“Come for the fur, stay for the hugs.”
This is the slogan we work out 20 minutes into a discussion with three self-described “furries” — members of the fandom known for their animal-inspired costumes (and huge conventions across the country) but are still waiting for a multifaceted portrayal in popular culture.
They’re in street clothes, chatting amiably here at a cafe just a short walk from the UC Berkeley campus, where Bay Area furries (alternatively, “furs”) gather on the first Tuesday of every month to share the latest in art and meet other furries. Many have found friendships and lifelong bonds amidst the furry, feathered and scaly “fursonas” that populate the community.
“Being a transplant from Chicago. I had no one to really hang out with,” said Jason Panke, a local furry at the gathering. “(Here) you get to do fun things, go downtown San Francisco and get on trolleys, everyone in fursuits, waving at people. … It brings happiness to a lot of people.”
The meetup serves as an essential in-person gathering for a community concentrated extensively online. Furries have flourished in online communities such as sofurry.net* and Tumblr and witnessed their growing numbers at annual conventions throughout the country.
The Berkeley cafe meetup has been going on for at least eight years. Elsewhere in the Bay Area, the community meets consistently for barbecues, bowling and Frolic — where once a month, they take over San Francisco’s Stud Bar with custom art and costumes.
The gatherings give furries a chance to trade “fursonas” — alter-egos used in the furry community that play off animal and human personality traits, often represented through art in social media profiles or in full costume. Jeff Bowman, a 2009 UC Berkeley graduate who’s organized the meetup for years, describes the fursona as an “open-source framework” for creative expression derived from games, myths and popular culture. Some furries inhabit multiple characters at a time.
Many furs encounter their first taste of the fandom online in fan-generated art and stories. Alex Roviras, another local there Tuesday, found his way to the fandom as a high schooler when he clicked on a wrong link that brought him to stories centered on human-like wolf characters. A long-time fan of “The Lion King” and the fierce Digimon Garurumon, Roviras was intrigued.
“I was like, this is not what I’m looking for, but I’m interested in writing too,” Roviras said. “I came across furry and looked at it and kind of went with it. Things just kind of clicked.”
Roviras recounted how quickly he was intrigued not only by the stories but the art. As he delved further into the fandom, the community became a place where many interests — art, writing, friendship and exploration — intersected. Roviras said that for people reconciling their own sexual identities with the confusing norms of high school — and the bullying that can come with them — the fandom offered a place of acceptance. This was true for Darkwolf, who added that her girlfriend, who is transgender, found solace in the community as she underwent her own transition.
“Coming across furries and how accepting and open that was allowed them to kind of accept themselves and become comfortable with themselves and their own sexuality,” Roviras said. “Or in my case I figured out, ‘Hey, I’m bisexual.’”
The fandom has long struggled with stereotypes that its members are a fringe group, mostly male, united by a desire for sex in costumes. A 2003 episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” ruffled feathers within the community when it portrayed a Las Vegas “Fur Con” as a spot for anonymous, fur-filled orgies. The depiction of “fur piles” or “cuddle pods,” Darkwolf said, was overblown.
“We’re not more sexual than the ‘Star Trek’ fandom or the ‘Star Wars’ fandom,” she said. “It’s just expression and being sexual are more accepted.”
The episode was Darkwolf’s first look at furries, then as a high schooler in Tucson, Arizona, reckoning with her own emerging identity with fur. Amid the episode’s spectacle of promiscuous furries, she saw in Gil Grissom, the lead detective, an attitude of acceptance.
“He said, ‘What’s wrong with your deeper animal instinct?’ and he always spoke about it in a positive way,” she said. “That’s what really kinda light-bulbed with me.”
In recent years, the fandom’s numbers have been growing in hotspots such as Seattle and Philadelphia at conventions such as Rainfurrest and their most popular, AnthroCon, which last year saw more than 6,000 in attendance.
There is no official, overarching organization dedicated to furs. Instead, annual traditions such as San Jose’s Further Confusion, hosted over four days every January, are organized by dedicated volunteers. Bowman, who works nearby as a software engineer at Google, is next year’s Further Confusion chairman.
This year’s Further Confusion featured dance competitions, a parade and a gauntlet of “Critterlympics.” Some people anticipated awkwardness this year when the convention shared its venue with a Super Smash Brothers tournament. But after the initial shock, Darkwolf said, the two groups found common ground.
“A lot of the smash people drop out Saturday night and go to our parties at Further Confusion,” Darkwolf said. “Because furries know how to party.”
Next year, Bowman said, the event plans to upgrade to the largest venue they could find: the San Jose Convention Center.
“It’s like I’m going to a party and everyone’s my friend — I just haven’t met them yet,” Darkwolf said, describing her girlfriend’s convention experience.
Full suits can cost upward of thousands of dollars, some equipped with LED lights, special ventilation and speakers. “God forbid if you have to go to the bathroom,” Panke adds, which is why conventions such as Further Confusion have cooling stations where fursonas can be momentarily disengaged for much-needed air conditioning between dance sessions. For the above reasons many opt for partial suits such as ears, gloves and tails, but often the designs are custom.
Darkwolf, with a soft spot for the “oddball creatures” of the animal kingdom, attends conventions as an axolotl — an amphibious salamander — complete with wide-set blue eyes and external gills frilled with pink fur. She’s a frequent target from kids who want to share stories of their pet lizards or pose for impromptu photo-ops.
“I love to make the kids smile so much,” Darkwolf said. “I can’t help myself, it’s so adorable.”
As the meet-up winds down late into the night, members say goodbye, addressing each other by their fursonas and giving tight hugs. Bowman, who met his fiancee through the fandom, notes that many have found lifelong friendships through their characters and friends of friends.
“If there’s any misconception to make about the fandom, it’s that it’s a place to find sex as opposed to a place to find friends and a place to find love,” he said.