Furry like me

Going deep undercover to understand Sacramento’s most misunderstood subculture

Monkey, chicken, mouse, panther, bunny, tigercat ears and glasses by Zoots and Cheap Thrills at <a href="http://zootssuits.net/">zootssuits.net</a>. Brown Bear hat/mittens and Pink Kitty headband/mittens by Stephanie Hyden.

Monkey, chicken, mouse, panther, bunny, tigercat ears and glasses by Zoots and Cheap Thrills at zootssuits.net. Brown Bear hat/mittens and Pink Kitty headband/mittens by Stephanie Hyden.

Photo By monkpond photography

Visit www.furtherconfusion.org for information on the next convention. The San Jose Doubletree is already sold out for Further Confusion 2009.

“If I told you things I did before / Told you how I used to be / Would you go along with someone like me?”

Peter, Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” blasts over the JBL speakers lined along the front of the hotel ballroom. Underneath the dimmed lights, a giant gray rabbit, a dark red fox and a spotted floppy dog bop back and forth to the beat, their massive fur-covered feet plopping heavily on the portable wooden dance floor. To the left of them, a cheetah and puma grasp each other’s paws as they sway together in time to the music. The dance floor is crowded with dozens of tall furry creatures: cats, raccoons, possums, skunks, bears and bulls, all gyrating their giant bodies to the music spun by a live deejay.

These aren’t actual animals dancing together, of course. They’re full-grown adults in full-body “fursuits”: intricate, colorful, mascotlike costumes of mammals, reptiles and fantasy creatures. It is the Friday night dance at the Further Confusion convention, a yearly West Coast gathering of the furry fandom, the all-encompassing name for an international community of anthropomorphic art lovers. They call themselves “furries” for short.

Over five days at the end of January, thousands of registered conference-goers, including about 35 from the Sacramento region, descended on the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose to dance, drink, eat, buy and sell art and merchandise, party and hang out with their fellow furry friends. Furries attended workshops and panels, played video games, wandered the hallways of the hotel and drank into the early morning hours, only to wake up the next morning and do it all again. It was like an annual convention of plumbers, only with slightly more back hair.

Many television-viewing Americans first learned of furries from a 2003 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, titled “Fur and Loathing,” a play on Hunter S. Thompson’s classic drug-induced novel. The episode painted furries as perverted fetishists; cultlike, social outcasts bonded together through anonymous, fursuit-clad sex acts. Furries fume that it is the most well-known in a string of negative media and pop-culture images of fandom, perpetuating a fear and loathing of the media by furries in general.

But that still begs the question: Just how accurate are those media portrayals that the furries deem disturbing? Can a person of sound mental health take on the spiritual identity of, say, a badger? Do conferences like Further Confusion fill hotel ballrooms with writhing, pawing “furverts”? And, if so, what’s the best fabric cleaner to use on a fluid-stained fursuit?

There was only one way to find out: I had to talk to the furries, learn their languages. That led me to the Internet and Sacramento-area furries headed to the conference. Although my attempts to get interviews were met with skepticism and predictions of bad outcomes—one “Sacfur” permanently logged off the online group in protest after moderators gave me permission to post on their forum—a few stuck around in hopes of setting the record straight. But to really understand this subculture, I was told I needed to go to FurCon.

And so, I spent a weekend in San Jose weighing what was seeing against the media portrayals. A few times, I identified myself as a writer for SN&R, but mostly, I stayed undercover (the FurCon press policy keeps journalists on a short leash, requiring all media to be escorted by conference staff at all times.).

I attended the workshops and panels, drank at the parties and danced my ass off as though I was one of them. And while hanging out in street clothes with the furries was a good way to get involved with the fandom, something seemed missing. I wasn’t getting the entire experience. I needed to go deep.

So I acquired my very own bear suit.

Lilleah West frolics at home with her foxy sister. Costumes by Lilleah west of <a href="http://beastcub.com" target="_blank">beastcub.com</a>.

Photo By monkpond photography

First things first: What exactly are furries?

