A Eulogy for Freya, the Wandering Walrus, Murdered in Norway

A Eulogy for Freya, the Wandering Walrus, Murdered in Norway

What a joy to see all the photos and home videos of you in Google Images, during your multi-country tour of European seas. We will never know for sure why you ventured so far from your home and from your own kind, but you certainly brought much joy to many of the humans who were lucky enough to catch sight of you along the way. Your death seems so senseless, so crude a ‘solution’. You were murdered on 14 August 2022 by a breathtakingly heartless decree of Norwegian government officials.

You did not know ‘Freya’ as your name of course; humans choose that name for you. Whoever thought of it, the name that was given to you was of the most renowned of the old Norse goddesses – Freya. With superhuman strength and endurance, she was the goddess of love, fertility and beauty and also of sorcery, battle and death. Quite a remit, even for a superhuman. This name was given to you long before you reached Norwegian waters. How ironic and sad then that your life was taken so needlessly in Norway.

What did you do wrong to deserve your life to be cut short like this? Your only apparent ‘crime’ was not to be a member of the human species. We would not treat one of our own kind in this shockingly barbaric way. Certainly not in a so called ‘civilised’ country like Norway, at least. Your life did not matter, according to Norway’s fisheries ministry. You were in the way, causing damage to people’s property (some small boats sank under your 600kg weight, as you tried to find somewhere to lie down out of the water). You had no right to be there, even your fundamental right to exist is not recognised in law, for you were not human.

You never hurt a soul, even though people threw things at you and got much closer to you than any sensible person should. In other countries you visited, people were kind enough to provide you with a floating pontoon to make your stay more comfortable. It was not your fault that some of the visitors to the Oslofjord were thoughtless or thrill-seeking or desperate for selfies with you, and yet it was you who paid the ultimate price. Apparently, it was considered a problem that you would pop up here and there in the Oslofjord, occasionally alongside people swimming near the beach. But if people knew that a walrus was in the area, and apparently they had been warned of this, WHY were people swimming there in the first place? The sea is YOUR habitat after all, not theirs. Can we humans not put our ‘right to swim’ on hold for a brief period of time to allow another being some space? And there are many other places in Norway for humans to swim…

Photo of Freya with kind permission of Hugh Harrop, Shetland Wildlife

We can never know what went on in your mind of course, but we know that walruses are generally highly social mammals, possibly the most cognitively and socially intelligent among the pinnipeds. Wildlife experts were concerned that you were not getting enough sleep in the Oslofjord, due to the number of humans that were disturbing you on a daily basis. You needed up to 20 hours sleep a day. So why did you stay there? You could easily have moved on to avoid human interaction, and yet you stayed.

Is it too far-fetched to imagine that you might have been craving social contact with other mammals, being so far from your own kind? Whatever the reason, human thoughtlessness and recklessness was your undoing.

Most likely, given the chance, you would have continued with your tour of European waters. It is likely that you came from somewhere in Svalbard or possibly East Greenland, and over the last 10 months you swam to The Netherlands, then to Denmark, Sweden and on to Northumberland and the Shetland Islands in the UK and finally – fatally – you swam to Norway, spending a month in the Oslofjord, until your life was cut short by a human being with a gun.

Much thought was given to your predicament by the Norwegian authorities apparently. Experts worried about the risk to human life, even though you never hurt a soul, and as Professor Fern Wickson of the Arctic University of Norway put it, “The risk was potential rather than demonstrated” and no greater a level of risk than “we regularly tolerate in our society and daily lives”. We take a risk when we ride a bicycle, travel in a car, fly in a plane. Swimming in the sea is not without a level of risk. We cannot eradicate all risk from our lives – not even with our obsessive Health & Safety culture. How can it be right to destroy a life because that being might cause harm to someone or something?

Many have mourned your death Freya. Much of what is wrong with humankind’s inept way of relating to other species is illustrated by your untimely death at the hands of merciless humans. “The public safety is what has been prioritised. Animal welfare is also a priority, but human life and health come first”, said the head of Norway’s Fisheries Directorate, Frank Bakke-Jensen. So prioritising us means that you had to die? What an inept and cruel way to resolve a situation that could have been solved without your life being taken.

What happened to you is in sharp contrast to the demise of the ailing, malnourished beluga whale who died just 4 days before you, after venturing into the River Seine. On 10th August 2022, the beluga was carefully lifted out of the river in a last chance rescue attempt to move it to a salt water haven for observation and further care and treatment. The beluga was 400kg under its normal weight of around 1200kg and would not eat, yet still, every effort was made to save it. Meanwhile you – young, healthy and curious – were denied the chance to live out your 40+ year lifespan. Therein lies the polarity of the human psyche – some of us willing to do whatever it takes to rescue members of other species, while others see non-human life as totally expendable. As someone posted in a tweet about Freya, although they found it sad that she was killed, her death was OK really, because her life was not consequential, as her species is not endangered. Is that to be the yardstick by which we measure the value of a life?

This portrait of Freya was taken by Hugh Harrop of Shetland Wildlife during her time in the Shetland Islands in late 2021.
Photo by Hugh Harrop, Shetland Wildlife

As People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) put it, “More walruses like Freya and other species whose homes are shrinking due to the climate catastrophe and habitat destruction will likely continue to stray farther from their natural homes and into closer proximity to humans. Animals aren’t selfie props, and their need for space needs to be respected.”

One of the fundamental rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the Right to Life. Article 3 says “We all have the right to life, and to live in freedom and safety”. Had Freya’s right to life been properly considered, inevitably a different course of action would have been chosen – crowd control measures would have been put in place, people would have been warned off swimming near her, threatened with fines for getting too close to her. A ‘guardian ad litem’ could have been appointed to represent her best interests, as would be the case with a human child or an adult who lacks capacity. What would it take for humans to extend this deeply valued human right – the fundamental right to exist – to other species?

Rest in peace Freya.