Page last updated at 12:37 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Who are the furries?

Transilvanian Wild Dog Daiquiri
Fursuits can cost thousands of pounds from shops

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

A court case where the two defendants met on a "furry" website has put the spotlight in this little-known world. So what is a furry?

Lenya looks adorable, with lots of glossy white fur, black paws, a shiny pink nose and cute little pointed ears.

But Lenya is also a 48-year-old computer network administrator called Marshall Woods, who likes motor racing, visiting museums and reading crime novels in his spare time.

DEFINITIONS
Furry art
Anthropomorphism: Attribution of human traits to an animal
Zoomorphism: Attribution of animal traits to a human
Source: K.Gerbasi

Mr Woods is what is known as a furry and Lenya is a "fursona" he has created, which he described as a "sort of space weasel". As part of getting into character he wears a handmade, full-size fursuit.

Furry Fandom, furrydom, furdom - it's called many things - has momentarily found itself in the spotlight in the UK, due to a court case where the two defendants met on a furry website.

It is a largely unknown scene and participants have been happy to keep it that way, feeling they are often misunderstood. So what is a furry?

No standard definition exists but generally furries are people who have a fascination with anthropomorphic animals. These are animals that are given human traits, like walking and talking. They can be anything from cartoons characters like Bugs Bunny to computer game personalities like Pokemon.

The scene has its own art, animation, comic books and literature, but activities are largely conducted online - where furries adopt "fursonas" for role playing.

But for some it is about meeting other furries in person. Groups around the world meet regularly and there are conventions in the US, UK, Germany, Mexico, France, Russia and Brazil.

Petting and scratching

Furries say the scene is about creativity, freedom and community; being who you want to be among like-minded people.

"You get to choose what and who you are. Imagination is OK, no matter what your age," says Mark Merlino, a founding member of the furry culture in the US and known as Sylys Sable on the scene.

COMMON FURRY IDENTITIES
Furries at a disco
Wolf
Fox
Lion
Tiger
Folf (Fox/Wolf)
Cabbit (Cat/Rabbit)
Source: K Gerbasi

But, inevitably perhaps, there's a sexual element too. In a recent court case in the UK, two men who met on a furry website, and shared sexual role-playing fantasies, were convicted of plotting to kill one of the pair's adoptive parents. Christopher Monks, from Lancashire, and Shaun Skarnes, from Cheshire, were found guilty of meticulously preparing the killings via the internet. They are currently awaiting sentence.

Furries will not thank the pair for casting their hobby in a negative light, and tend to argue the sexual side is hugely overplayed.

"I think the problem is that sex sells," says Ian Wolf (his furry pseudonym), who is editor of the British furry news website, FurteanTimes.com. "It is not surprising that less scrupulous journalists like to print stories about people having sex dressed as foxes."

Some furries assume animal traits - known as zoomorphism - and indentify strongly with certain species. This can range from adopting an online persona to wearing a tail or full-sized fur suits like Mr Woods.

Exhilarating

"Fursuiters", as they are called, bemoan society's inhibitions and look admiring at the animal kingdom where creatures have more freedom to be expressive. Touching, petting, hugging and "skritching" (lightly scratching and grooming) is common at social gatherings. And most do not remove their costumes in public areas, to prevent breaking the illusion.

"There's a magic moment when you put a costume on and see yourself in the mirror," says Mr Woods. "It's simultaneously disorienting and exhilarating. You actually do feel that you've changed for just a moment."

Man with fake fox tail
Some identify with certain animals

Anthrozoologist, Kathy Gerbasi, who studies human-animal interactions and furries, has witnessed furry interaction first-hand.

"People say that being in a fur suit allows you to do things you might not otherwise do, like dance in public, clown around, give people a hug," she says.

She argues furries are just taking something that most of us do a few steps further.

"I think most humans grow up interested in animals. We grow up with teddy bears, pets, Mickey Mouse, etc. Animals surround us in advertisements, nature, stories and fables.

"Humans tend to anthropomorphise as a way of understanding and interpreting the world around us. Furries just take this interest a bit further than most people."

But a small minority take it further still - believing they are animals trapped in human bodies, or consider themselves to be part animal. A study by Ms Gerbasi at one furry convention found about a quarter of the participants did not consider themselves 100% human.