“A group of people who are into anthropomorphic literature and artwork,” explained Ian Brossard, who had driven from Sacramento to work as a convention staff member. Furries will often identify with a certain animal species and then create their own cartoonlike character based on that species. Furries incorporate their animal characters into artwork, stories and, as Brossard explained, “Occasionally, they dress up to look like their characters.”

If his answer seems a bit generic, a bit unfetishist, it’s because he has to keep the definition loose. I would discover that like many cultural groups, the fandom claims members with varying levels of affiliation. Some wear suits, some wear a tail and ears; most wear street clothes. One furry greeted his friends with a quick, “Arf!” Another woman introduced her partner as “my mate.” Many just show up for the parties. Like one panel moderator said, “There are many flavors of furry.” She was dressed as an evil Pippi Longstocking clown.

For Brossard, his involvement began with character-based story writing to work through a personal tragedy. Two years ago, his boyfriend was hit by a car. “Basically, I just started writing recently on the events that happened,” he said. “True stuff that I’ve actually been through, but I will write it through the eyes of my character.”

Elaki, a Sacfur who asked to be identified only by his character’s name, chose a lion so he could take on that animal’s traits. “The lion, for me, is a big role model,” he said. “It’s a bit of who I am and also who I want to be.” The lion exhibits loyalty, bravery, courage and leadership, Elaki said, all characteristics that he strives to cultivate in his own life.

There is a long tradition of anthropomorphic art and literature in human history. Egyptian hieroglyphs record the story of the sky god Horus, who has the body of a man and the head of a falcon. Ganesh, revered as Hinduism’s remover of obstacles, is easily recognized by his elephant head. Christ is called the “Lamb of God” to symbolize his purity and humility. (A moderator at FurCon’s “Animals in Deity” panel noted that when ancient humans depended on nature for their survival, their gods were usually animal-like. As agriculture developed and our ancestors were able to rely on their own work for survival, the gods in turn became more like humans.)

In our modern marketing culture, animal names and forms are used to imbue their traits onto man-made objects. Car manufacturers give animal names—Mustang, Cougar, Firebird—to their vehicles to convey strength and speed. The Sacramento River Cats should be agile and quick-footed, the Sac State Hornets intimidating and aggressive.

As some furries will point out, sporting events are one spot in American culture where fursuits are openly welcomed. What would a Sacramento Kings game be without Slamson the lion? Who better to launch hot dogs to the crowds at River Cats games than the feline mascot Dinger?

In fact, a few furries at FurCon said their affiliation with the fandom began as mascots at sporting events or as characters at private parties. They loved being in character so much that they do it not only for a living, but for fun at furry conventions and parties.

Friday morning, the convention hosted a meet-and-greet for fursuiters, giving them a chance to see the faces behind the elaborate suits. Both longtime and brand-new suiters attending their first convention admired one another’s creations. The veterans shared tips on how to enjoy the weekend. Some advice given to the new suiters: Stay hydrated by drinking room-temperature water, avoid soda and take the head off from time to time to cool off.

Lilleah West switches to a head modeled after her dog Pixie.

Photo By monkpond photography

“If you pass out, the EMTs will cut you out of your suit,” warned one veteran fursuiter. “And you will end up on YouTube.”

People in fursuits were in the minority. Of the more than 4,100 registered conference attendees, fewer than 700 suiters marched in the Saturday afternoon fursuit parade.

Besides adults in fursuits, other sights at the convention were pretty weird. Inside the Dealer Den, which was restricted to adults 18 and over, scores of artists sold their skilled work and made themselves available for commissioned pieces. Most artwork in plain view was of cartoonlike anthropomorphic animals in everything from ancient Japanese to futuristic sci-fi settings. One piece near the entrance to the den showed a family of black cobras: father, mother and daughter. The daughter’s form-fitting T-shirt read “Daddy’s Little Girl.”

And then there’s the porn. Lots of porn. Just about every single table had a black three-ring binder with the words “Adults Only” written across the cover. Inside these binders were drawings of humanlike animals, some posed like centerfolds in various stages of undress. Others were engaged in every sex act you can imagine, and more than a few that you can’t. (Think orca-on-fox or squid-thing-on-raccoon to get an idea.) A couple of artists sold DVDs and CDs of boy-on-boy, girl-on-boy or girl-on-girl images. A horrifying thought hit me as I browsed wide-eyed at the unending creativity on display: Do people get off to this stuff?

