Finalist : Terrain.org 7th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
A clot of cars forms on Penn Avenue just outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh, but unlike any traffic jam I’ve ever seen, this one has a weird air of gaiety. The July sun jangles in a brilliant blue sky and glitters on skyscrapers as cars slow down and drivers crane to look. The walk sign flashes on at the corner of 10th and Penn, and a tiger—actually, a man in a tiger costume—saunters through the crosswalk to the rhythm of honks and cheers. Behind him marches a small menagerie: a woman wearing a pair of feathered wings, two teen girls sporting cat ears and whiskers, a man whose plush fox tail bounces jauntily behind him. Humans dressed as wolves, lions, birds, dragons, and deer surround the hotel attached to the David L. Lawrence, moving in and out of its giant revolving doors in packs, flocks, and herds. Anthrocon, the world’s largest gathering of furry fans, draws thousands of people from around the world to celebrate and act out their animal alter egos.
Welcome to the jungle: animal-people crowd the lobby of the Westin Convention Center Hotel in small talkative groups, lounging, waiting, coming and going. All around me, people in animal costumes embrace one another, perform skits, and pose for onlookers with cameras. About one in six fans appears in full costume, and nearly all of the others flaunt creaturely accoutrements: hats and headbands with ears, tails safety-pinned to pant seats, dog collars, gloves with claws, feathered and scaly wings. I count plenty of foxes, wolves, big cats, dragons, and several huskies and German shepherds: some species must never go out of style. There’s a wolf with airbrushed tribal markings on his face, a snow leopard whose giant plush tail boasts perfect black rosettes, and a hawk whose faux-feathered wings, when he flexes them, splay and settle neatly back into place like real feathers. He looks for all the world as though he’s about to take off—like he could leap from the hotel’s sky-scraping height and soar.
Furry fans revel in stories starring anthropomorphic animals—animal characters with human traits; think Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Tony the Tiger. The typical furry character has the head and fur—or hide, or scales, or feathers—of an animal, but walks upright, talks, and wears clothing. Many works starring anthropomorphic animals have achieved smash-hit status and worldwide acclaim: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a gripping Holocaust survival narrative—and the only comic to win a Pulitzer Prize—depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. Other beloved examples include Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, Disney’s Robin Hood and Zootopia, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
“The average furry fan is cast from the same mold as the science fiction or sword-and-sorcery fan,” explained longtime Anthrocon staffer Douglas Muth. “All of us imagine strange and thrilling worlds and try to picture ourselves living in those worlds.”
Over 6,000 furry fans attend Anthrocon for four days jam-packed with activities: an art show, a marketplace, competitions, social events, and instructional panels on topics like costume making, safety tips for performing in costume, fiction writing, and drawing furry comics. Furry fans create and consume a staggering variety of media featuring anthropomorphic animals: visual art, music, puppets, role-playing games, comics, graphic novels, and even some erotica. But the fandom’s most famous attractions are the full-body animal costumes called fursuits. Dissatisfied with shoddy mass-produced mascot costumes, fans began making their own, elevating the animal costume to haute couture. Today’s fursuits are elaborate and realistic, custom-made for their wearers, often built with cooling systems, animatronics, and even light-up effects. Fursuits may cost several thousand dollars and can take many months to construct.
Furry fans immerse themselves in animal identity play with the help of a fursona—a furry persona—by choosing a species, a nickname, and a personality. Part avatar for online self-representation and part vehicle for real-life fantasy play, a fursona can exist anywhere on the continuum from accurate self-representation to pure wish fulfillment fantasy. Most lie in between, tending to represent an idealized version of the self: the furry fan whose fursona is a Dalmatian firefighter might be a firefighter in real life or someone who admires firefighters and wishes to absorb and portray positive qualities such as strength and bravery. Like conventional self-identities, the fursona occupies the fluid territory between wishful thinking and reality.
Anthrocon may let tigers and wolves run wild, but it keeps reporters on a tight leash. Members of the media must seek permission to attend the convention, and once on the grounds, the media must be escorted at all times by a member of senior staff. Only journalists who submit to a background check may go unescorted. Escorted or not, all members of the press must wear bright green badges.
