There's a reason it's called the "Magic of Disney." For decades American children have been enchanted by Tinkerbell trailing sparkling fairy dust over Cinderella's castle. Then comes the world of talking animals and beasts walking on two legs. Every generation of kids has imagined the possibility of abandoning their bodies for a tail, claws and fur, while gaining the freedom to roam the wilderness and toss villains over the edges of cliffs.
But, as Antonio de Saint-Exupery said, adults soon cast aside their imagination and fanciful notions; their willingness to daydream about jungles and veldts diminishes.
If it doesn't, well, then those folks are probably Furries.
The textbook definition of Furries is human beings who are fascinated- sometimes fixated-with anthropomorphic animals. Some say Furries are the ***image1***new Trekkies, a fandom of obsessive fanatics who can't get enough of R Crumb-style erotic cartoon art. As a Star Trek fan might assume a Federation rank and don Vulcan ears, Furries, too, adopt fantastic personas (called, "fursonas") and pin tails to their trousers. The more dedicated wear full-body suits of fur, like football mascots, through which they can merge with their totem animals. Sexuality certainly plays a part-the more sensational articles and documentaries present sex as the chief attraction for Furries-with convention-goers engaging in social scratching ("scritching"), group grooming ( "fur piles"), or full-on mating, sometimes with multiple partners at once ("yiffing"). The extreme-and it's a Furry taboo to speak publicly of it-are the "furverts," who may indeed have sex with stuffed animals or, worse, live ones.
Furries are also becoming a fixture in television pop culture. The last season of Entourage featured a Furry encounter. But bring up the CSI episode called "Fur & Loathing" and you'll really rub the Furry community the wrong way. Furries are even touchier about the 2001 Vanity Fair feature, "Pleasures of the Fur," in which the largest word-count chunk was expended on a flushophile, for whom Furry sex is a fetish. The individual admitted he'd experimented with bestiality, "usually German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, size-comparable things." Furries tell journalists, in great angry detail, that the article devastated the community's reputation. The media has since been banned, forever, from penetrating Furry conventions. ***image19***
In many ways, Furries represent a form of neo-tribalism, the culmination of an increased yearning for post-modern community, the awakening of long-dormant animism and the rise of Internet-enabled social networking. Furries indulge their needs to touch and be touched without shame. Perhaps that's why journalists and social scientists are so fascinated by the darker side of Furry fandom; it's easy to believe they are the 21st century's libertines.
In New Mexico, Furries are bucking the stereotype-not for the media's sake, which has paid them no attention-but for themselves. Centered in Albuquerque, the state-wide community is making great efforts to steer themselves away from the anti-social slacker-hood that comes with the growth of interactive, fursona-facilitating video games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. In Socorro, students from the tech schools meet up for hikes and potlucks. And in Los Alamos, a single Furry, who fancies himself a werewolf, controls the most popular Furry Internet radio station on the planet.
For Furries, it's a fandom, a hobby and a lifestyle, not a fetish. And as it moves into mainstream, New Mexico's Furs want the world to know that they pride themselves on being the most accepting, least judgmental subculture in the Land of Enchantment. Welcome. Howl.
Ed Kandl is at SFR's front door bearing a large, tan, plastic crate he calls his "critter coffin," and his fiancé, Carol, trailing behind him. He's been dying to invade the Santa Fe Plaza in one of his fur suits. He's worn one at the Grand Canyon, Hollywood Boulevard and Arches National Park, but never in the town an hour's drive from his home, "Fur Central," in Albuquerque.
***image2***Ed calls his romps "guerrilla fursuiting," a concept coined by the same Furry, Al Bear, who played matchmaker for him and Carol. Ed hefts the critter coffin to the restroom, leaving Carol to fiddle with his digital camera. She's wary of journalists, refusing to have her picture taken when she's not fur-suited up.
Carol discovered Furry fandom through science fiction, though she was in Furry denial until she admitted she was a cat. Ed had a fascination with animal suits dating back to the mid-'80s. He became even more engrossed when he began developing a distaste for what he calls, "the hubris of man." He read Edward Abbey and joined Earth First. His fursona, Sabot L'our, grew from those influences: Sabot comes from "saboteur," and "our," is the French word for bear.