She is currently researching this in relation to gender identity disorder, when people feel they are the wrong sex and trapped in the wrong body. She says currently unpublished data supports the hypothesis that there are similarities. She is calling it species identity disorder.

'Mystified'

Feeling you are part-animal is unusual, she admits, although "for most, the furry fandom is a hobby and like Star Trek fans or such".

Of course, there's nothing new about people donning animal costumes for a spot of fun. But Furryism, as a pursuit in its own right, grew out of science fiction and comic book conventions in the 1980s, says furry historian Fred Patten.

FURRY GLOSSARY
Man with fake animal ears
Fursona - furry persona
Plushie - person who loves cuddly toys
Fleshie - a non furry
Fursuiters - People who dress in animal costumes
Yiff - furry porn
Skritching - scratching and grooming

Small room parties were held at such events in the UK and US for fans of animated cartoons with animal characters.

But it really came of age with the internet in the 1990s and today is an internet community first and foremost, says Mr Merlino.

Conventions are held around the world and some have attracted have up to 3,000 furries. In the UK the scene is very active, says Mr Wolf. There are locals groups and two annual conventions, in London and Manchester, with another planned for Inverness.

For a long time it was a male-dominated scene, but many more women are now involved.

"There are still way more male furries than female ones, but the number of girls is growing slowly," says furry artist TaniDaReal (her furry pseudonym), a 29-year-old media designer from Germany.

'Mystified'

"On art galleries, I'd say the gender ratio is pretty balanced. A lot of the furry artists are female."

Very little research has been done on the furry world. This is probably because many behavioural scientists are not really aware of their existence, says Ms Gerbasi.

Man in fursuit
The Lenya costume was handmade

"When I presented an interactive session at an identity conference in 2007 people were mystified," she says. "If you tell people about furries they often think you are kidding or making it up. Also, due to bad publicity, furries have not been cooperative about being studied."

Furries argue it is the persistent misconceptions about them that keeps the scene private.

"The big misconception is that most furries are mainly obsessed with sex," says Mr Wolf. "While there is pornography in the fandom - 'yiff' as it is known - it is only a small part."

So what do they say when someone thinks being a furry is weird?

"I would say that we are just free thinkers who let our minds expand to create these weird and wonderful characters," says Mr Wolf.


Below is a selection of your comments.

As a fursuiter myself, I find the condescending tone of this piece a little distasteful. At the end of the day, what is wrong with like-minded individuals dressing up and having fun?
Lennard Owen, Leeds, West Yorkshire

If they aren't hurting anyone - why make a fuss. it sounds a very nice and innocent lifestyle which I suppose many people will consider weird thus somehow perverted. Live and let live.
Dave, Kidderminster

From what I've seen here and elsewhere about furries, they aren't dressing up like animals, they're dressing up like cartoon characters and plush toys. Most costumes, while charming and clever, owe more to Arthur Rackham-inspired Disney or to Japanese anime. As anyone who has dressed up for Halloween knows, wearing a costume gives us license to behave in ways we might not otherwise. But this whole business of animals being friendlier is silly. A license to touch and hug? Hmmm. Can't imagine a wolf giving a hug to a fox. A cat is more likely to bite the head off a rabbit than groom it.
Ellen, New Haven, CT

Has anybody noticed that turning into an animal, or having the powers of an animal, or having a totem animal is almost universal in all known tribalisitc, pre-written and shamanistic cultures. And that Brer Rabbit (Brother Rabbit) and other humanistic, talking, animals are common throughout the world's folktales and oral cultural mythology. So dressing up as an animal, and pretending to have fur, is merely a modern take on an extremely common and ancient human pastime.
Alisdair Budd, Southend

There are a lot more people creating furry art than wearing fursuits in the fandom. The art ranges from really beautiful, detailed portraits of furry characters to humorous cartoons done in all sorts of offbeat personal styles. But 99% of these articles focus almost exclusively on the fursuiters, leading most people to think EVERY furry wears a suit.
Joe Strike, New York NY US

It is important to note that not all furries are fursuiters. In fact, quite a few of us think they're a bit... odd. Most of us just think Werewolf, Catgirl, etc art and the like is neat looking. I think it's a bit much to try and link it to fetishism or other such stuff. That would be like saying all Japanese Animation fans are Kigurumi ("masked cosplay") fetishists.
KiTA, Twin Falls, ID, US