Another room, the Art Show Auction, was open to all ages, but an adults-only section displayed large, full-color, anatomically correct drawings, paintings and sculptures, all of them going to the highest bidder.

Not all furries, though, are into the erotic art scene. A group of guys perused the art up for auction, snickering at piece titled “Collage” that showed more than 20 wolves gathered for an orgy. At least one artist had a sense of humor about all the oversexed artwork: One piece showed a buxom female fox and cat in skimpy superhero outfits, tugging in vain to cover themselves with the sparse material. “Who the hell designed these @&!* outfits?” cried the fox. “I’m supposed to conceal a weapon in this?”

One explanation for all that porn might be that furries are overwhelmingly young men. In a 2007 study conducted by UC Davis psychologist Dr. Cynthia Pickett, 600 self-identified furries responded to a questionnaire revealing a clearer picture of the fandom demographic. Most furries are white (89 percent) American (83 percent) males (81 percent) averaging 24.6 years of age. Most are students (38 percent) earning less than $50,000 per year (90 percent). Eighty-two percent don’t own a fursuit. And 37.3 percent are bisexual, 32.7 percent are heterosexual, 25.5 percent are homosexual and 8 percent define their sexual orientation as “other.”

Many furries I spoke with mentioned having seen the infamous CSI “Fur and Loathing” episode. The season-five installment had two of the show’s intrepid detectives solving the mysterious death of a man in a raccoon suit; he had been shot by a rancher on a deserted rural road just before being run over by a car. The rancher, fearing for the safety of the dogs he breeds, had mistook the furry for a coyote and shot him with a rifle from the top of a ridge. In the course of their investigation, the detectives’ top-notch sleuthing led them to the fictional Las Vegas PathCon, where one investigator, upon seeing scores of people in fursuits, quipped, “I think I’m having Hunter Thompson’s flashbacks.”

The discovery of a semen stain on the raccoon suit brings the investigation to one of the most infamous scenes in the CSI franchise history: The detectives enter a hotel room right in the middle of a “furpile,” where a half-dozen fursuiters paw and rub each other in a purring mass of fur and sweat. The scene seared itself into the mass consciousness of television-viewing Americans, forever associating furry fandom with masses of fur-clad conference-goers in dark, steamy rooms of groping, anonymous, genderless sexual contact.

Real-life furries I spoke with admitted that, yes, furpiles do happen, but they insisted only a very small minority of furries participate in the invite-only parties. The logistics of a fursuit alone make sex acts difficult, if not impossible.

Like attendees of any convention, Further Confusion participants spent downtime next to the hosting resort’s pool. Sunscreen was not required.

Photo By Ted Cox

“Basically, you’re wearing a couch,” said the evil Pippi Longstocking clown. And they point out that with fursuits selling for as much as $3,000 each, most furries would never dream of getting their fur crusted with bodily fluids.

What the CSI episode missed is that furry conventions are not merely a group of misfits in fursuits, ears and tails meeting up for drinks and noisy parties. Produced by Anthropomorphic Arts and Education, 2008 marked FurCon’s 10th year, and attendees sold out the 505-room Doubletree Hotel. According to one convention staff member, conference-goers filled three nearby hotels as well, with one inter-hotel shuttle running 24 hours a day. For $50, guests 18 and up received access to all five days of convention events, including art, writing and “species” panels, guest speakers, live musical guests, entrance to the Dealer Den and Art Show, a spot in board, video- and card-game tournaments and more.

And consider that FurCon is just one part of the international furry-fandom culture. Fliers advertising upcoming conferences littered tables all over the hotel. Furry Weekend Atlanta and the All Fur Fun Pajama Party in Spokane, Wash.; happened in February and April, respectively. Scheduled for the rest of this year alone are the Midwest FurFest in Wheeling, Ill.; Eurofurence 14 in Suhl, Germany; and MidFur X in Melbourne, Australia.