Minutes later, Ed's stomping down the hallway in a thick brown fur suit. Only his socks and hands are exposed. His head is covered in a sort of protective black balaclava. Carol chastises him for breaking the illusion too early; the first rule of fur-suiting is to never be seen in an incomplete costume.
He slips on the floppy, clawed feet and pulls on the paw-mitts. Carol closes him up in the back. Then he shimmies into a vest to cover the seam, and lifts the somewhat sinister headpiece. Ed won't say another word until the head comes off again. He is now Sabot L'ours, the retired environmentalist warrior bear.
Out the back door, down the street, Carol acts as his handler, steering him, guiding him, telling him when to step up, step down and step around puddles. She'll take photos, scribble down e-mail addresses and dissuade mothers from handing Sabot their "volcano babies." Once, she explains, a mother forced an infant into his arms, who immediately erupted in a geyser of orange puke. A fur suit cleaning bill is expensive.
Downtown, teenage boys lean on the horns of their Durangos and shout the obvious: "Bear! Bear!" Old men try not to smile until they've found a clever classic bear reference, like, "Hey there, Booboo!"
On the Plaza, children stand still and dumbfounded and wait for Sabot to open his arms for a hug, or raise a paw for a high five or, in a lapse of judgment, lower his head within punch's reach. An owner holds his wiry-haired dog in the air so Sabot can touch it snout to snout. It wriggles free with anxiety, and swings and growls from the end of its leash.
Fathers hold their point-and-shoots, gesture furiously for their kids to "get in the frame" and "hold that smile." The mothers, however, ask the protective question that must be asked, "Is there a reason you're out here doing this?"
And Carol answers, "I have to let him out of his cage every once in awhile, or he gets cranky."
***image20***It sounds like a dodge, but really it's the only true answer. Ed is doing exactly what guys in bear suits usually don't: enjoying every minute. Maybe that's his luxury because, unlike a theme park's exploited employees, he can walk off set whenever he wants.
After 20 minutes, he does. He ambles over to the Golden Bear shop so Carol can take his picture. Next stop is St. Francis Cathedral (appropriately, the friend of animals). On the way back, he makes for a garbage can.
Carol stops him with, "A fed bear, is dead bear." That's the catchphrase, she explains, from his wildlife-preservation seminars. When people feed bears, the bears come back, and then they have to be put down.
Back in the office, he pulls off the headpiece and strips down to a black, full-body leotard. The air is filled with human body odor.
"That's called 'fur suit funk.' My best friend is Febreze," he says, then drains a glass of water. And another, and another…
The lone werewolf of Los Alamos sits on a park bench beside the town's lone pond, sipping a Starbucks' spiced apple cider. He's rarely out in the sun, but today he'll squint through it, if only to set the record straight about the Furry fandom. ***image5***
One has to wonder why Jaie Davis feels the need to hide behind a fursona. He's a handsome 23-year-old, with dark skin that deepens red with the sun. With his trimmed goatee and oval-framed glasses, he could pass for a young Spike Lee.
His identification with the Furry community could be a combination of factors: that he was a military kid, never in one place long enough to form truly meaningful relationships; that with a white father and a black mother, he can't avoid racial identity issues; that his sexuality is always in flux. He's settled on the term "trisexual," which is kind of like a sexual agnostic. He's willing to try anything once. ***image4***
"I never really role-played before I got into the Fur fandom and ever since then it's been in the back of my mind. If someone wants to role play with me, I'll be there," Jaie says. "It becomes a new experience every single time that you do it."
The reason he chose the werewolf (or the werewolf chose him), he explains, is a product of chronic depression.
"I started noticing my mood swings would always circle around the lunar cycle," he says. "I could just continuously predict the year-long process: 'Today's going to be a good day,' or 'Today's going to be a bad day'…Once I learned of the [werewolf] mythology, I looked back on my life, and without me realizing it, it had just aligned itself perfectly with my character, both as a human and as a Furry."