I consider myself "fursona" to be a mixture of a Lion and a Bunny, these are traits of my personality and emotional states that I identify with. I consider the fandom no more different than any other fandom. I was introduced to the wider fandom though Second Life, and have progressively developed my "fursona", I have found true warm accepting friendship within the furrie community unbound by normal constraints.
Steam Bunjie, Westhoughton

Personally I love being a fur as it allows me to express my personality in a way that is not possible in mainstream society. As such it is incredibly liberating and has taught me a lot about myself and others, as well as rekindling my interest in art. I would also like to add that I have also learnt from my character and incorporated some of his positive aspects into my own personality and thus make me a richer person overall. Although he may not be real he lives in me and I believe I'm a better person for it.
Sierus the Stalion, Brighton

I always liked the idea of wearing a cat suit and got my chance at a fancy dress ball. Unfortunately it was a once in a life time experience, it was so baking hot in that blasted suit that I nearly passed out. Now I restrict fur wearing to gloves, it gives me a superb tactile feeling when I put them on. Does that make me a furry?
Dahlia, London

If people want to dress up as animals etc then let them, it's not harming anybody else.
Kayleigh Clarke, Beccles

I start by saying that I am not nor do I have any interest in being a Furry. However I am incensed that the media has once again branded a section of society by the actions of two individuals. Had the two murder plotters been reporters, model makers, stamp collectors, BBC website readers or children's entertainers would the link have been made to their career or hobby? I very much doubt it. So people dress as animals with human traits, so what? The fact that two of those people are somewhat mentally unhinged is a coincidence. Maybe their common interest brought them together but would it have been reported if the common interest was more common? I doubt it! Amateur reporting twaddle.
Rob, Newbury, Berkshire

Rob, a more complete misreading of an article is hard to conceive. It notes that the furry community would not be pleased by the association with the court case, but people nevertheless are interested in it. The article attempts in a limited way to describe the community and links to websites that give more information. The furry community is a curiosity to most and the article is pitched at them, not at those who already know something. This is reasonable, draws no negative conclusions about the community and tries to broaden knowledge and understanding.
Gavin, Cornwall

I for one really likes this article, as a member of the furry fandom it was nice to see an article that was balanced and informative. The scene is varied and fun to be part of, we are just normal people with an interest in something different. Far too often is the sexual misconception overplayed in articles and it was nice to see a balanced article.
James Shilingis, Colchester, Essex

I hate to burst the bubble of this hard-researched article, but I'm going to have to point out that everything that you see before you - the entire furry fluffy scene - isn't really a pop culture movement at all, it's just a sub genre of a much large movement called Cosplay (Short for Costume Play) that originates in Japan. While furries may be an acquired taste in the UK and US, Cosplay is considered a mainstream hobby in Japan. It's sort of like being a Trekkie. Furries are just Cosplay enthusiasts who dress up as furry animals, whereas pure Cosplay enthusiasts dress up and/or role play in all manner of costumes, from established cartoon and video game characters to their own creation. Both of the furry kind, and of the not so furry kind.
Reader

The real-life meets are always fun, and you get to connect with many like-minded people. It's given me some of my best friends, and some of my worst enemies, but I would do it all over again.
TwoTailedFox, Southend-on-Sea

There's nothing weird about people dressing up as animals, why's it different to any other hobby? When I get my costume on I feel far more comfortable and will often wear my tail at work to help me relax. My colleagues don't seem to mind.
Trisha Storey, aka Bitsy the Space Kitten, United Fluffdom

I'm not a fursuiter but I do like drawing furry art. I agree with Lennard Owen, a little condescending, but it's an interesting article.
DJF, Preston

Nothing wrong with this sort of behaviour - as long as they stay off the furniture and don't scratch the wallpaper.
Vital Spark

All a bit of harmless fun and then Ms Gerbasi coins "Species Identity Disorder". That is a virulent term which will serve to lend legitimacy to a deranged minority of this subculture. These people are not the "wrong species" and should not be given any reason to think that the positive feelings that they get when wearing a fursuit makes this so. If somebody was genuinely an "animal inside a human body", then they would be stark naked, defecating in public and fighting each other over the right to procreate, presumably with members of their true species. The real reason why people feel liberated in those fursuits is quite obviously because they provide the wearer with anonymity, allowing them to have (non-sexual) physical contact with other HUMANS. They should just arrange to hug each other without the suits.
Kevin, Hampshire



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