A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
Some lifestylers draw their animal egos; others commission sketches. And others choose to transform their own appearance by dressing in costumes, or “fursuits.”
BY AL RIDENOUR
A woman wearing a leather corset and an unwieldy skunk tail mounts the stage. Half-muted yips and yaps fill the hotel auditorium. Down the row, a man dressed as Winnie the Pooh leans forward in his folding chair. The stage crew cues up Madonna’s “Justify Your Love,” and the she-skunk begins shaking that tail and cracking a whip. Winnie the Pooh relaxes into his seat like his world’s all gone to honey.
Not everyone in the room is a cartoon animal; some are painfully human. They call themselves furries, furs for short, and more than a thousand of them have come together at the Irvine Hilton for an event called ConFurence 11. Many attendees appear to be in a state of transformation — little bobtails hanging out of Levi’s, fuzzy ears worn like headsets, skinny teens in dog collars and tags. Gentle giant computer geeks, busty Renaissance Faire dropouts bursting their bodices, hoary biker wolves, foxes in smoking jackets, belly dancing cats. All kinds. All species. Like The Island of Doctor Moreau, only air-conditioned.
Furries are fans of sci-fi and fantasy yarns starring anthropomorphic animals. The anthropomorphic animals, or morphs, are called furries, too. The term was originally coined to describe humanoid animals who weren’t acting like Bambi’s dewy-eyed pals. It was the ’80s, when comics were being revolutionized for adult consumption, and a new term was needed to give this new breed adult credibility. Adult credibility led down the slippery slope toward adult situations. Several wardrobe changes later, you’ve got a room full of people aroused by a high-heeled whip-cracking skunk.
The costume contest onstage ends. A skunk bitch-goddess, a mystic New Age unicorn, an extraterrestrial teddy bear in a miniskirt, a couple of eight-foot fluorescent rabbits, and other contestants pad out into the halls for photo-ops with their groupies. Leaning heads together in mute communion, they engage in a little ear scratching, and do what furries do best: hug. Several twentysomethings tagging along with the costumed crowd are wearing “Yes, You May Hug Me,” buttons. A beaming hippie is passing out a flyer, “The truth about hugging,” in which the health benefits of hugging are pushed and its various styles are codified: The back-to-front hug, the A-Frame hug, the cheek-to-cheek hug, and the spiritually supreme heart-cen-tered hug.
The love parade makes its way past the impassive gaze of hotel staff and gradually melts into the crowd milling in and out of the “dealers den.” Inside this hotel ballroom, conventioneers can paw over more than a hundred tables of furry comics, fanzines, posters, videos, figurines, plush dolls, and original drawings — all of them quite furry. Most of the goods are the work of fanlike devotion, and many of the dealers follow a circuit of conventions including Crittercon, Anthrocon, Further Confusion, and Eurofurence. This ConFurence, however, is the hoary granddaddy of them all.
Many of the artists are busily sketching. Despite the skill of the illustrators, outsiders have a hell of a time trying to guess which species are getting the anthropomorphic work-over. Sure, there are animal signifiers — tails, pointy ears, and a cosmetic muzzle here and there — but more than anything, these characters resemble pneumatic Xenas and hard-bodied Conans. Bouffant human hairpieces and beards sit strangely atop flesh-colored “pelts.” And there’s lots of that flesh color — a rainbow of flesh colors, undraped pelts, and muscles pumping away in exercises that would make Fritz the Cat blush. Throughout the Dealer’s Den, genitalia is dutifully obscured by peel-away stickers, doing little to dispel the shock of cartoon depravity.
“If you’re just into cute cartoon characters, you can shop at a Warner Bros. or Disney store,” says artist David Bliss, a seven-year ConFurence veteran. Furry erotica is just a fact of life for this travel trailer designer from Riverside. “Always been there. Always will be,” he says. He stares flatly through wire-rimmed glasses as he speaks.