As far as Jaie knows, he's the only Furry in Los Alamos. He describes himself***image3*** primarily as a "media Furry" and, to an extent, that keeps him from feeling lonely. He is the founder, controller and programming wizard behind the Furry Broadcasting Corporation, a for-Furries, by-Furries Internet radio station. Jaie is the werewolf who collects the feeds-coming in from California, Georgia, Illinois, Canada, the UK-and broadcasts them to fox holes and badger hollows, lions dens and dragons lairs across the world.
"I told my dad, family is not defined as blood relations. It's the people who you really feel close to your heart, and that's certainly true of the Furry fandom. It's a huge family, and we take care of our own," he says. "It's kind of special because no matter where you are, no matter what city that you go to, you know there's going to be at least one Fur there. You can get in contact with them, know you can feel at home. Home is not defined by four walls, a couple of windows, a fridge, a kitchen."
That certainly describes Jaie's bachelor pad. His living room is devoid of furniture aside from a Yamaha keyboard, a mixing board and a desk jam-packed with computing equipment. One wall is covered in Disney and Pixar movie posters, and another has his father's veteran flag and Army survival knife behind glass.
The FBC's server is housed in an unimpressive standard desktop computer case beneath his desk. It took Jaie thousands of hours and dollars to build the station. With listener donations, it pays its royalties and even features NPR news updates. Soon it will have a personal ad network and live broadcasts from conventions.
He draws a diagram to explain how the FBC works. On one side of the schematic tree, there are live DJs from around the world broadcasting directly to the FBC server. The server streams to listeners at various speeds and qualities, or listeners can download podcasts from his site.
Any more than 120 listeners at a given time and the server will buckle. That happens sometimes, he says, when DJ Wiru-an 18-year-old panther Fur regularly hired to play comic book, anime and Furry conventions-is spinning his house music.
But some of the talk-radio DJs, like Matt Ulmen, have trouble even getting into double digits.
***image6***Ulmen's got a voice for radio. When he speaks, his pitch wavers wildly like an aimless melody, somewhere between Diane Rehm without the education and Emo Philips before he mastered his shtick.
If you ask Matt, though, it's not his voice but his face that destines him for the airwaves. He suffers from tuberous sclerosis, a genetic disease that causes small nodules to grow on his various organs. The 33-year-old in Wenatchee, Wash., says over the phone, that his nose is marred and discolored by these hamartomas.
The condition hasn't stopped him from finding a mate, but it is why he steers clear of public venues, like Furry conventions. Instead, Matt limits his Furry life to virtual environments and video games. There, he's no longer Matt, but Speyeder, a half-man/half-arachnid.
Except at noon on Wednesdays. Then he morphs into Raving Rendal, his outspoken alter ego. His most recent show begins with the Fat Boys' cover of the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man." When it ends, Rendal launches into a tirade about a controversy about whether Second Life-an online world where users can assume various characters and hang out in real time-should charge the European Union's VAT tax. Perhaps his listener levels are so low (he's lucky to top four at a time) because he tends to cover hyper-local subjects. He's extremely proud that if you Google "Wenatchee School Bond," his FBC podcast is the third through sixth listing, beating out the Wenatchee Daily World, the newspaper he delivers for a living.
According to the profile page he's set up for himself, when he's not being a paperboy, he's in front of his computer. That's the Furry stereotype but, according to the studies, Matt's really not all that typical.
Katherine Gates, author of Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex, admits she's guilty of over-emphasizing the sexual side of Furry fandom. She was quoted heavily in the Vanity Fair article, most of it off-topic, about "crushers," men who get off on watching women step on animals, like worms. ***image7***
Gates currently has an exhibition at the Museum of Sex in New York called, "KINK: The Geography of the Erotic Imagination," which features a section devoted to Furries, complete with fur suit and modified plush animals. Ed and Carol checked it out. They thought it was funny.
