Norway was right to put down Freya the walrus, prime minister says

<span>Photograph: Tor Erik Schrøder/AP</span>
Photograph: Tor Erik Schrøder/AP

Norway’s prime minister has said it was “right” to put down Freya, a 600kg (1,300lb) female walrus euthanised on Sunday in Oslo fjord, as animal rights campaigners attacked the decision but a leading zoologist insisted it was inevitable.

“I support the decision to euthanise Freya,” Jonas Gahr Støre told the public broadcaster NRK on Monday. “It was the right decision. I am not surprised that this has led to many international reactions. Sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions.”

Freya, named for the Norse goddess of beauty and love, had become a popular attraction since arriving on 17 July 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 said the walrus was euthanised “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 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.

The agency concluded that the “possibility for potential harm to people was high and animal welfare was not being maintained”. Its director, Frank Bakke-Jensen, said other solutions, including moving Freya elsewhere, could not guarantee her safety.

“There have been too many dangerous situations,” he told the Norwegian tabloid VG, adding that while the agency understood the decision could “cause reactions with the public” he was “firm that this was the right call. We have great regard for animal welfare, but human life and safety must take precedence.”

Walruses normally live much further north, in Arctic waters, but Freya had previously been spotted in the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark. Opponents of the decision to euthanise her, which caused uproar on social media, said more should have been done to avoid it.

Siri Martinsen of the animal rights group NOAH said onlookers should have been fined first, and the biologist Rune Aae told the Norwegian news agency it was “infinitely sad” an animal had been put down “simply because we did not behave properly with it”.

Christian Steel of the environmental group Sabima told the NRK, it was essential the directorate released full documentation on who took the decision to euthanise Freya, and on what grounds.

“The directorate cannot keep this a secret just to make things convenient for itself,” Steel said. “They have a reason for it. There must have been professionals in the picture who have made an assessment that this animal was stressed.”

Eivind Trædal, a member of Oslo city council, told VG the decision to put the walrus down represented “a collective failure”, while Truls Gulowsen of the Nature Conservation Association called the decision “embarrassing”.

People “behaved like idiots faced with nature”, Gulowsen said. “Elsewhere, authorities managed to keep them away, and people managed to show consideration. But here in Oslo fjord, no one could be bothered – so we kill it instead.”

However, the zoologist Per Espen Fjeld told 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,” he said. “People were out swimming and suddenly there it was, a metre away. If you get hit by even a little bit of 600kg of muscle and blubber, everyone knows what happens.”

A senior adviser to Norway’s environmental agency and nature inspectorate, Espen Fjeld said animals could be dangerous and that is was sometimes necessary put them down, “as long as that does not endanger the survival of population. There are 30,000 walruses in the north Atlantic.”

He said it was far more important to take care of a species’ habitat – by calling a halt to oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea, for example – than to try to look after one individual animal that had strayed a long way from home.

Espen Fjeld said Freya had triggered a “Bambi effect”. “It becomes a matter of concern, it gets a name, is referred to in human terms,” he said. “But taking care of this individual really has nothing to do with taking care of the walrus population.”