Out of place, out of time: Freya the walrus in the Anthropocene
Freya focalised a set of concerns—mass extinction, accelerating icemelt, species hierarchy—which have come, in part, to exemplify the Anthropocene epoch.
As I began my PhD this summer, the decision to euthanise Freya—the playful young walrus who had taken up residence in the Oslofjord a few weeks before I arrived—was being met with a storm of indignation and grief, both throughout Norway and far beyond national borders. The outrage flew in many directions, focusing on the severity of the measure, as well as the swiftness with which Freya was dispatched: barely 24 hours after the Norwegian Fisheries Directorate issued a warning that she might have to be killed if people couldn’t keep their distance, she was quietly stilled with a shot on a sunny Sunday morning in August.
The human interest in Freya was as much a problem as the human “interest” (ie. safety) reasoning given by authorities to justify her death. I was reminded of another incident I had heard about where humans couldn’t stay away: the baby dolphin who died after being passed around for selfies on an Argentinian beach in 2017 (Bale). Sometimes humans’ performative love for—and fascination with—the wild actually brings about its destruction (Srinivasan). The “Anthropocene” is the proposed name for an epoch in which humans now constitute the dominant geological force on the planet, having left a species-level imprint in every observable sphere (Crutzen & Stoermer). Freya’s death made me think that, if part of living ethically in the Anthropocene is learning to live better with other creatures, then it must also be about choosing not to live with them at all, but leaving them alone.
In this blog post, I want to think through some of the tensions made visible by this sad affair. I could explore this story as one of a conflict of interests between humans and wild animals, a debate very familiar in Norway, where wolves, brown bears, and muskoxen are periodically killed for straying too close to humans. I could examine the clashing of scales: the symbolic value of saving an individual walrus versus safeguarding her species from extirpation.
Instead, I want to propose a reading of Freya as an animal of the Anthropocene. What I mean by this is that Freya focalises a set of concerns—mass extinction, melting Arctic ice, species hierarchy where the human sits presumptively at the top—which have come to exemplify, in part, the Anthropocene epoch as it is broadly defined. For some, Freya was an environmental emissary from the north, come to remind us, as we basked in yet another summer of record-breaking temperatures, that all is not well in the icy climes of her home, which is changing so rapidly it has been dubbed “the most ‘Anthropocenic’ part of the planet” (Henning 199). Freya’s presence in the Oslofjord, I think, represented a sort of time warp, a spatiotemporal migration; as though a massive chunk of Arctic ice itself had broken away and floated south, startling summer bathers with its otherworldliness. In this sense, Freya can be seen as an archetypical animal of the Anthropocene, in that the twin phenomena of unruly weather and unusual animal behaviour gain salience through her unexpected encounter with humans.
The oft-repeated notion that Freya “shouldn’t be here” thus has a twofold meaning: in the superficial sense, yes—a walrus in the Oslofjord is a novelty. On a more troubling level, animals leaving their habitats, ending up confused, stressed, and even in danger, is often a sign that something is deeply wrong. Thinking about her short life, I suggest that Freya’s death was indeed untimely: an issue of mismatched temporalities, and that this incident with a single walrus can tell us something fundamental about time in the Anthropocene.
Out of place, out of time
One strand of the wide-ranging scholarship about the Anthropocene identifies it as essentially a problem of time (Chakrabarty; Meneley 85). It is worth considering this in relation to Freya. Temporal disorder in the Anthropocene usually refers to the dizzying pace at which such diverse phenomena as deforestation, transportation, food production, and extinction are taking place, contrasting them with the much slower rhythms by which plants, animals, and ecosystems grow and reproduce. The two are essentially irreconcilable: the one entails destruction of the other. As Dipesh Chakrabarty sums up, “Soil, fossil fuel, and biodiversity are not renewable on human time scales” (22). The pace at which these resources are being used up renders them startlingly finite, where they might otherwise last for millennia.
Because of this, the Anthropocene acquires further disorderly spatial and temporal dimensions: as humans encroach ever further into habitats already occupied by other animals, whether directly or indirectly, they are pushing those animals to the outer limits of their territory—and in some cases, existence. This forces animals into an accelerated evolutionary mode we might crudely call “adapt fast or die”, whereby their future survival is dependent on the speed at which they can align themselves with human-wrought changes upon their habitats.
With her death, the issues brought to the fore by Freya’s fleshy presence, so close to the centres of political power in Norway, could be violently forgotten.
