For Nathan of Southern California, it started in 2001, when he accidentally stumbled across a picture of two horses mating, and consequently discovered the furry fandom.

“It was the first time that I’d seen sexuality in a context of innocence,” he said. “People think of sex between animals as natural, not wrong. When I learned about furries, I found a safe route to explore that part of myself, after having been taught for years that sex was a sin.”

Furry fandom refers to a worldwide community of people who appreciate animal-based or anthropomorphic art, film and animation characters. Most of the art-sharing and social interaction happens anonymously via the Internet, allowing people to create alter egos for themselves with animal features and characteristics. Participants are known colloquially as “furries” or “furry fans.”

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when “furry” emerged as a genre. Some people point out that nonhuman characters have been popular since the days of Aesop’s Fables, which date back to Greek civilization before 500 B.C. Funny animals that could talk and walk have appeared in comics since at least the 1940s. A timeline on the WikiFur Web site points to the Beatles wearing fur suits on the cover of their Magical Mystery Tour album in the 1960s as a landmark use of furry imagery in mainstream media. In the late 1970s, Richard Adams published his animal-based book Watership Down, just as the Ewoks and Wookees of Star Wars were coming into vogue.

However, the furry fandom as a movement traces its start back to a science fiction convention in 1980, when a discussion of anthropomorphic characters in science fiction novels spawned furry-focused subgroups and formal furry parties at other conventions throughout the decade. By 1987, Brian Jacques’ series of Redwall books and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics contributed to a wave of momentum that led to the first prototype furry convention, Confurence Zero, in 1989.

Furry fandom spread to Usenet newsgroups and virtual environments in the 1990s, and new conventions popped up almost every year. Since 2000 alone, 30 new conventions have been started.

Getting into furry fandom often starts as an act of rebellion. “Where I grew up in Colorado Springs, it was Christian-nonprofit central,” Nathan said, who preferred to use only his first name. “I dated very little in high school, and I went through puberty in a very restricted setting. It was difficult to express myself before college. I try to bring a mature, common-sense approach to it, and I’m often conscious of how silly the furry fandom must look to people from the outside. But what can I say? I’m hooked!”

Some people think that furry fandom is disturbing, but it evolved out of popular entertainment that most Americans are familiar with. “Inspiration often comes from anime or Disney movies, like The Secret of Nimh and All Dogs Go To Heaven,” Nathan said. “Furries embrace the positive values promoted by those characters. But if you think about it, children’s entertainment teaches kids how to deal with contamination of innocence. You’ll see characters swearing, drinking, lying — but it comes back around to self-confidence, friendship and making good choices. A lot of furry art explores that line between innocence and giving in to … well, primal instincts.”

1Not a fetish
Criticism of the furry fandom tends to focus on the fact that it draws “alternative” crowds in large percentages. Kat the Leopardess, a 26-year-old Los Angeles Web designer, thinks that outsiders assume too much. “Some of my furry fandom work overlaps with Burning Man (a week-long art festival that draws more than 50,000 people each year to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert). But that doesn’t mean that we’re all the same. There are people of different races, sexual orientations, sizes and interests; and, yeah, some people are lazy, but most aren’t.”

Kat also wishes that mainstream media wouldn’t reduce furry fandom to the status of a bizarre fetish. “Yeah, for some people, it is about sex and meeting people to do sexual things with. But they’re the minority. For most of us, it isn’t sexual at all; it’s just fun, and more artistic than anything.”

Dr. Adina Nack, a professor of sociology at California Lutheran University, explained that furry fandom is just another subculture that hasn’t been normalized yet. “Sociologists and anthropologists that study subcultures have found that they share eight aspects, such as having a separate vocabulary that members learn, and behavioral expectations,” she said. “The furry fandom includes most, if not all of these aspects. What they do is nonviolent, and generally based on cartoons; it’s one of the less scary subcultures out there.”

When it comes to overemphasis on the sex-oriented fringe of the furry fandom, Nack pointed to television and movies as the source. “You have to think about what sells in pop culture: sex and violence,” she said. “The brain is the most important sex organ. People have different ways of incorporating fantasy. Just because the mainstream considers Playboy models in lacy garters sexy, doesn’t mean that someone who would rather wear Minnie Mouse ears to bed is perverted. From my perspective, if it’s safe, sane and between consenting adults, who are we to judge?”

Clane Decosta, a 24-year-old resident of Los Angeles, discovered furry fandom by coming across a Web site that mocked it. “I’d always had an appreciation for cartoons and part-animal or nonhuman characters,” he said. “But I realized that my interest went deeper than watching movies. It’s about taking control of who you are, and embracing your flaws. But even now, five or six years later, I’m still on the fence about how involved I am.”

Decosta described a three-level distribution of furry fans and how involved they get. “First, there are the weekend warriors, who throw themselves into it at conventions, but pretend that it doesn’t exist otherwise. Then there are the people who are casual about it, but involved on a regular basis. And, of course, there are the lifestylers, who live, breathe, sleep and eat as their furry selves, or ‘fursonas.’ I’m most like the second level, in the middle.”