“We do this to protect the attendees from tabloid journalists who are out to sell a sensational story,” said Anthrocon’s chairman, Samuel Conway. When he’s not running the world’s largest furry gathering, Conway is a chemist—as in, Samuel Conway, Ph.D. His fursona is a cockroach and he goes by the nickname Kagemushi, Japanese for “shadow bug.” Furry fans know him as “Uncle Kage.” Instantly recognizable in his white lab coat and constantly chattering earpiece, he’s sunny and immediately likable.
The media routinely pokes fun at Trekkies and comic book fans, but no kind of fan has suffered more at the keyboards of lazy writers than furry fans. An episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation depicted furry fans as sex-crazed perverts who wear animal costumes for orgies made wilder by dousing themselves with “animal musk.” A furry side-plot in an episode of the primetime medical drama ER tried to jam as many titillating rumors as possible into two minutes of airtime. But of all the lurid screeds libeling furries, none were so damaging as George Gurley’s 2001 Vanity Fair piece titled “Pleasures of the Fur.”
“This is no hobby,” Gurley promised. “It’s sex; it’s religion; it’s a whole new way of life.” Framing furry fandom as a refuge for maladjusted sexual deviants, Gurley drew no distinction between furry fandom and fetishes such as plushophilia, the practice of having sex with stuffed animals. His profile of “Fox Wolfie Galen,” a furry fan who’s also a plushophile, includes this lurid scene: “I called a taxi and went to the bathroom. When I came back to his lair, Fox Wolfie Galen was in a full-body tiger suit. He was gesturing to a rip in the costume, between his legs.”
Furry fans—and Fox Wolfie Galen—responded with outrage.
“I absolutely do not agree with how the Vanity Fair article turned out,” Fox Wolfie Galen said. “There are things in there that I did not say, and many other things that are twisted. I specifically said that my plushophilia has nothing to do with the furry fandom as practiced by most other people.”
But the damage was done, and furry fans have held journalists suspect ever since.
Conway doesn’t blame fans for giving reporters a wide berth: to this day he’s hounded by tabloid hacks who try to badger him into admitting that the fandom is all about sexual deviance. For some reason, he told me, people have a hard time believing that adults who role-play as animals might do so for G-rated reasons.
In recent years, journalists have produced a far more accurate portrait of the fandom. Hartford Advocate reporter Jennifer Abel even went undercover to a local gathering called FurFright in search of sleaze. She didn’t find it. Her investigative report, titled “Hell Hath No Furries,” concluded that the fandom, while quirky, is innocent on the whole. “Children’s cartoons, Red Cross fundraisers, team sports, and adult content kept discreetly out of sight. How wholesome,” Abel wrote. “May as well have gone to a Catholic school Halloween party.”
Conway has given a talk called “Furries and the Media” at Anthrocon since 2008. One of the worst things that furry fans can do, he says, is bring up negative stereotypes right off the bat. That just cements the wrong ideas ever more firmly into the public imagination.
“Maybe they’ve heard horrible things. Maybe they haven’t,” he said. “But once you open your mouth, they will have.”
Instead, he urges furry fans to focus on what the fandom is all about, not what it isn’t. He rattles through a list of common questions: What’s this all about? Art and costuming. What kind of people attend? The same kind of people you meet every day out there on the street. The big difference, he says, is that furry fans are much friendlier, not to mention far more creative: “There’s more creative energy here at Anthrocon this weekend than in the whole commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Unlike fans who congregate around someone else’s original characters—comic book fans or Trekkies, for example—the furry fandom self-generates almost all of its beloved characters and creations. Furry fans develop their own characters and make their own art and stories, cooperatively building a world that’s intensely creative, richly textured, robustly original. The fandom supports a surprising number of full-time professional artists and writers. Anyone who thinks the arts are dying ought to visit a furry convention: furry fans treat artists like rock stars—sometimes even waiting in line for hours just to meet them.
