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Freya the walrus delighted Norway. Her death has divided the country.

“This is Norway in a nutshell. Too often we kill the animals we don’t like or can’t cope with,” said a biologist who had been tracking Freya’s journey around northern Europe.
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The decision to euthanize Freya, Norway’s beloved celebrity walrus, brought an abrupt end to her summer of stardom.

Now her death has provoked public outrage and renewed long-standing concerns about how the Scandinavian country treats its wildlife and natural resources.

The 1,300-pound marine mammal — who shares her name with the Norse goddess of fertility and love — had enthralled the public for months as she traveled the nation’s coastline, crushing small boats with her hefty frame. But Freya was suddenly put down Sunday over concerns for her welfare and the risk to the crowds that flocked to see her in Oslo's fjord region, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries said in a statement on its website.

The government body said it feared the animal could injure or kill one of the many people who had been gathering just feet away to take photos, throw objects and even swim in the water near Freya as she bathed in the sun or slept.

“I am firm that this was the right call. We have great regard for animal welfare, but human life and safety must take precedence,” Frank Bakke-Jensen, the director general of fisheries, said Sunday.

After initially calling euthanasia "out of the question," the directorate had warned last week that the drastic step was being considered unless the public stayed away from Freya.

Norwegian headlines on Monday nonetheless expressed shock in the wake of the decision. "Rage after Freya’s death," read the front page of the popular Dagbladet newspaper, with the broadcaster TV2 decrying that she was "killed by her audience."

"This is Norway in a nutshell," said Rune Aae, a biologist who had been tracking Freya’s journey around northern Europe.

"Too often we kill the animals we don’t like or can’t cope with. It's an outrage in Norway how we are treating these kind of animals," said Aae, who is also a doctoral student in science didactics at the University of South-Eastern Norway.

Freya had not shown signs of stress, he said, but instead seemed curious about people. He criticized authorities for not blocking off the areas where the walrus spent the most time, or trying to move her, despite fears that she could drown if an attempt to tranquilize her failed.

Even a fatal attempt to move her would have been better than euthanasia, he said.

The Directorate of Fisheries did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Authorities have doubled down on the decision, with Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre offering his support. “It was the right decision," he told the public broadcaster NRK on Monday. "I am not surprised that this had led to many international reactions. Norway is a maritime nation, sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions.”

A fundraiser to build a statue in Freya’s memory had raised 160,000 Norwegian kroner ($16,500) by Tuesday morning on the fundraising platform Spleis.

But some experts agree that euthanasia was the right, albeit unpopular, decision.

Controlling every interaction between the itinerant walrus and the residents of the Oslo region where she primarily fed was an impossible task that drained local resources, said Per Espen Fjeld, a biologist and a retired adviser for the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate.

"She was not behaving like a typical wild animal. She sought out humans, which increased the risk of an accident," he said. "A friendly bump on a child swimming in the water could be fatal."

The lone walrus' death will not impact the broader population in the Arctic, where they typically live in herds and where their numbers are growing after decades of successful repopulation efforts, Fjeld said.

Instead, the frenzy around Freya distracted from environmental policy decisions that put the endangered species as a whole at risk, he said, highlighting the Norwegian government's decision in March to offer new licenses for oil and gas companies to drill in the Barents Sea, close to its native walrus populations.

"Nobody talked about that. That is the real challenge and threat to the walrus population." Fjeld said.

Tuesday began a week of heavy rain in southeastern Norway, bringing an end to the swimming season and coinciding with the start of the new school year. Some questioned why the decision to euthanize the country's star animal couldn't have been held a few more days.

“Most people in Norway loved Freya; they wanted to protect her and wanted her to be protected,” said Ingrid Liland, the deputy leader of Norway’s Green Party, which holds three of the Parliament's 169 seats and is also critical of the government's approach on fossil fuels.

She has submitted a question to the fisheries minister to probe what alternative measures were considered before Freya was euthanized, and why they weren’t adopted.

“I hope we can get a picture of why they couldn’t let her live until the summer ended in Norway," Liland added. "It’s not a very long summer.”