Besides the usual convention listings of events and guest biographies, the glossy, 56-page, full-color FurCon guidebook included the “Attendee Code of Conduct,” which may have sounded intimidating to some first-timers. Among the rules the FurCon board felt compelled to put in writing: A non-thong bathing suit must be worn as a minimum, and anatomically correct costumes must be strategically covered when those wearers are in public areas of the hotel. Most displays of affection by members of all sexual orientations are fine according to the code, but “groping, tongue battles, and nudity are not.” Collars and leashes may be worn “discreetly,” but public BDSM play can get conference-goers in trouble with Flare, the convention’s volunteer security guards.

Flare staff, which provides security to several conventions around the Bay Area, wandered every part of the hotel’s public areas during the day and had access to the rooms on the party floor at night. These weren’t the beefy, tight-shirted bouncers who work security at the local singles bar; most looked like the other convention attendees: geeky, lanky, bespectacled guys in jeans and T-shirts. Besides a small identifying plastic badge and a black headset radio, it was hard to tell them apart from everyone else.

At a party on a cold and wet Friday night, I asked “Bob,” an experienced Flare guard, why security was even necessary when everybody I had met was so damn nice. Bob looked down through his thick glasses and twitched his mustache before pulling me aside to a quiet part of the patio.

“Drama,” answered Bob, after moving out of earshot of the other guests. “Everyone here knows each other.” He described most of the trouble as the Valley-girlish, “oh-my-God-look-who-showed-up” kind.

The Friday and Saturday night parties seemed to be the biggest draw for the convention. FurCon designated the second floor of the Doubletree as the party floor, and for good reason. The north-facing sliding-glass doors of the hotel rooms all opened to the same massive concrete patio. During the day, party hosts plastered fliers advertising their parties around the hotel lobby and conference announcement boards. The rooms were decorated to fit the theme of the party, and most of the furniture was pushed aside (or into an unused area at the end of the floor hallway) to accommodate as many people as possible. Convention rules required that one person check the ID of every single person ordering a drink, a rule that was enforced at every party I attended.

The Society of Evil Geniuses decorated their walls floor-to-ceiling with the portraits of evildoers throughout history. Guests old enough to drink were given a black ribbon identifying them as a “Minion.” Volunteering to try the mystery drink, which tasted like chilled sake, would earn a Minion a black “Lab Rat ribbon.”

Another room down the hall, fully lit with the hotel furniture all in place, simply had two hookahs sitting on the floor. Anyone could walk in through the sliding-glass doors, take a puff of fruit-flavored tobacco and strike up conversations with others standing in the circle around the pipes.

Elaki identifies with a lion’s traits.

Photo By Ted Cox

People at the parties, like everyone else at the convention, were friendly, nice and welcoming, though they did seem wary of new people, especially a guy who showed up by himself. When I asked one of three fellows where they were from, he answered vaguely, “Two of us are within driving distance,” and I knew not to press the question.

Later, outside on the patio, as I was speaking with a group of three friends, we got a whiff of marijuana. One of them, who was either a guy in drag, a transsexual or just a guy in a female costume (and just how do you ask someone that question, anyhow?), whacked my right ankle with his (her?) cane before asking me if I wanted to come along and “find the skunk.” I asked why he hit my ankle.

“I had to make sure you’re not a cop,” he said. “I was checking for an ankle holster.”

OK. So why didn’t he check my left ankle as well?

“Because you’re left-handed,” he answered. “I could tell by how loosely you’re holding your drink.”

Most FurCon goers didn’t seem too attached the furry fandom. Very few wore head-to-toe fursuits; the vast majority dressed in street clothes. Instead, they were predominantly parts of larger groups of mostly young people affiliated with anime, costuming, video-game and comic-book conventions. These fans crisscross the nation to attend conferences at various times throughout the year. FurCon felt more like a four-day costume party than anything else.

For many costumers, the convention provided a place to become their character, a new persona distinct from who they are in real life.

“When I am in a fursuit, it makes me more open,” said Sacfur Lilleah West, while dressed as Purrsnickitty the cat. “When I’m in a costume, I just open up. It’s more fun. Nobody can see my face. Nobody knows what I’m thinking.”