Furry fans produce artwork in a staggering variety of styles, from cute cartoons to Japanese manga to ultra-realistic illustrations to comics with a hard military edge. In addition to drawings and paintings of anthropomorphic animals in every conceivable medium, Anthrocon’s huge art show boasts cave paintings done on real pieces of slate, sculptures of cats made from musical instruments, Japanese lanterns with tiger silhouettes, and—done by an artist whose sense of humor is alive and well—a series of dinosaurs drawn on old data cards. Some of these works sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. The record high price for a work of art sold at a furry convention is $10,000. That prize went to Christy Grandjean, an artist known as Goldenwolf, for her painting of a muscly wolf man slinking toward the viewer, backlit by the moon.
At one corner of the art show, a dreadlocked security volunteer wearing a tiger tail checks IDs. I flash the badge showing that I am over 18 and he waves me through to the adult section, which is only a fraction of the size of the main section. Suddenly I am surrounded by furry erotica: a minotaur sporting a bullish erection, well-endowed wolf guys striking cheesecake poses, dragons making out with unicorns. Many of these pieces play with stereotypes: a lesbian hyena ravishes a zebra girl, a team of sexy sled dogs get tangled up in their harnesses, a border collie guy gets shagged—doggy style—by an anthropomorphic ram. Displaying neither the pathetic seriousness of romance novel covers nor the slick plastic fakery of porn, this art winks and nudges, depicting sex in all its multitudes: weird, funny, passionate, joyous, liberating.
Humans created the first known work of anthropomorphic art in the world—the Löwenmensch (lion man) statue found in Germany’s Stadel-Höhle cave—about 40,000 years ago. Anthropomorphic animals have figured prominently in our lives ever since. Rituals involving animal identities or creaturely costumes exist in every part of the world inhabited by humans and have been identified in virtually every major society throughout human history.
Fred Patten, a fandom historian who attended his first sci-fi convention in 1958, and who counts himself among the ten or so original furry fans, told me that the modern furry scene dates to 1983, the year artist Steven Gallacci began publishing Albedo Anthropomorphics, an alternative comic featuring dogs and other animals as space pilots. Gallacci spent six years illustrating fighter jets for the United States Air Force. He often drew anthropomorphic animals flying the planes.
The first furry fans met one another in informal get-togethers at science fiction conventions. As the Internet allowed fans to find one another and share furry art and stories, the fandom gained visibility. Sixty-five people attended the first furry convention, ConFurence Zero, held in 1989 in Costa Mesa, California. Anthrocon’s first iteration—Albany Anthrocon in New York—welcomed 500 attendees. The convention moved to Philadelphia in 2001 and to Pittsburgh in 2006. Attendance at Anthrocon grows by about 17 percent annually. Furry fans host and attend hundreds of conventions, gatherings, and informal meet-ups every year across the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. The fandom’s largest art website, FurAffinity.net, hosts more than 11 million works of art submitted by nearly 1.2 million active users. Animal costuming is even going mainstream: Urban Outfitters sold a talking white wolf mask for Halloween, and Spirit Hoods, a line of faux fur scarves featuring animal ears, urges shoppers to get in touch with their inner wolves, foxes, and leopards.
Still, the belief persists that an adult wouldn’t participate in furry fandom unless he or she was dysfunctional in some way—a loner, sexually deviant, or immature. Is a furry fan’s preference for anthropomorphic animals a sign of maladjustment? At the very least, do they suffer from some kind of identity disorder?
Social psychologist Kathleen Gerbasi decided to answer that question. In 2008, she asked Conway for permission to conduct research on the furry fandom by surveying fans at Anthrocon. Conway warned her that it might be difficult to wrangle participants. Given how furry fans have been burned by the media, he told her, she shouldn’t be surprised if no one leapt to answer her probing questions about their mental health. Happily, however, furry fans were relieved to be the subject of serious academic study and not media machinations. Thousands of fans have participated in the studies Gerbasi conducts with her research team, the International Anthropomorphic Research Project. Her first study examined the negative stereotypes Gurley made famous in Vanity Fair—that the furry fandom is a refuge for sexual deviants who lack social skills and suffer from mental health problems. She surveyed 217 fans on everything from their sexual preferences to their mental health status to whether or not they really wanted to become nonhuman animals if they could.