While the reason for Freya’s journey south can probably never be known, the human activity affecting her usual place of residence could be a factor in walrus population health more generally. Scientists have warned that walruses are very sensitive to anthropogenic sounds such as aeroplanes, ships, and sonar, which can cause them to crush each other in fright (WWF Arctic). The ice on which they depend is thinning, and activity by the oil and gas industry comes very close to delicate walrus habitat (Fjeld). The Atlantic walrus population of which Freya was a part is numbered at around 30,000 individuals, classified as “vulnerable” by the Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre. Even if Freya herself was nothing more than an anomaly, her kin face threats to their wellbeing which receive comparatively little public attention. While Freya was inadvertently destroying expensive boats in Oslo and going viral on social media, 28 new exploration licences for oil were quietly announced in the Barents Sea not far from walrus habitat, as pointed out by biologist Per Espen Fjeld (Bugge & Engen).
Oil explorations of this kind depend upon “temporal work” as well as technical competence, as noted by Lise Camilla Ruud (154). Ruud puts forth the concept of alignment to account for the ways that the Norwegian petroleum industry, responsible for both the country’s largest export and the bulk of its international greenhouse gas emissions (Voigt), attempts to force different temporal scales into productive synchronicity. If oil can be understood as pooled time—representing millennia of geological processes that break down organic matter—then in order to be useful as a material, it must be made compatible with the tools used to dig it out. “The petroleum industry seeks to align the slow time of geological processes with the accelerated time of modern technology so that oil and gas may be extracted”, writes Ruud (156). This is achieved through ever more efficient technologies that are powerful as well as fast, resulting in “the expeditious combustion and unleashing of deep earthly time” (ibid 162).
If alignment is the process by which natural elements become temporally compatible with the interests of human industry, at least in the short term (ibid 161), then the concept can also apply to situations where human safety is predicated upon the subdual of other natures—such as stray 600kg walruses. What would attempts to bring Freya into alignment with humans have looked like? Various options were discussed prior to making the final decision to shoot her; could she be put into a cage, or tranquillised and lifted to another location? All, it was decided, were ultimately unfeasible, and might in fact have caused her to suffer or even drown in the process (Lindin). Temporally, postponing action might have been one way of “waiting out” the walrus. As the planet turned on its axis, late summer would have turned to chilly autumn. Freya might not have left of her own accord, but the cold fjord would have become significantly less alluring to humans.
Nonetheless, the sheer size of the walrus would always be a threat, it was argued, her wild nature making it impossible to predict her next move. Like Freya, “the feral,” writes multispecies philosopher Thom van Dooren, “is the one that does not fit, that refuses to conform to dominant standards of propriety, order and culture” (van Dooren). Importantly, he notes that “Peskiness [and ferality] only exists in the eye of the beholder, from within the context of particular projects and their conceptual schemes” (van Dooren). Ferality is not some innate trait, but is assigned in certain settings by certain actors. The Fisheries Directorate, faced with Freya’s feral, unignorable presence in the Oslofjord, was the arbiter of such a designation in this instance. Wild walruses are okay, they seemed to be saying, but not here, not now.
Out of sync with her own species, living on her own time in the Oslofjord, Freya could not be made compatible with the priorities of nervous public officials, too-curious crowds, and annoyed boat owners. Or, to put it differently: the only way that she could be made to align with humans was by ending her time on earth, removing her permanently from their midst. As Donna Haraway has remarked, “there is no way of living that is not also the way of someone, not just something, else dying differentially” (When Species Meet 80, qtd. in Fry, Marino & Nijhawan 241).
On some level, Freya symbolised fears about the return of a more perilous past (or fast-approaching future) in which humans live closer to wild animals, without the comforting illusion of control.
Killing Freya as killing time
Even at the time of her death, the threat posed to humans by Freya remained speculative rather than demonstrable, giving rise to the question of whether animal death—in a context of a normative commitment to their flourishing—is ever permissible. It was only a matter of time until someone got hurt, we kept hearing. In my own area of interest, multispecies ethnography, it is relatively straightforward to exalt the peaceful cohabitation of humans and their companion species, such as dogs (Haraway), or the “multispecies city” inhabited by both humans and gentle wild animal populations, like penguins and flying foxes (van Dooren and Rose). But far less is said about animal death at the hands of humans who may also care deeply about them—that “dark [and] awkward side of multispecies encounters” (Fry, Marino & Nijhawan 229).
In a recent article, “Killing with Care”, multispecies researchers Tom Fry, Agnese Marino, and Sahil Nijhawan conclude that “ethical multispecies relations allow for care, harm, exclusion, and (some degree of) hierarchy” (241). I take from this that killing animals may have its place amidst otherwise caring multispecies relations, even when it grates against personal ethics. The uncomfortable truth is that Freya was both cared about and killed. At the same time, the Fisheries Directorate’s decision made it clear that Oslo would never become the multispecies city that could be a home for Freya. What ways of knowing and caring about her were foreclosed in the process? What possible futures might have emerged with time?
