by Brandon Hennen
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania - “They’re all over the place and they’ve all been pretty friendly ” said the woman at the bar. She spoke to the bartender and anyone else listening about half a dozen patrons. She was referencing the “furries ” as they’ve come to be called. The furries had come to downtown Pittsburgh for the largest gathering of its kind in the world, a convention known as Anthrocon. There actually is no unified definition of what constitutes a furry. Indeed, even the furries themselves cannot agree upon one, as I would soon discover.
The simplest explanation, though by no means definitive, would be an underground fan base of people who have an affinity with humanlike animals in art, literature, movies, and cartoons. Many of these people go to great lengths to dress up and act like the animals of their affection. With a little information gathered from the World Wide Web in preparation for this story, I shoved on my sunglasses, tipped the bartender for an overly seasoned bloody mary, and made my way to the hot streets of the city, going to where the fur took me.
On my way to the convention I encountered a man standing outside of a convenience store who had some confused feelings about these fur suited people. I asked him which direction the convention center was and he pointed down a hill. I asked him what he thought of all this and he replied, “Are you talking about them people in the animal costumes? Oh, man! It’s crazy, ya know? I mean, how do they keep them suits on in this weather?” I responded that I had no idea, but then I asked what he thought of the people themselves. He answered: “I don’t know, but I’ve heard stories, you know, about sex things they do in their suits. I don’t know if all that’s true, but they seem pretty harmless, just weird.” I thanked the man for the directions and moved on, determined to get to the bottom of the situation.
I was greeted at the entrance of the David Lawrence Convention Center by a flood of suit wearing furries, most of whom had been there since the opening of the facility at 10:00 am or earlier, some having set up booths in the community gathering area for their artwork, literature, and other items. Immediately, there passed me a person dressed in a burgundy colored dragon suit, with a crown of points lining the top of the head. Another furry was dressed as a white bunny, with large, pink, oval eyes and a red tie, the only article of human clothing. I suppose that just like animals, these furries don’t find clothing all that necessary. After snapping a few pictures of them as they bowed and posed politely, I walked through the entrance and stood on the escalator that would take me to the second floor where the lobby was located. I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for me.
After arriving in the lobby, I registered as a day guest and received my little guest pass and bag of complimentary convention themed door prizes. Quite a bit of work went into the material. The theme for the annual convention was “The Stone Age,” which focused mostly on animals, real or mythical, that were part of that time period. An elaborately drawn comic book revolving around the Stone Age, a little pamphlet with details and directions to various restaurants and bars in the area in case a wolf or bunny needed to grab a meal, and an itinerary outlining the three days of events rounded out the printed material. Considering that nothing lively or interesting would probably happen until then, I took a walk into the main gathering area of the convention center to see what would strike my fancy.
This area was a huge, airplane hangar sized room with a cement floor. On one half were five or six rows of vendors that stretched from one wall to the other. The other half was closed off for performance art and private art shows. The latter area had camera and recording restrictions, so I perused the various stands in the public gathering area, hoping to find some explanation to their animal obsessions that I began to suspect had it’s genesis in a desire to be a Disney character at the same theme park. These people, however, wanted to be them in their everyday life.
As I passed hordes of cartoonish animals, such as a large, red fox triumphantly placing his paws to his hips as he posed for pictures, one vendor attracted my eye: a woman of maybe twenty-seven sitting behind a table displaying her artwork. Most of it was in the Gothic style and was actually fetish art depicting a female, humanlike cat. The artwork was done very well, usually featuring a sexy, busty feline in tight fitting, black leather outfits. I walked up to the woman and asked a few questions. She seemed shy and a bit apprehensive of my questioning. The first thing I asked was, “Why the fixation on cats?” She seemed to look down at the floor for most of our brief conversation, and I wasn’t sure if it was just because she was awkward about being questioned, or whether she was trying to find the right words to explain herself.
“I’ve always felt a connection with cats, so I figured why not make them a symbol for who I am?” she said, this while wearing a pair of black, pointy cat ears, black eye shadow, drawn-on whiskers, and a long, black dress with a tight fitting leather corset. She continued. “I mean, I always found some kind of strength in watching how independent and just absolutely cool they are, you know?” I remember thinking that she just “hit it on the head.” Here was a girl who, if I were a betting man, was either homeschooled or otherwise socially awkward. Perhaps she was using this fem-cat character as a way to connect with other shy, mostly social introverts who gain not only strength but some sort of validation from their art or who they are as people. I asked her about the rumor on the outside that many spread amongst themselves about “furry orgies.” She turned red and stuttered embarrassingly.
