.
“We considered all possible solutions carefully. We concluded that we could not ensure the animals welfare through any means available,” Bakke-Jensen finished.
Some defenders of the decision to kill Freya likened the situation to the rationale for the Norwegian national ban on possession of pit bulls, including American Staffordshire terriers, Fila Brasileros, Tosa Inus, Dogo Argentinos, and Czechoslovakian wolfhounds: to prevent a public safety hazard from developing.
But that ban was enacted after dangerous dogs bred at a farm in Dragsten, Selbu, South Trøndelag in July 2014 killed a two-year-old girl. As many as 20 dogs were reportedly involved, many of whom had been offered for sale to the public.
Norway has had no fatal dog attacks since the dangerous dogs prohibition has been in effect.
The Freya case also evoked memories of the December 12, 2003 death of Keiko, the orca star of the Free Willy film series. Released off Iceland in July 2002, Keiko on September 1, 2002 swam into Skaalvik Fjord, Norway, 250 miles northwest of Oslo, and then into Taknes Fjord.
“The orca surprised and delighted Norwegians, who petted and swam with him, and climbed on his back,” reported Doug Mellgren of Associated Press.
Niels Oeien, of the Institute for Marine Research in Bergen, Norway, on September 3, 2002 accused Keiko of “disturbing fish farms,” and told Aftenposten Multimedia, “If there are more such episodes, he should be destroyed.”
Controversy over what to do about Keiko raged on for more than a year, until Keiko reportedly died of apparent acute pneumonia. His remains were buried before dawn three days later by five local volunteers and three of his former keepers from the final phase of his rehabilitation for release, after spending most of his life in captivity.
The Keiko episode visibly raised Norwegian opposition to whaling and sealing, but both heavily subsidized hunts continue with the aggressive support of the Jonas Gahr Støre government.
Minke whales “sold for dog food or just dumped”
Bjørnar Skjæran, named Norwegian minister of fisheries & marine affairs in February 2022, immediately set a 2022 whaling quota of 917 minke whales, down from the previous quota of about 1,200.
“The reduction in the quota number is largely meaningless,” said Michelle Collins of the British-based organization Whale & Dolphin Conservation.
“Full quotas have not been taken in recent years,” Collins explained, “but hundreds of whales are still slaughtered, often taking a long time to die. 2021 saw 575 minke whales killed, marking the deadliest whaling season since 2016. 503 whales were killed in 2020, and 429 in 2019.
“Norway’s government allows the minke whale hunts to go ahead under an ‘objection’ to the global ban on commercial whaling, and whalers continue to carry out this slaughter despite falling demand for whale meat in the country and a decline in the number of boats hunting each year.
“Last year,” Collins charged, “shocking new documents revealed that dwindling domestic demand for the meat means it is sold for dog food or just dumped into the sea.”
Norwegian sealing, meanwhile, was for several years conducted with animal welfare inspectors aboard the vessels taking seal hunters to the ice floes, but the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 became a pretext for dispensing with the inspectors.
“Among the crews to go hunting without inspection,” the Norwegian organization NOAH charged, “are crew members who have been convicted of animal cruelty after several offences during seal hunting in 2009. In 2010 these crew members received some of the highest fines ever given for animal cruelty in Norway. The men were convicted based on documentation from an animal welfare inspector’s report, and video recorded evidence.
“Around 80%” of the annual Norwegian seal hunt is subsidized,” NOAH continued. “In 2015 the government decided not to grant subsidies for 2016. That year there was no seal hunt. Sadly, subsidies were re-established in the following years.”
Recent Norwegian sealing quotas have allowed for killing up to 18,548 harp seals, the same species persecuted in Atlantic Canada, also with heavy governmental subsidies, in a region whose voting has often tipped the balance in Canadian national elections.