Furry purists pine for that Edenic innocence of furry fandom before the furry lifestyle. Many of the squeaky-clean fanzines like Yarf, Huzzah, and Galaxy were created before furry costume parties, furry role-playing, and furry erotica attached themselves to comics and sci-fi/fantasy conventions. The San Diego-based producers of this event, headed by überfurry Darrel L. Exline, are clearly eager to keep the collective nose clean, issuing this disclaimer via their Web site: “Some people have confused [matters] by juxtaposing their own lifestyle with their Furry Fandom, but this has only succeeded in presenting Furry Fandom in a bad light to outsiders.”
Like the other dealers at the ConFurence, Bliss’ Rivercoon Arts table accommodates varying tastes with separate portfolios marked “adult” and “general.” The latter is unremarkable, and the former unfathomable in the breathtaking sweep of its prurience. A few images: a cross-species same-sex encounter involving a skunk, a raccoon, and a jar of KY Jelly. A furry submissive is strapped into a Rube Goldberg-esque torture machine equipped with rotating dildos. A furry giantess inserts a municipal bus into her love canal. A furry giantess dangles a bite-sized human over moist, voluptuous lips. (“Vore” is an erotic fixation with being swallowed, common to some furries.)
At a nearby table, BushyCat, a frizzy-haired she-fur from New York, has dealt with the censorship issue by stashing salacious treasures beneath the tablecloth. “Go ahead,” she urges. “Take a peek.” It’s a secret warren of fuzzy love-tools the size of baguettes. “Did you feel them?” she demands. A cursory squeeze reveals something like walnuts tucked into the stuffing of the scrotum.
Selling plush playthings of another kind, Stuffe & Nonsense displays an assortment of furry-pleasing plushies like Belly Dancer Sheep and Bobbie the Chain Lynx Biker. Warren Brown, a computer systems analyst from Fremont, says that for him and his partner, Candy Martinez, the dolls were an outgrowth of their interest in historical costuming. Though not furries themselves, when they saw how a few handcrafted cats outfitted Elizabethan style were snatched up by furry collectors, they got serious and began hitting the conventions.
“Plushies” represent a subculture within a subculture — and are an issue of contention. Lance Williams, another historical re-creationist who is a furry, reacts in horror to the topic. “Ye Gods! What kinda sick mind would do that to a stuffed animal?” (“That,” in this case, is exactly what you’re thinking — through a strategically placed hole created either spontaneously through extra-passionate “cuddling” or via careful surgical tailoring of the fuzzy fabric. Not all plushophiles associate stiffies and Steiffs, and ConFurence organizers do not explicitly cater to the needs of those interested in stuffing animals in this way, but there are also no second glances at the dozen or so adults toting stuffed cuddles around the hotel.)
“I had a roommate once who was into that stuff,” Williams continues. “I moved out as soon as I found out about it. From Minneapolis to California! That’s how bad I dislike plushophiles.” Disgust ripples through his corpulent form. One of the few black furries in sight, this 36-year-old freelance artist is here from Colorado, doing business as Purple Griffin Arts.
Williams has no need of fiberfill lovers. The griffin has his own artsy way of getting chicks. “When I like a lady, I will find out what her favorite animal is — seems most I have dated like unicorns or tigers. So I would sit down and make a painting of a unicorn with her features — hair, glasses, if she had them, eye color — everything to make the unicorn look as much like her as I can. Then I put her in a position with my griffin snuggling, or — if I wanted more — making love in midair with clouds and a full moon.” At ConFurence 11, his mark was a sexy wolf perusing the drawing. His sketch of a griffin rear-ending a “wolf howling in pleasure” took his visitor by surprise — in a good way, he says. “I could smell the scent change. [She was] really turned on.”
But Williams is selective about the pheromones he sniffs out. “Most people that I talk to about the fandom freak out thinking that we are all into bestiality,” he says. “I am sorry. I am not into sex with an animal. Humans are just fine with me.” In fact most furries prefer to avoid the B-word altogether, favoring the gentler “zoophilia.” While “zoo furs” do exist and are accepted in certain communities, such as those socializing online under alt.lifestyle.furry, the only vendor who has much to offer them here is Adaptive Instincts, advertising dildos meticulously modeled after the erect members of dogs, ponies, and horses.