“I couldn’t tell you what some of the furry couples do when they’re alone, but, you know, I’ve never seen anything like that.” I thanked her for speaking with me and moved on, even more intrigued by this whole phenomenon. What I suspected earlier, however, had already begun to shape my opinion about what was going on there, but I decided to reserve judgment until I delved a little deeper.
Outside the convention center at the corner of an intersection, a stand was set up that seemed bizarrely placed. It was a pen six feet tall that consisted of four wooden poles and mosquito netting for the walls. A sign read, “Acme Spay and Neuter—Mobile Clinic.” A few men in blue scrubs and masks walked around with medical instruments while trying to keep the net from flapping in the wind. A small table off to the side displayed many products that, according to the sign that hung from it, were reconstructive agents. Everything from air fresheners, makeup, and foot powder were available for free. These items seemed unnecessary for the rough paws of a beast, but apparently these particular humanlike animals must retain some of their civilized attributes. All I needed was to see a furry in a wheelchair or with a walker and I would have died a happy man.
As I stepped across the street, I looked back to notice that encircling the little makeshift sterility clinic was a person dressed in a bunny suit recording the whole thing with a digital camcorder. I looked around me to see if I had perhaps wandered onto the set of a David Lynch movie as this whole scene seemed far too surreal. I saw that several furries had set up at a little bar/restaurant and this seemed like an optimal time to duck in and have a few drinks. Also, I’d get a chance to speak with a few of them.
I walked inside and the first thing I saw sitting at the bar was a man dressed in an Alaskan Husky suit holding a beer and forking a steak salad. Right next to him on the bar was his dog head, blankly staring sideways at passersby. What made this scene particularly humorous was the casualness in which the head was placed there. It was as if this bulky man was merely in a fur coat and had just come back from the wintery mountains after having caught a wolf and subsequently carried its head around as a trophy. I sat next to the head and ordered a drink.
After the man finished his meal, I introduced myself and we began talking. The man’s name was John and he came from Atlanta, Georgia to attend the convention. I asked him what he found so fascinating about all this. “What do you find about it that is so fascinating?” he responded. Answering my question with another question wasn’t moving the conversation forward, so I took a different approach. I asked John what he thought a furry is. “I just like to dress up and have fun. Some of these guys take it real serious. They won’t even take their head pieces off cause they don’t want to ruin the magic. You know, like in Disney World.” We talked for about fifteen minutes. He told me back home he’d get together with other furry friends and they’d do things like go camping, play basketball, or just have a movie night, all while dressed in their suits.
It was all becoming clear to me what was going on there. This seemed nothing more than an outlet by which otherwise ordinary, oftentimes socially inept people dress up and, with the guise of anonymity, interact freely and without awkwardness. Without the costumes, they are barely recognizable in day-to-day life. Indeed, the more I talked with these people, the more I began to understand this to be what Star Trek conventions are to “trekkies.” In fact, I wouldn’t doubt that many of these furries have Spock and Captain Kirk uniforms hanging in their closets.
The last stop on my tour of the bizarre was at the furry dance party. Now I’ve seen many strange things in my travels, but until you see a tiger and a dog slow dance to “Hold on to the Night” by Richard Marx, then you may want to wait before checking off the planet until you have. The entire room was dark with strobe lights of all colors and a great big disco ball right in the middle of the ceiling. At one point, I actually saw a person dressed as a fox slide out on his big paws and start break dancing. A crowd of furries gathered around him as they chanted “red fox” over and over again. I assumed this was the name of the break dancing critter.
This type of mayhem lasted an hour or so before my head began to swim and I became disoriented. I quietly slipped out, fortunate to have my own tail intact. The furries, I concluded, may only be another form of “trekkie,” but I found that most of them were quite friendly and even willing to try and explain why they live this lifestyle. Though none of them could give me an exact definition of what it means to be a furry, the point seems to be that it really doesn’t matter. They enjoy the fun and “magic” of dressing up and acting like a cartoon character. It is their way of connecting on a human level, and it is a way for them to live a fantasy life far from the daily grind of monotonous jobs and insignificant lives. As a bunch of buddies from a construction site will get together at a bar and root for their favorite sports team, so too the furries have their way of congregating and letting off steam. They just tend to do it with a little more flare.