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Why Freya the Walrus is the perfect metaphor for our times

She lived, she laughed, she was cruelly euthanised

The precise location of Freya the Walrus’s birth is not known, but it is thought that she was born somewhere in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, which is about halfway between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole. It’s a cold and unforgiving environment, around 60 per cent of which is covered in glaciers, while the islands feature numerous mountains and fjords. The place is home to only 3,000 people but around 2,000 walruses.

The effects of climate change have been particularly noticeable in Svalbard. Between 1970 and 2020, the average temperature there rose by four degrees Celsius, and by seven degrees in the winter months. This has caused ice to melt and, for walruses like Freya, an increase in competition for food. It is believed that this is what first prompted Freya to leave Svalbard and journey south in search of her fishy fortunes.

Freya was first sighted by humans back in 2019 – distinguishable by a lovely pink spot on her nose, unusually small tusks, and an old injury, likely the result of a scrap with a fellow walrus. However, she gained her name after flopping onto a Dutch (coincidentally named) Walrus-class submarine. There, basking in the sun, she was dubbed Freya, after Freyja, the Norse goddess of love and beauty. A more apt name she couldn’t have received.

In the years that followed, Freya was spotted in several locations; off the coasts of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, where she was the first walrus to visit the country in over 23 years. Freya even came to the UK: first Northumberland, and just a month later, the island of Vementry in Shetland. As she travelled, she developed a fandom, igniting headlines wherever she went. But it wasn’t until this summer that her popularity really reached its zenith.

A few months ago, Freya arrived at the Oslofjord, an inlet in the southeast of Norway, over 1,000 miles from home. Here, she wiled away the hours as many of us do in the summer months: lounging around in the sun, enjoying the occasional siesta, and accidentally sinking a few boats. But as Freya’s fandom increased, so did the number of her visitors. People flocked to see this embodiment of love and beauty and to take pictures of her for their Instagrams. And in a cruel twist of fate, those same qualities that made her so beloved, that catapulted her to fame, ultimately led to her demise. It’s a tale as old as time. 

People were told not to approach Freya; the Norwegian authorities issued several warnings and even threatened to fine people who ventured too close. For though Freya seemed friendly, she did pose a threat: walruses are known for attacking people, especially when they’re in boats. A 1918 book titled Four Years in the White North details a gruelly incident in Svalbard (Freya’s home) where a herd of walruses stormed a boat, capsizing it and killing everyone onboard. As recent as 2019, a walrus overturned a Russian Navy scientific vessel, though this time the crew survived.

However, inevitably, people refused to heed the Norwegian authorities’ warnings. Fearing the potential harm she might cause, the decision was sadly taken to end Freya’s life, based “on an overall assessment of the continued threat to human safety”, according to Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norway’s director general of fisheries. But this has already been contested – a biologist familiar with Freya has said the move was “too hasty” and that Freya was bound to have left the Oslofjord sooner or later.

Ultimately, the life and death of Freya is a sad metaphor for our times. That this glorious creature was forced to leave her home because of man, was then deemed a danger because of her proximity to man, and then had her cruelly life taken away by man, is a devastating indictment of our damaging relationship to this planet and the wildlife that inhabits it. Rest in power Freya – your love and velveteen beauty were too big for this world. May the road rise up to meet you.