When Gerbasi’s research team compared the responses given by furry fans to those given by a control sample of college students, they found that furry fans were significantly less likely to report relationship problems, anxiety, depression, self-absorption, and self-critical feelings, and significantly more likely to report a deep interest in art, seeing beauty in things others might not notice, and a desire to feel “close to the earth.” The team concluded that while some furry fans might exhibit a form of “species identity disorder” that causes feelings of discomfort, the notion that furry fandom primarily attracts the maladjusted simply isn’t true.
A 2013 study led by Courtney Plante—an International Anthropomorphic Research Project psychologist who happens to be a furry fan himself—offers some insight into fans’ motivations for adopting animal identities. Fursonas tend to be representations that are close to a fan’s actual self, but with positive qualities a fan desires to have, such as attractiveness, confidence, or extraversion. Adopting a fursona allows fans to try out these traits within a safe and supportive community. Fans who practice desired traits with the help of their fursonas may eventually attain some of those qualities in real life.
“The fandom represents a safe space for this sort of identity exploration,” he said. “When everyone is a fantasy-themed character, it reduces the level of self-consciousness a person may feel. If the person you’re talking to represents themselves as a walking, talking, blue cat, it’s pretty hard for them to ridicule you for your self-expression.” Plante suspects that this safe and inclusive environment also helps people struggling to come to terms with other stigmatized aspects of their identities, such as being gay or transgendered.
Feminist scholar Debra Ferreday argues that taking on an animal identity—which she calls “nonhuman drag”—is a powerful way to subvert anthropocentrism, the social order arbitrarily placing humans’ needs above those of nonhumans. In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Management, Michael Healy and Michael Beverland postulated that furry fans adopt animal identities to heal feelings of anomie brought on by increasing disconnection from the natural world. Far from using fantasy to drop out from reality, furry fans are mobilizing their animal identities for positive and affirmative outcomes.
I decided to be a wolf for my first fursuiting experience: I borrowed a wolf costume made by Shannon Heartwood of Clockwork Creature Studio, whose creations represent the ne plus ultra of animal costumes. Heartwood’s works are in such high demand that she quit her job to make animal costumes full-time. Her waiting list opens just a few times per year and fills with requests within minutes. She makes masks by hand, complete with painted glass eyes, sculpted jaws, and textured faux fur, selling them for upwards of $1,000 each. Her full-body costumes, each custom-fitted to their users, start at several thousand dollars. Many of her customers are repeat buyers, commissioning several costumes over a number of years. She’s done special effects work for commercial projects, but most of her sales go to people buying costumes for recreation. Some people ask for scary costumes for Halloween, but most of her customers seek a magical combination of charisma, power, and beauty.
“People want beautiful animals,” she told me, emphasizing the word. “Beautiful wolves, beautiful tigers, beautiful foxes.”
With snow-white fur and icy blue eyes, the mask turns me into one sultry wolf. It fits snugly and comfortably, padded on the inside with faux fleece, and it is remarkably light, a far cry from gawky mascot heads. I can peer out through the black mesh of the tear ducts, but no one can see in. An elastic band holds the hinged jaw of the mask against my jaw, so that when I open my mouth, the mask reveals a wolf’s serrated smile. A very fine line separates the real from the uncanny valley, and this mask straddles that territory. It’s beautiful and unnerving: when I tried it on at home in front of my collie, she bolted from the room, throwing a hard wary look over her shoulder.
On Saturday night, a nearly-full moon rides high on the skyline: the perfect night to prowl downtown Pittsburgh as a wolf. I’m joined by my friend Jeremy, a photographer who came to take pictures of the costumes. The mask restricts my field of vision, so he’ll spot me to make sure I don’t run into anything. As soon as I step off of the elevator and into the lobby, I hear oohs and ahhs, murmurs of appreciation, and—how appropriate—a wolf whistle. A few people reach out to pet me. Leery of fingerprints on expensive snow-white fur, I lean away. Jeremy, my bodyguard, asks a gathering crowd of admirers not to touch. We push past the crowds and into the humid summer night air of downtown Pittsburgh. I hate drawing attention to myself, but almost immediately, something strange overtakes me. I feel brave and daring and giddy. Without realizing it, I have started to swagger.
