The idea of animal rights as a social cause is nothing new; the ASPCA was founded in 1866. But when you take a broader look at the history of the animal rights movement, the ethical treatment of animals wasn’t considered a hot-button issue until the early 1980’s, and has continually gained in popularity since then. As such, it stands to reason that animal rights in the Star Wars universe would follow a similar trajectory. Let’s take a look:
The Original Trilogy
When you examine the original trilogy, you’ll find that animals in a galaxy far, far away weren’t treated very well. Case in point: Han Solo’s poor tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back:
“Your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker!”
“Then I’ll see you in hell!”
I still remember watching this as a child and thinking that was awfully mean of Han Solo. Watching the tauntaun cry out in pain as it froze to death – and then watching as Han cut its belly open with Luke’s lightsaber! – gave me nightmares when I watched it in 1988 as an impressionable 5-year-old. It didn’t help that the tauntaun reminded me of the adorable creatures I’d recently met in Labyrinth, either.
But when you look at the bigger picture, this film was released in 1980; at this point in the animal rights timeline, things had just started to heat up. The Animal Legal Defense Fund had only begun in 1979, and PETA in 1980. With that in mind, it’s not as surprising to see that animals in the Star Wars universe weren’t treated very fairly.
Because it wasn’t just the poor tauntaun! In the original trilogy, we also see the borderline mistreatment of a few more species, like the wampa, who was just trying to get some dang dinner in that frozen Hoth wasteland!
Then in Return of the Jedi, there’s Pateesa the rancor, the beast who was kept as a pet in a pit below Jabba the Hut’s palace.
Sure, he’s a slobbery beast, but that doesn’t mean he should be locked up and starved! Think about it: when you take into consideration the fact that rancors aren’t cruel by nature, that means that this fella had to be starving in order to be so nasty. One important thing to note with the rancor, however, is that his mistreatment is acknowledged in this film, marking a slight shift in the way animals are treated in-universe.
In Empire, we see a total lack of empathy when it comes to Han Solo’s treatment of the tauntaun. We’re not given any time to feel bad for the tauntaun, or to even recognize that Han was responsible for its death. But in Return of the Jedi, after Luke kills the rancor, we see the reaction of the creature’s keeper, Malakili.
This moment of self-realization – even though it’s played for pity laughs at the expense of the beast master – is an important one when it comes to animal rights in the Star Wars universe.
The Prequel Trilogy
While I could write a whole post on just the original trilogy, let’s fast-forward to 1999, when the prequel trilogy made its debut with The Phantom Menace and the animal rights movement was in full swing. Avon and Revlon had stopped testing their products on animals, bans on fur farming were set in the UK, Netherlands, and beyond, and Anakin Skywalker earned his freedom when he won the Boonta Eve Classic in a shocking victory over seventeen older, more experienced podracers.
But things took a turn for the animals of the Star Wars universe around this time too, most notably when it comes to Boga the varactyl.
I’ll admit: Boga has a special place in my heart. Casual fans may recognize this creature as the varactyl that Obi-Wan Kenobi enlisted in his fight against General Grievous on Utapau, but I call her a hero.
Boga the varactyl is actually the catalyst for my writing this article. Every time I hear that cry of hers as she gets blasted off the side of that mountain, a part of my heart clenches up and – I know it’s silly – I get choked up. She was just doing what Obi-Wan asked of her, and she paid the ultimate price for it.
And while I know that her death is canon, I refuse to believe this and instead insist that, just like Obi-Wan, she survived the fall and swam to safety, where she went on to have lots of little varactyl babies and lived a long and happy life.
Again, Boga is another example of the growing awareness of animal rights in-universe. While we don’t get an explicit “teachable moment” like we do with the rancor death, we get that spectacular death scene. We know that Boga died, but she did so in a grand fashion, and in that tragic fall off the cliff, the audience is given some time to process her sacrifice.
Or at least that’s how I see it, because I demand #JusticeForBoga.
The Sequel Trilogy
[Warning: Spoilers for The Last Jedi ahead!]
While we’re only two films into this trilogy, there is one shining example of animal rights awareness in the Star Wars universe that even the casual fan (who has seen The Last Jedi) will recognize: the freeing of the fathiers.
When Rose and Finn wind up in the casino on Canto Bight, they come face to face – literally – with the racehorse-like creatures known as fathiers. And while they end up failing in their mission of recruiting the Master Codebreaker, they do manage to free the poor beasts from the cruel guards who whip bloody tracks into their hides.
When they resign themselves to their fates with police closing in on them, Finn says it was worth it just to tear through the casino on a destructive bender. Rose does him one better and unbuckles the saddle from the fathier they rode to safety, gives it a pat to send it into the grass to join its newly freed friends and family, and says something to the effect of, “Now it’s worth it.”
The first time I watched The Last Jedi, I heard this line and remember thinking, “FINALLY! The Star Wars universe understands animal rights!” Or at least, they’ve made an effort to understand them, with animals that we know are wrong to whip and race, (but we will still go out and purchase a plush version for ourselves).
Certainly, this isn’t groundbreaking stuff. I’m pretty sure one of the main plot lines of Episode IX won’t involve Rey and Rose on a quest to free a passel of porgs from a medical research facility. But just like animal rights have grown in leaps and bounds in the last century, in a universe where tauntauns were ridden to death just 40 years ago, it’s a start.
Jess is a runner, writer, and Star Wars fan based in New Jersey. Her hobbies include brushing cat hair off of everything she owns, traveling with her husband, and fantasizing about life on Coruscant or imagining what it would be like to hang out with the Caretekers on Ahch-To while logging training miles for an upcoming race.