Disturbingly, the surprise arrival of animals long banished from human settlements, hunted to extinction, or just usually found far away—like walruses—points to a particular kind of future in which efforts by the world’s wealthiest countries to “sanitise” regions of the planet for their own comfort and safety are disrupted by others. These others, both human and nonhuman, will be and are already seeking refuge from their own homes which have been rendered unliveable by the downstream impacts of climate change. These kinds of disruptions represent “an apocalyptic inversion of progress narratives” and one of the Anthropocene’s most “derange[d]” temporalities, as Jennifer Wenzel memorably writes (Craps et al. 504). On some level, Freya symbolised fears about the return of a more perilous past (or fast-approaching future) in which humans live closer to wild animals, without the comforting illusion of control.
In this sense, killing Freya was also a way of killing time—of destroying the particular form of spatiotemporal ferality she represented. What the Fisheries Directorate desired, in one sense, was a “return to order”: an order in which the risk of a dangerous encounter with humans was eliminated, and at the same time where the Arctic icemelt and degradation of walrus habitat that gained so much public attention could again become background noise. With her death, the issues brought to the fore by Freya’s fleshy presence, so close to the centres of political power in Norway, could be violently forgotten—and action against present and future Anthropocenes deferred.
Even if Freya herself was nothing more than an anomaly, her kin face threats to their wellbeing which receive comparatively little public attention.
Sixty years after Rachel Carson wrote her seminal book, Silent Spring, about the devastating impact of pesticides on wildlife, situations like that which took place in Oslo this summer are a reminder that we still haven’t found an adequate way to address “the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures” (296). Ultimately, human societies must always decide what level of risk they are willing to live with. The presence of wolves, for example, remains hugely controversial in Norway. Yet even those animals designated companion species (Haraway) can make risky kin; in Norway, dog bites that require a visit to the doctor occur some 5,000 times per year (Folkehelsetinstittutet). In comparison, attack by walrus is rare to the point of statistical irrelevance—but then again, walruses don’t usually take up residence in capital cities, full of inquisitive humans unequipped to defend themselves.
Human safety was prioritised over whatever other concerns might have guided the Fisheries Directorate’s policy—the welfare of wild animals, Norway’s international reputation, public opinion—in a way that seems inevitable in hindsight. Just a few days ago, fears emerged that Hvaldimir, the sociable beluga whale first observed in northern Norway in 2019 wearing a camera harness, risks becoming “the next Freya” (VG). According to OneWhale, the organisation tasked with his protection, Hvaldimir could be euthanised if he causes injury to the many humans trying to get close to him, or if he is deemed too much of a nuisance to salmon farm operations (OneWhale). His ferality could prove too much of a challenge to dominant industrial interests (van Dooren).
What seems clear is that Freya and her human admirers were mutually altered by being in close proximity to one another. In an explanation to the BBC, the Fisheries Directorate explicitly mentioned this factor: “Both the behaviour of the walrus and people have changed recently. We therefore decided that euthanasia was the right measure” (Shad). Yet if the result of this changing behaviour by both parties is death for Freya only, then what can we who remain behind learn about multispecies community-making in her wake? What is the responsibility of those who get to live?
Surely it must include taking action against those who continue to destroy the habitat of Freya’s kin. Her skeleton now stowed for posterity in the archives of the Oslo Natural History Museum, Freya can serve as a reminder of the destruction outsourced to her Arctic home in the form of oil explorations, rapid warming, and melting ice. In this sense, humans hand out death sentences to walruses every day (Fjeld).
Across the world, there are countless other examples of animals appearing in unexpected places, and there will be many more. Talking about farmed salmon who “escape” their enclosures, Marianne E. Lien has suggested that we might instead call these fish “homeless”, “refugees”, “survivors”, or even “outlaw” salmon, “protected by no one” (Lien 161-162). While belonging to a different species, Freya might be thought of in similar terms. Recalling van Dooren, by departing from her “proper” ascribed place, she left behind whatever protections were afforded by her walrus collective, and by laws—however ineffective—that govern the spaces she lived in. She became an outlaw who “doesn’t behave according to the script”, but, like other wild creatures, “wanders off” to places she is “not supposed to be” (Lien 160). Those who are sad and outraged at the untimely death of an individual walrus must summon that feeling again when their voices really count: when politicians are making decisions about fossil fuels, wild animal protection, and other issues which will affect future Freyas, and those like her.
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