Ed and Carol don't have a problem with some of Gates' conclusions. For example, their estimates agree with hers on Furry sexuality: approximately 50 percent could care less about Furry sex and, for about 30 percent, yiffing is the primary attraction.
"It's just their lifestyle and sex is part of a lifestyle and, so, because you're a Fur, the fur is sexy," Gates says. "It's not a fetish necessarily, it's just part of a complete lifestyle and point of view about the world."
The three also agree on why the Furry community is disproportionately gay and transgendered; once you've come out as a Furry, it's a whole lot easier to come out as homosexual.
"Animals are playful and affectionate and they're sexual without shame and that's an incredibly liberating experience for people," Gates says. "And I think while they're transforming their species many of them say, 'Well, why not add another level? Why not transform my gender too?'"
But transformation goes beyond sexuality, Gates says, and some Furries are drawn by the opportunity to change sizes or the ability to inflate. The possibilities are endless, she says.
***image8***Although untrained, Gates considers herself almost a social anthropologist, who spends time with her subjects and contextualizes them within all of human culture and history. She equates Furries to ancient cultures in which shamans, priests and priestesses assumed animal form to act out rituals of life, death and fertility.
"There's no place for that kind of thing in our culture today, except in these kind of alternative societies, like Fur," she says.
Gates' research was conducted in the late 1990s, but in the last year, new studies have emerged from college campuses. Social psychologists from UC Davis conducted an Internet survey of 600 Furries in 2006 to determine basic social statistics. Some of the results confirmed Furry stereotypes. For example, their average age is 24.6, and they are generally students. The survey also confirmed that almost 90 percent of Furries are white, and more than 80 percent are male. Other results were surprising, especially in lieu of media portrayals: 82 percent of Furries don't actually own fur suits because they're too expensive, and Internet-based activities exceeded Furry conventions as the primary mode of interaction.
While UC Davis researchers were collecting their data, a second study was being conducted on the ground at Anthrocon, the annual Furry convention.
As a specialist in human-animal relations, Niagara Community College professor Kathy Gerbasi became intrigued by Furries through a message board she was monitoring for Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Furry data didn't exist, so she assigned her students to craft an Internet survey. But Furries were so burned by the Vanity Fair piece, they weren't interested in being studied. ***image10***
With the help of one of her former students, a Furry himself, she successfully tried again in 2006 at Anthrocon in Pittsburgh.
Before Gerbasi can share her results, her dogs begin howling and yapping in the background.
"Julia! Are you for real?" she shouts.
She has four dogs, including a basset hound-springer spaniel mix that's a "bully." He'll sit on the stair landing, and the "wimpier" ones won't pass him.
"I have to go the top of the stairs and tell them they all can have a snack," she explains and puts down the phone. A few minute later she's back. "The basset-springer is very smart and I think he knows if he lays on the landing, everybody gets a prize."
Giving out a prize proved to be her secret research weapon as well. In 2006, less than 200 Furries took her survey. When they returned for the second go this year, she handed out paw-printed ribbons to Furries who returned her packet. She tripled her respondents. Already, the results are surprising, she says.
"Instead of asking Furries to describe their own personality on a 45-item checklist, we asked them to describe the typical Furry," she says. "Then we asked the college- student [control group] to check off the items they felt were characteristic of the typical college student."
Nineteen of the questions were indicative of personality disorders, a stereotype Gerbasi felt needed to be addressed: Are Furries mentally imbalanced?
"Brace yourself," she says. "The college students were statistically, significantly more likely to say those terms described the typical college student…Students had problems, and Furries are pretty much less likely to have those problems."
Clayton Hedgepath, aka Storm Gryphon, isn't particularly comfortable with Gerbasi's evaluation or any clean romanticization of Furries. It isn't just fluff and tickles. There's a thin, dark line, which he says Furries cross far too often.***image9***
"The Vanity Fair article, the Furs brought it on themselves," the FBC promotions director says. "I don't want you to think we run through fields. You gotta take some of the bullshit first. "
The 19-year-old satellite technician in Chicago, who's been a Furry since he was 13, prides himself on straight-talking, shit-talking and a radio voice that can pass as a 40-year-old's.