Creation of a “fursona” often starts with a general category of animals or creature traits that a furry fan likes, be it reptiles, cats or rodents. From there, a specific animal is chosen that fits both the physical build and personality of the person. “It probably seems odd to some that I chose a weasel,” Nathan said. “But I thought it fit, for someone who is somewhat tall, skinny and has some similar mannerisms.”

Decosta chose a wolf for his fursona, and he’s working on making a costume or “fursuit” to match the character. “I’m very individualistic and independent, but I also have a kind of pack mentality with the people that I’m close to,” he said. “Some people write out pages and pages of background information on their characters. I don’t have that, but being a wolf just works for me.”

Some people develop an interest in furry fandom because they enjoy mythology, and create characters with spiritual significance, similar to totem animals. Many furry fans consider themselves pagans or wiccans, both religious traditions that revere nature and animals as sacred. “I suppose there’s always a bit of symbolism involved,” Nathan said. “But, of course, that isn’t a part of furry for everyone.”

2Now in his late 20s, Nathan has been active in the furry fandom for more than 10 years. If he remains involved past the 20-year mark, he’ll be what’s known as a “gray muzzle” or an old-timer. “It’s often said that people come for the art and stay for the community,” he said. “There’s been a sudden rush of new people due to Internet networking. But the real community-building happens at conventions. Seeing over 550 fellow furries in a hotel, with many of them in costume, is so surreal; and yet you feel safe.”

Decosta thinks that the “art and community” epithet gets thrown around too much for good publicity. “There is some whining and sugarcoating from the official furry fandom organizations,” he said. “Most people want to stay nonconfrontational. I’m the opposite. More furries need to step up, and admit to themselves that at least half of it is about provoking a reaction.”

Conventions are a crucial part of furry culture, often drawing in thousands of attendees. The largest furry convention in the U.S. is Anthrocon, which takes place in Pittsburgh. However, California is home to two other large, popular conventions with long histories: Further Confusion (San Jose) and Califur (Los Angeles). “I can’t really imagine why a big city wouldn’t want a furry convention coming in,” Nathan said. “Just think of all the revenue that we must generate. One fursuit or costume can cost thousands of dollars, depending on quality.”

What happens at furry conventions? In many ways, they’re similar to gatherings held for other fandoms, such as anime or Star Trek. There are discussion panels of artists and animators, a massive vendors’ area (known as the “dealer den”), dance parties, a fursuit parade, lots of cuddling, drawing and creating art, and role play between attendees acting and talking in character. “It’s all about being free and comfortable to express who you are,” Nathan said. “That’s why so many social outcasts are often drawn to it, or people who aren’t under the Furdar into labels and categories.”

Under the Furdar
Within the furry fandom, privacy and protection of identity are big concerns. When someone from the media contacts a furry fan organization, it would take luck to receive more than one reply. One of the main issues is discrimination from employers. “Being involved with furry can become dangerous if word reaches anyone in your professional environment,” Nathan said. “You can get fired on the spot. I take great care to keep my film career completely separate from what I do in the furry fandom.”

Decosta, who is a video game designer and DJ, isn’t as worried. “I’m a night person, and I often work graveyard shifts; people who are into gaming or up that late generally don’t care what you’re into,” he said. “I once ran into another furry at a convention who knew my boss, and that did make me stop and think for a second. But nothing happened afterwards, so I let it go.”

The furry fandom also hasn’t been treated kindly by media outlets in the past. “In the Bay Area, furry people probably wouldn’t respond at all,” Nathan said. “The media channels up there just love to try dragging the furries out when they need some freaks to make fun of and feel superior to. Down here in Southern California, people will be skeptical at first, but they’ll give you a fair shot.”

While conventions are growing every year, most furry fans still find each other on Internet communities like WikiFur, FurNation, Fur Affinity and the role playing game Furcadia. Furry fans have also made their mark in the massive alternate-reality game world of Second Life. “There’s so much money and capitalism involved on Second Life, though,” Decosta said. “It can be hard to tell where the fun ends and the exploitation begins.”

Every now and then, spotting another furry is as easy as watching whoever happens to be walking down the street. “It’s almost like radar, you just get a feeling about someone,” Decosta said. “Personally, I believe that some form of ‘fur-dar’ exists. Whenever one of those gut feelings has hit me, and I casually mentioned furry in conversation, I’ve been right.”

Vexen Crabtree, a sociologist involved in the London furry scene, summarized the appeal of furry in his essay “An Intimate Exploration of Furry Fandom.” He pointed out the following: “It has to be said that most adults go through their lives suppressing themselves and acting to appear strong and successful, or just ‘normal.’ What do furries do with their personas? They communicate through them. This may facilitate communication under circumstances in which the person would normally feel inhibited.”

Most people have a way of breaking out of that repressed, regulated state that society expects of us. For one person, it might be bungee jumping, writing poetry or learning Elvish. For another, wearing ears and a tail, meowing and making anthropomorphic art does the trick.