Dan Rather had cops shoot him up with heroin to understand the drug culture. Geraldo Rivera quickly switched from journalist to rescuer when he assisted a woman in a wheelchair in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Age 20-something reporters who can pull it off have gone back to high school over the years to try and figure out the youth of that day.

So how could I call myself a journalist and really understand where Purrsnickitty was coming from without slipping into a fursuit myself?

Early Friday morning of the convention, I walked into a hotel restroom and commandeered the handicap stall. I opened my red backpack and pulled out my bear suit: a pair of fuzzy, light brown pants with a stubby tail, matching oversized fuzzy gloves, a head covering that left my face exposed and black-and-white checkered suspenders. (Special thanks go to the friends that donated the material and offered to sew the costume free of charge. You haven’t lived until you explain to somebody why exactly she’s sewing a bear suit for you.) I took several deep breaths and cautiously left the bathroom.

I felt ridiculous. I looked ridiculous. But those feelings lasted only a few minutes. Right away, I saw other fursuiters plodding along happily down the hotel hallways. Some people wore tails or pairs of animal ears. Others were dressed like anime and video-game characters. This is probably the only place on Earth where I could wear a bear suit and somehow manage to blend right in. Hell, looking at the full-body suits at the meet-and-greet that morning made me feel strangely underdressed.

I was in the Dealer Den when what I had been dreading finally happened: I recognized the person walking straight toward me. We lived in the same apartment complex, and I had passed her a couple times earlier at the convention without making eye contact. But in the narrow rows between the artist tables, a face-to-face encounter was impossible.

“Hey, we live in the same building,” I started.

Even though she was in jeans and a hoodie, she was embarrassed to have been caught at the convention. “I was worried about running into somebody I knew,” she said before hurriedly looking away at the artwork in front of her.

“Don’t worry too much,” I reassured her. “You’re not the one in the bear suit.”

As I walked around FurCon, people smiled and waved, and I started waving back with those floppy bear hands. A couple of the fursuiters approached with wide open arms to give me enthusiastic, well, bear hugs. The fursuiters don’t usually speak when in their suits. Instead they rely on playful, exaggerated gestures to communicate. When two suiters met in the hallways, they touched and hugged and rubbed each other’s fur-covered bellies. It seemed whenever three or more fursuiters playfully romped around together, some convention-goers started taking pictures as though they were watching two girls making out at a frat party.

Simply walking around in all that fur got me sweating profusely. Once, I had to wander up to the fursuiter’s lounge on the second floor to sit in front of the air-conditioned fans that ran all hours of the day. The thought of engaging in vigorous coitus while dressed that way seemed unbearable. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) I could only stand being in the suit for a few hours at a time. And I suddenly gained new respect for all those sports mascots dancing around for hours on end while trying to keep stadiums full of screaming fans entertained.

No fursuiters ever whisked me away to secret furpile parties. No paws ever groped my nether regions. Acting on a tip as to where I could find furpiles, I checked out the 10th floor of the hotel, which turned out to be dead quiet. I went up there three separate times. You know, just to be sure.

On Sunday evening, many of the furries were packing their things and heading to the airport. They said their goodbyes to friends and made plans to meet up at the next furry convention.

I was heading out the hotel doors when I remembered that I promised to visit a merchant near the Dealer Den. She had served as moderator on a panel discussing furries and the media. After I thanked her in the hallway for the informative discussion, she told me to stop by her table when I had a chance.

At her table, she remembered me and handed me a pin, which she wanted me to have free of charge. I thanked her and left.

As I walked through the parking lot, my mind began what would be several days of processing what I had experienced. I had spent nearly four days with some of the most welcoming, open-minded and yes, sometimes the weirdest people I had ever met.

And so I was left wondering, with all these nice furries running around and having fun for a weekend, how many other harmless groups have been demonized in popular culture for the sake of selling ad space?

I pinned the button to my backpack, where it is still attached today. It reads:

“My subculture was exploited by the media, and all I got was this lousy button.”