Clayton found his fursona through a neo-mystical belief system called Otherkin, which involves an "awakening" to discover one's inner mythological creature. He's not a huge fan of the elitist Otherkin community, preferring instead the open-armed Furry fandom. That said, he loathes all the Furry slackers who live off social security. He can't stand the self-pitying ones who emptily threaten suicide when life doesn't go their way. And he's sick and tired of all the public sex, aka "yiffing," at conventions.
"In 2001-2002, people were yiffing in the hallways, having orgy rooms everywhere and over 80 percent of the artwork was dirty," Clayton says. "Yiffing is awesome, I'm not opposed to yiffing. But in terms of going to a con, I don't want some random guy trying to yiff me up in the hallway or two 400-pound men going at it when I open the elevator."
***image12***The reason Furry fandom got so sexual, Clayton theorizes, is that back in the 1970s organizers were disappointed at the convention turnout, and started selling it as an alternative lifestyle to attract gays, sado-masochists and swingers to fill out their numbers.
"The problem with Fur, right now, is that because it started heading down this alternative lifestyle path, they started letting in all these socially retarded kids, who stayed at home, had problems, were glued to their TVs and their computers," he vents. "Once they realize they're accepted by Furries, they start crying more and more for that acceptance and getting yiffy all the time."
In addition to music and news, these are the subjects Clayton rants about on his show, and to great success. Typically, he averages approximately 30 listeners, and he can list many of them by name.
One thing Furries don't talk about is the dark-underside of the fandom- bestiality. Clayton says it's not as rare as some Furries claim. Seven out of 10 of his friends, he estimates, are into animal porn. Of them, he suspects that two or three will one day act on their impulses.
"[Furries] are into it, but it's just to what degree," he says, matter-of-factly. "When it comes to bestiality, it's still a major hush-hush, because it's illegal. I'll tell you many, many more Furs are into that stuff than what they're willing to admit. They'll tell when they get to know you."
Nevertheless, he concedes that New Mexico Furs might be different, not just sexually, but in motivation and social skills as well. His opinions are only about the general fandom. But he's a skeptic, and he warns to be wary. The New Mexico Furs, he says, might be faking it.
"Klingons scare me," Carol says. "I'm serious."
She hasn't changed a bit, but Sabot's back to his original species. He's Ed again, beer foam in his goatee. He's careful not drip nacho goo on his human clothes, a pair of shorts and a T-shirt from the Rocky Mountain Furry Convention.
A few minutes earlier, the couple was strolling downtown, browsing the shop windows and complaining about the inflated price tags on the animal sculptures. Now they're at the Blue Corn Café talking about the Internet buzz leading up to a Klingons vs. Furries bowling match the weekend before in Georgia. It's no wonder Carol's frightened of them; the event's Flickr page shows a wolf clutching a "Furry Fury!" poster, while a Klingon charges with a giant "Bat'leth" weapon.
The reverse is true too, though, Ed adds.
***image13***"We know we're weird," he says. "We might be on the fringe, but I find it as a point of honor that even Trekkies find us weird."
The Klingon-Furry match is a prime example, they say, of how the Net is making Furry fandom mainstream. While they might disagree with Gryphon's impression of the sexual-side of Furry fandom, they do agree with his frustration about who's joining these days.
E: I see it as perhaps a dumping ground for wannabe Goths and emos. 'Well nobody likes me over here, so I'm going to be a Furry because they like me there.' New Mexico Furs are drama free.
C: But as you get more and more people into it, the more potential for drama.
E: Personality clashes.
C: If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen.
Some of the drama comes from romantic relationships among Furries. Gerbasi's numbers suggest more than 43 percent have relationship problems. A prime example is the way younger Furs use the term "mate."
E: A mate is your committed-to, whether it's to girls, to guys, that girl. So, in Furry fandom-
C: Three, four, five, six, I don't know.