We walk near the convention center’s fountains, lit up and sparkling with golden light. A pair of well-dressed young women wobble up to us in high heels, bubbly and talkative. They have come, one of them explains, to see the costumes. Lots of Pittsburghers do, she tells me. They love to see this corner of their city transformed into a fantasy world. I’m startled to recognize a touch of envy in her voice. One of the women puts her arm around me and grins for her friend’s camera. This is so awesome, she says again and again, what you guys do is so awesome.
Halloween is the sixth highest spending holiday in the United States, the only non-gift giving holiday where we spend enough money to rival the likes of Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day. Americans who celebrate the holiday—which is most of us—spend several billion dollars on candy and decorations and of course, on costumes.
Theories abound on our fascination with Halloween, most arguing that we like to scare ourselves or that we are morbidly obsessed with death. Yet when people tell me what they like most about Halloween, notions of death or the pleasure of being scared rarely come up. What I hear more than anything else is how often people wish they could wear a costume at other times of the year. Taking on an alter ego and wearing a costume is something so ostensibly transgressive and dangerous that we confined it to one night per year. We all get one night when we’re allowed the identity of our choice, but I wonder just who’s pretending here: are furry fans pretending when they wear their costumes? Or is pretending what we all do when it’s not Halloween?
Navey Baker, the talented sports mascot whose performances went viral after she appeared on This American Life, said that she’s unable to perform her cartwheels and dance moves unless she’s wearing her tiger costume. She’s shy and awkward as Navey, but as a tiger, she’s unstoppable. What’s key, she said, is that when she’s behind the mask, no one knows it’s her, and thus no one can judge her. Only without the paralyzing fear of judgment can she perform at her full range of motion. Her tiger persona is the medium through which she can access the person she truly is.
“It’s like Superman,” she said. “He’s got glasses and a suit and tie. And then all of a sudden, he rips the suit and tie off and he’s Superman. Except I put clothes on to become a tiger.”
These are some of the nicest people. I lost track of how many times I heard this phrase at Anthrocon. I heard it from the parents whose kids dragged them to Anthrocon, and from a Detroit police officer who volunteered to help provide security at the convention—not that he really needed to. I asked him how Anthrocon compares to other big events he’s policed. Sometimes, he said, someone will have too much to drink at a private room party and need to go to the hospital, but that’s about it.
“I’d put Anthrocon up against any gathering of five or six thousand,” he said. “We have far fewer problems here.”
He paused, trying to verbalize this in a way that’s not cliché.
“You know, these are just some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Think what you will about what kind of adults role play as animals, but anybody you know could be one: at Anthrocon, I met a cardiovascular surgeon, a veterinarian, a university professor, and several veterans. Furry fandom has a strong military presence, perhaps because veterans, arguably more than just about anyone else, know the importance of a safe refuge and companionship. While waiting to purchase my convention registration, I stood in line next to a federal drug enforcement agent who told me what it’s like to be shot at.
“My work is very serious,” he said. “This is a place where I can come be a kid.”
I try not to be perturbed by the thoughts of people I don’t know. Nonetheless, I worry about what others might think of me on a schedule that rivals how often I breathe. I choose clothing based on what I think will make me look good to strangers, I apply makeup even though I can’t see my own face, and I choose my words very, very carefully. I’ve poured so much time, energy, and money into putting on a show, and mostly for people whose opinions I don’t particularly value. I wonder what the world would be like if we allowed one another to come as we are without fear of reprisal, and I can’t help but feel as though furry fans have discovered that world. So did the Pittsburgh cab driver who wrote this in his blog shortly after Anthrocon: “The Bible talks about a time when all people will get along,” he said. “Looking at the conduct of the furries toward one another and towards myself, I feel that they are a glimpse of what that New World will be.”
Header photo by Meg Brown. Photo of Meg Brown by Deb Brown.