15 Aug Norway Murders Freya the Walrus
I don’t often write about animal-rights issues here at Opinio Juris, because I’m sure many readers view the systematic murder of tens of billions of animals each year for food as less important than the many atrocities involving humans that take place all over the world. I don’t agree with that perspective, but I certainly understand it. So I save most of my comments about animal rights and the need to stop eating living creatures for Twitter. (I just celebrated my 35th anniversary of becoming a vegetarian.)
But today I’m making an exception, because Norway’s cold-blooded murder of Freya, the young walrus who had been hanging around in Oslo for the past couple of weeks, has made me so angry that I have to write something. Here is the story, from a good Washington Post article:
Freya, a 1,300-pound walrus who spent the summer lolling about on boats and basking on piers in Oslo fjord, delighting many locals, has been killed by Norwegian authorities, who say she was a threat to human safety.
Norway’s fisheries directorate said the decision to euthanize the walrus in the early hours of Sunday local time came after the public ignored repeated warnings to keep their distance from Freya.
“I am firm that this was the right call. We have great regard for animal welfare, but human life and safety must take precedence,” the head of Norway’s fisheries directorate, Frank Bakke-Jensen, said in a statement.
Bakke-Jensen said moving the marine mammal was thoroughly considered with the help of experts at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research. Authorities concluded that the complexity of the operation meant that “this was not a viable option,” he said. He added that there were “several animal welfare concerns associated with a possible relocation.” He did not detail those concerns.
“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,” Bakke-Jensen said. “The possibility for potential harm to people was high and animal welfare was not being maintained,” he added.
Before getting to the substance of Bakke-Jensen’s comments, it’s worth noting that he is a member of Norway’s Conservative Party and a former Minister of Defence. In other words, he’s pretty much the last person you would want making a decision about whether to protect or kill an innocent animal.
The decision itself is perverse on a number of levels. First, there is the perversity of the stated rationale for killing Freya: protecting humans. Insofar as she posed a threat to humans — a purely hypothetical threat, as there are no reports of her ever actually hurting anyone — that was only because humans refused to stay away from her. So instead of doing more than “recommending” that people stay a safe distance, such as closing the marina until Freya left or (easier still) hiring a security guard to keep people away, they killed her.
Second, there is the perversity of the idea that moving Freya would pose “animal welfare concerns.” I am confident in stating that being killed posed more of a welfare concern to her. (And it’s difficult to see what problems moving her would create for other animals, given that her travels had already taken her to Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark without incident.)
Third, there is the perversity of what is almost certainly the real reason Norway killed Freya: protecting private property. Although she posed no real threat to people, she had sunk a few boats by climbing on them to sun herself, angering their owners. The authorities tried to build a dock for her to lie on, but she never took to it. So Freya is now dead but the boats are safe.
Fourth, and finally, there is the perversity of the timing. As Rune Aae, a biologist at the University of South-Eastern Norway, pointed out on Facebook:
Now there are TWO (!) days until the rain pours down in Inner Oslo Fjord, and the school holidays are immediately over so that the number of meetings with Freya would be reduced to an absolute minimum. Freya had sooner or later gotten out of the Oslo Fjord, which all previous experience has shown, so killing her was, in my view, completely unnecessary, and another example of a trigger-happy gun management — for which Norway is already well known.
No animal deserves to be murdered — not for food, not for sport, not to protect boat owners. It doesn’t matter whether they are cute or ugly, smart or dumb, playful or aloof. Life is life and humans have no right to take it from any animal except in the rarest of situations, such as self-defence. And no such situation was present with Freya. Just consider how one writer described her meeting with an even larger walrus:
But suddenly there I was in the pen, time expanding as I watched Sivuqaq, a 2,200-pound adult male, roll toward me like a gelatinous, mustachioed boulder and head straight for my solar plexus. Somehow, either out of professional pride or rigid terror, I managed to stay standing and stuck out my palm; when Sivuqaq nuzzled against it, all my fears fell away. I stroked his splendid vibrissae, the stiff, sensitive whiskers that a walrus uses to search for bivalves through the seabed’s dark murk, and that feel like slender tubes of bamboo. Then I blew in his face, and he half-closed his eyes, and I huffed and puffed harder and he leaned into my breath, all the while bleating and grunting and snorting for more.
Quite the threat, huh?
Norway deserves the public shaming it has received for killing Freya, and Bakke-Jensen should be banished from polite and impolite society forever. But this is only the beginning: after a similar journey by a walrus named Wally last year, “experts warned that animals conducting bizarre migrations could become more likely to occur as their icy habitats in the arctic are destroyed by warming waters due to the climate crisis.”
So the (literally) vicious cycle will continue: humans will continue to warm the planet through their activity; the warming planet will lead more sea creatures to venture among humans; humans will kill the sea creatures because they pose a “threat” to them.
After Freya was spotted in Shetland late last year, a local photographer said delightedly that she had “come a long way but hopefully she’ll hang around for folk to see,” because it “could well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Wherever she turns up next she’ll be gratefully received by a very receptive audience. What a wonderful experience to see her.”
A receptive audience everywhere but Norway. There, instead of celebrating Freya’s magnificence, the Norwegian authorities murdered her instead.