On the other side of this enchanted forest are born-again Christian furries like Brenda DiAntonis, an Orange, California, graphic designer married to fellow furry for Christ John Lonberger, a.k.a. Arctic Wolf. “People that claim you cannot be in furry fandom without being exposed heavily to yiff are clearly not trying to stay away from it,” DiAntonis insists. (“Yiff” here would be furry erotica. “Yiffy” roughly translates as “sexy.” To “yiff” is a favorite furry verb meaning anything from snuggling to playing hide-the-pizzle.) “While I do occasionally draw nudes, I try to more or less stay uninvolved in the yiffy aspect,” she says. DiAntonis lists the following as details she will not include in commissions she accepts: messy insertion, large throbbing erections, rape, deviant sex acts, and same-sex acts. For DiAntonis, the ConFurence is a chance to socialize with other Christian Furries, many of whom communicate online via the God’s Creatures discussion list. DiAntonis’ alter ego is XianJaguar, a name crossing her evangelical fervor with a favorite feline representing her love for the rain forest.
Many in Furridom have this sort of “personal furry,” an animal of totemic significance, or a specific fantasy character with its own biography and traits. “Therianthropic furries” mythologize about werewolves and humans downshifting into animal mode. (Sorry — less Lon Chaney and more like channeling the Inner Wolf.) Much of furry role-playing has its roots in online multiuser fantasy games (called MUs, MUDs or MUCKs) or in newsgroups where humans are referred to as “typists,” and animals exchange messages filled with quaint third-personisms like “SilverCub wags his tail and wishes Happy Whelpday.” (“Whelpdays” are furry birthdays.)
Naturally, a fantasy life this effervescent must eventually boil over; personal furries must somehow be given bodies. Some lifestylers draw their animal egos; others commission sketches. And others choose to transform their own appearance by dressing in costumes, or “fursuits.”
“It started as a simple feeling that perhaps I was missing something,” recalls Deen Foxx, a Costa Mesa programmer attending the ConFurence in skunk tail and ears. “It soon became a feeling of missing a tail, and I had this strange desire to make one,” he says. “I dismissed it as something wrong with my brain and kept it to myself — but it was recurring. It was not until I was a student in a psychology class at Bakersfield College, and I was researching an essay on obsessive-compulsive behavior, that I decided my strange thoughts were natural. I started discussing my desire openly. My family thought I was crazy, but my best friend (my roommate) was very open and helped me build my first furry ears and tail. We went all over the place getting strange looks everywhere we went — grocery stores, and the mall.”
Eventually Foxx discovered other furries online, and attended his first ConFurence in 1996. He hasn’t missed one since. “Until the day when everyone can work and play without their façade,” he says, “there will always be the need for conventions where we can just be ourselves.”
For most readers, “being yourself” would not necessitate tacking on a tail, and the idea of dropping your façade by suiting up as a wolf, tiger, or miniskirted bear from another galaxy might seem a bit odd. But get past all the fuzzy logic, the New Age atavism, and those shamanic wanna-bes hiding in Siberian wolf skins, and just try to remember some Halloween when a mask might have given you the nerve to flirt with someone, someone your inner what-have-you wanted real bad. It’s really not as oxymoronic as it sounds.
Perfect example: the Fursuit Dance. One peek in the door makes it clear that all inhibitions are gone as big clumsy cartoon animals wave their mitts and swing their beer guts to Duran Duran. Because the suits are hellishly hot (creation sometimes involves mummifying the body in duct tape), staffers have brought in a fan big enough to chill a foundry. The music is cranked to a level audible over those chopping blades, but Lord knows what subsonic thuds pound their way past the baffle of a Dacron wolf ruff — or, for that matter, what sort of claustrophobic phantasm of bobbing cartoon faces might squeeze through those sweat-fogged pinhole eyes. The only thing clear is that these people are having a hell of a lot more fun than anyone reading about it or writing about it. Four hours ago, they started dancing, and now at 1 a.m., the staff is standing by to close the joint, and the furries are still doing the macarena.