At conventions across America, thousands of people from all walks of life converge to celebrate a broad but oddly specific interest. They wear custom-made badges and fursuits that project a chosen animal identity: foxes and deers and every manner of mythical hybrid. It makes for a parade of colour that spills in all sorts of directions. There are panels to attend and workshops to take part in; some come for the art, others just want to rave.
To outsiders, this can all seem a bit sordid. Mainstream media has consistently portrayed the fur community as fetishistic – a weird, kinky world where people watch cartoon porn and have sex in large, elaborate animal costumes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, ‘furs’ tend to be secretive and wary of attention. There are so many facets to the subculture that any one strand could easily be distorted or sensationalised.
Joe Strike, a writer from New York, is on a mission to clear up the misconceptions. Having spent nearly 30 years in “America’s most misunderstood subculture”, his new book Furry Nation documents the history, growth and everyday reality of an unconventional community.
“There is enough [sex] in the fandom that if people look for that, they can explore it,” he says. “But to exclude the rest of the fandom – that does bother me a lot.”
The term ‘furry’ – first coined at a sci-fi convention back in 1980 – is simply defined as an enthusiast for animal characters with human traits: the kind we typically see in cartoons, comic books and video games from a young age. But what separates this fandom from others is that furs create their own heroes – weaving them into stories, role play and art work.
Joe Strike at his home in Manhattan. Photo: Annie Tritt.
That’s how Joe got started. Growing up in Brooklyn, he’d often be transfixed by the animal-centric comic books he’d read in his parents’ candy store and the Loony Tunes cartoons he’d watch at home.
“For whatever reason, those really spoke to me,” says the 68-year-old. “There was a sense of liberation and anarchy…” He pauses, clearly wary of his next words. “This is where it gets a little ambiguous and I really have to watch my step, because this is the cliché people have of the fandom – but I found those characters attractive. I don’t want to say I found Pepe Le Pew attractive but I admired his confidence and… oh, I’ll say it: I did find him attractive. He seemed like an actual being and not just a drawing.”
But it wasn’t until much later that Joe realised he wasn’t alone. One day in 1988, he received an envelope with an unsolicited invitation to a ‘furry party’. It featured an illustration of human-like animals getting festive alongside directions to a sci-fi convention in Philadelphia. Joe instantly felt like he’d found his ideal peer group.
‘Booker’ – Pine marten
KT, who prefers not to give her real name, joined the fur community around 2009 through a friend. She has since worked as a staff member at conventions, acted as an admin on furry websites and worn her fursuit for charity. KT is in a transition phase of her life. She has been an adjunct professor and is now a full-time artist interested in getting into the animation industry or pursuing a PhD in the field of neuroethics and psychology. “If I start to grow away from it, that’s fine. But it’s about the friendship and I’m having a great time right now.” Photo: ©Monica Jorge
We have a hardwired instinct to identify with animals, Joe says, but most people have no idea how widespread that affinity is until it connects them with others. That’s why, as the internet took off in the 1990s, so too did furry fandom.
Being a fur manifests in different ways for different people, from art and animation to creative writing and costuming. The heart of that practice is an imagined identity or ‘fursona’ – a character that combines animal and human characteristics. Whether it’s a giant badger or a hybrid dragon-wolf, Joe says the idea is to express an “inner, often truer” version of a person – though it sometimes “takes a while to find out who that really is”.
‘Tictac’ – Shiba inu
New York City
Wes ‘Nacht’ Vial is a 28-year-old software engineer based in Manhattan. At the age of 13, they discovered the concept of a fursona via the virtual pet website Neopets before moving on to DeviantArt and then FurAffinity. Along the way, fellow furries offered much-needed encouragement both creatively and personally. “I found out that there are non-binary gender identities. It allowed me to explore my gender and to accept being trans. The furry community is super welcoming to queer and trans people. There’s so many friendly people from different backgrounds – age, income, gender, sexuality – all united by their interest in anthropomorphic animals.” Photo: ©Annie Tritt
For years, Joe considered himself a big ol’ husky bear. Then he grew a beard, let his hair grow out and became a lion. He’d even stick circles of black electrical tape to the bottom of his shaggy brown socks and pretend they were paws. But in 1997, when it came time to create a badge – the primary way furs identify themselves at conventions – his true essence revealed itself as an alligator.
Joe has spent much of his career writing about animation and, over time, he developed a character of his own called Komos: a sinister komodo dragon who wears a dinner jacket and undertakes various missions on behalf of his sorceress, Circe.
He even adapted that idea into a comic book called Komos & Goldie with London writer and fellow fur Oliver Coombes. It was so much fun imagining those adventures that Joe finally decided to have a Komos fursuit made in 2016.
‘Komos’, New York City. Photo: Annie Tritt
Only one in four furs actually own a suit, he explains. For the majority of the fandom, these elaborate costumes are seen as an unnecessary luxury – mostly because of the cost. (Joe admits to paying $2,100 for his, but prices can easily rocket up to tens of thousands.) Instead much of the community is happy to use online avatars and chat rooms, with many relying on virtual worlds like Second Life to help realise their fursonas.