E: Well, yes, the wolves have packs of three or four mates…Some people cheapen it with, 'I've got a mate!' Six months later, 'I've got another mate!'
C: What about week-mates?
E: Some have never met face to face, and they're calling each other mates. 'We're mated!' and never even met the other person. That's how ingrained the Internet is.
Carol and Ed use Yahoo! Groups to plan events, and Ed keeps a Furry LiveJournal, but that's about as far as their involvement with the Internet goes. Their big joke is, "If you've got a first life, you don't need a Second Life." In their experience, first lives are contagious.
Ed discovered Furry fandom only a few years ago, and found that the other local Furs were reticent, reclusive and reluctant to socialize. Eventually, he convinced a few to get together and started a miniature local convention called, "Albufurque," which now attracts dozens of local Furs (although there are rumors of Furs in Santa Fe, none could be found for this article).
"That's why I say I'm the self-appointed social director, because that's my goal," he says. "I want to get together and just geek out."
***image15***It's not just about organizing. Ed's volunteered with Sandia Bear Watch, Wildlife West and the Rio Grande Nature Center because of his beliefs, his love for fur-suiting and to get the most bear for his buck. As the oldest members of the New Mexico Furs, he's also the "greymuzzle," so to speak. Carol calls him, "Papa Bear."
"I try to pass on life experience to a lot these kids, because they're in college, going, 'Should I continue? I don't know. I'm struggling,'" he says. "I can tell them, "'Been there! Keep going!'" I'm their cheerleader. They'll also say, 'I think I'll go buy a PlayStation.' I tell them, 'No! Invest it, pay off your loans.'"
They have room for one more in their pack. They hadn't heard of Jaie or the FBC until this week. Ed posted it on his LiveJournal, and the New Mexico Furs have been buzzing about it. They want to meet Jaie, and say to invite him on Thursday for a Furry birthday party.
Pulling up to Ed and Carol's home on the outskirts of Albuquerque, Jaie immediately recognizes his friend Miracle's car. He's excited.
Approximately eight Furries are lounging around the living room-but except for a couple wearing pinned-on felt tails and another two wearing collars, an outsider wouldn't really be able to tell. They're just run-of-the-mill-for lack of a better word-geeks.
***image14***"Fur Central" is a normal house, except that the walls are decorated with generally tame animal art and the shelves are lined with bear and cat carvings. Ed, though they call him Sabot, is in the kitchen, wearing an apron that says, "Yiff the Cook."
Jaie recognizes a few by face from the last few conventions, but he never knew they were local. They surround him and question him about the FBC, its business model, whether it plays metal, how one would get a show. Two young men show up, both in long pony tails, Eagle the Cheetah and Mataeus the Bunny, and they seem to be mates. They've been given a copy of Gerbasi's study, and several remember her. Someone passes it to Mataeus, and he lays on the floor on his stomach. While Eagle scritches his back and hair, he reads it aloud.
When he gets to the part where Gerbasi says that most Furries are canine, feline or dragon species, they stop and calculate amongst themselves: There's a cheetah, a tiger, a panther, a rabbit, a bear, a werewolf, a husky, an octopus. A dragon will turn up later.
The panther, Daemien, mentions that they can't "socialize" while an outsider's around and his expression changes as he realizes he might have misspoken. Instead, they talk of video games and Jaie tells an urban legend about the horse shit origins of the Snickers candy bar. Ed complains that every time the media comes out to interview Furries, some pervert will go right for the camera and talk about screwing dogs. The Furries groan and make faces. ***image16***
After dinner, they eat cake and "Bear Claw" ice cream off animal plates with animal spoons. They gather around the TV for Drawn Together, a cartoon that has special meaning for them, since one character is an anthropomorphic pig, and another is a woman with fox ears and tail. As they watch, they lightly scritch each other; Miracle scritches Jaie, Eagle scritches Mataeus, Daemien scritches Ed.
Jaie's disappointed to leave the party early, but the outsider/journalist is his ride. As the car pulls away, he considers the question of what might happen next back at Fur Central.
He answers: "I don't think you want to know."