“I become Komos when I put on the suit,” Joe explains, clarifying that while the alligator is still his fursona and ‘spirit animal’, Komos is the character he embodies in costume form. “He is totally self-confident and looks down on people – and that is not me – honestly not,” he adds, matter-of-factly. “I enjoy being human but when I put that suit on, it’s a sense of liberation from all of that. I can act all sinister and domineering and dangerous. It’s like what actors do. For a lot of them, it’s just the pleasure of stepping outside themselves.”
‘Nali’ – American pit bull terrier Long Island, New York Lauren Rodriguez is a 27-year-old mom, fitness enthusiast and artist. One day, at the age of 13, she searched for images of a cartoon character and came across a DeviantArt page of somebody’s furry artwork. “It all kinda snowballed from there,” she says. As a teen, Lauren would craft elaborate reference sheets for her own character – which kept changing species and requiring constant re-designs. “One thing I really want people to know about furries is that we’re just like everybody else. We’re just looking to have a good time and enjoy ourselves in the way that we want.” Photo: ©Bryan Derballa
Furry Nation devotes an entire chapter to the movement’s kinkier side – otherwise known as ‘yiff’ – but explains that most of the hot stuff is observed through furry art, rather than in real life. Joe believes that the number of people who use fursonas to act out their sexuality is quite tiny. “My best guesstimate is perhaps 5 to 10 per cent of them are willing to put their fursuits at sticky risk,” he writes in the book, “a total of, at most, perhaps 2.5 per cent of the entire fandom.”
Although Komos & Goldie is an ‘adults only’ comic that sees the dragon paired up with a reincarnated Celtic sex-goddess, Joe insists that the character does nothing for him sexually. “I certainly wouldn’t abuse Komos that way; he’d never stand for it,” he says. “It’s far sexier simply being him and tapping into his commanding personality – and a lot of people he meets feel the same way.”
In reality, the furry fandom appeals to such a broad spectrum of people that it’s hard to generalise. Around 75 per cent of furs are under the age of 25, according to Fur Science! – a five-year study of the international community – and 72 per cent are men. Their professions – while mostly within the tech and art worlds – can vary just as much.
‘Video’ – Wolf
Dominic Rodriguez is a 26-year-old documentary filmmaker and private investigator. He became interested in the subculture when he found furry porn on the internet as a 12-year-old. “After that, it was a gradual process that started with examining the community through documentary work and ended with getting a suit of my own, going to furry conventions and openly wearing the furry label. Mostly what I love about the community is the friends I’ve made from so many walks of life: people I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. ‘Furry’ means something different to every single person in the community.”
Photo: ©Jason Henry
In recent years the fandom has developed a right-wing offshoot (alt-furs, like the alt-right, are rising in prominence), but they remain a minority that feels at odds with the subculture’s principles of inclusivity. The community as a whole encourages an open-minded, progressive kind of politics and is particularly accepting of gender nonconforming.
“I don’t think there’s any love lost for furs who treat others as lesser than themselves,” says Joe. “That said, I’ve yet to see any organised opposition to alt-furs or the ‘Furry Raiders’ who wear red armbands with a paw print replacing the swastika. I’m not sure whether these characters truly believe what they claim to be professing or are just trolling the furry community for laughs.”
‘Division Fahrenheit (aka Divvy)’
– Red kangaroo
Long Island, New York
Joe Meyer is a 49-year-old cartoonist and sign artist. In 2001, he found online communities that featured anthropomorphic art. From there, he met locals with similar interests and began attending fur meets in Queens. “I go to these conventions to hang out with people I only know through the internet; draw art for them, eat food with them, maybe get a little drunk with them. It’s taking a break from what’s out there in the real world.” Photo: ©Bryan Derballa
For Joe, there’s a big difference between a fur hobbyist and someone who embraces it as a lifestyle. The sense of kinship among the latter category can be so strong that furs often couple up with fellow furs regardless of sexual orientation. He had little experience of LGBT people before joining the community, for instance, yet found himself falling in love with a guy called Marc (whose fursona is a bear called Furio but fursuits as Walrus Royce).
Together there’s nothing to keep secret, no fear of offending others – they can be whoever and whatever they want. All that’s left, Joe says, is for people outside of the community to follow suit.
‘Tag!’ – Purple border collie
New Fairfield, Connecticut
Jordan Yaruss is an avid whitewater kayaker who works as a biomedical technician at a local hospital. He’s always been interested in anthropomorphic images, though didn’t learn of the term ‘furry’ until college. He’s been part of the community for the past decade and has dressed in a fursuit for four years – mostly at conventions, though he once wore it to the grocery store and was surprised by the positive perception. “It’s just really fun to be a dog,” he says. “I couldn’t stop being a furry if I tried, whether I’m part of the furry community or not. It’s about having fun without the baggage of everyday life.” Photo: ©Monica Jorge
“I would like to see [furry fandom be] accepted as much as any kind of subculture,” Joe adds. “Five years ago, you would not have found this much acceptance of people identifying with a gender different to the one they were born with. And when people put on these suits, they become a personality that happens to be of a different species to the one they were born in.
“It’s probably a few centuries away, but who’s to say there won’t be a way to switch species some day? I personally feel 100 per cent human, but I wouldn’t mind taking a vacation as an animal – and I guess that’s what I do when I become Komos.”