Sitting in an armchair at Because Coffee, Michael Genzoli hoists a big, blue fox head out of his bag and combs the turquoise shock of hair between its ears. If the weather holds, he and his roommate, who suits up as a white tiger, are going out for Arts! Alive in Old Town Eureka. "If we do, there'll be lots of hugs. And tail pulling," he adds with a shrug. They hate tail pulling. Once the head is on, along with paws and a fat swoosh of a tail, so is Genzoli, hamming it up in pantomime for the photographer. Two young women in the corner, Alexis Roberts and Marie Profant, ask to take a picture and he obliges. When they hear the word "furries," Profant's face freezes and the women exchange a look. If Genzoli notices, it doesn't show. He cocks his head for the crouching photographer. He knows the drill; he's a furry.
Furries — in suits or otherwise — are tired of being labeled deviants, and they're quick to point out that it's a fandom — a group of like-minded fans — not a fetish. Sensational portrayals of fur-suited sex romps in the media and conflation of the group's love of humanoid animals with bestiality have left many skittish about talking to outsiders and the press about the subculture at all, much less anything beyond a G rating. Sex, as it turns out, is only a part of the picture, and not in the way you might think. In fact, this community of fluffy pariahs may have created a uniquely accepting place to experiment with who they are — or could be — including their sexuality and gender.
Remember how much you loved talking cartoon animals as a kid? What if you still loved them? A lot? Just as Trekkies love Star Trek, furries define themselves as fans of fictional anthropomorphic characters — animals that look or behave like people — the kind you might find in a Disney movie, a folk tale or a comic book. And just as not all Trekkies wear Spock ears or Starfleet uniforms, not all furries dress up as animals. In fact, according to the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP), a team of social scientists who've surveyed thousands of self-identified furries annually over the past five years, fewer than 15 percent of self-proclaimed furries own suits. The vast majority of furries are white males under the age of 30 with some secondary education.
Their numbers in Humboldt County are tough to estimate, since many keep their interests secret from all but the closest of friends due to the social stigma. Owners of one local fursuit company declined to comment for this story because they didn't want to draw attention to themselves in connection with furries, and most of those who would talk opted not to use their real names. But the Humboldt Furries Facebook page has 18 friends and Humfurs, a local MeetUp group, has 22 members. They're out there.
Kylani is a bobcat. Well, in real life, she's an undergraduate wildlife major at Humboldt State University who got into the furry fandom six years ago through her interest in drawing animals, which she finds far more captivating than humans. "Eh," she says over the phone, "[human] faces all look the same." Kylani isn't her name, either, it's her fursona, an alter ego she created. Like most furries, who typically only have one or two over the years, she chose her fursona for personal reasons, starting with an animal that spoke to her and creating a version of herself as she'd like to be. It's similar to cosplay, in which fans dress as favorite characters, but without a ready-made identity and backstory or, necessarily, a costume. (Kylani doesn't have one.) "For me, personally, it's about expressing an inner personality," she says. Like her, bobcats aren't very large, but "they're very adaptable, often ignored, but pretty fierce, pretty awesome creatures."
For Kylani, being a furry isn't about sex at all. Her fursona is a creative outlet, a stronger self she leans on. "I was heavily bullied, I suffered from depression. In my first year of college, I was sexually assaulted," she says with a quiet, steady voice. Her imagination was "a place of refuge" and, in the aftermath of the assault, it was easier to channel her anger through drawings of Kylani than it was to express it directly. "She's got the claws, she's got the teeth," she says, her voice lifting a little. She still struggles, sometimes turning to Kylani for inspiration. "I did not get justice," she says, but she's turned some of her energies to victim support and rape prevention, which, evidently, is what Kylani would do.
Dr. Courtney Plante is a psychology researcher at the University of Waterloo and a co-founder of the IARP. (He's also the only furry on the five-person research team.) Plante says he's interviewed furries who say the escape and community of furry fandom have saved their lives. Acceptance by other furries is "a source of self-esteem for them, sometimes for the first time in their lives." He also notes that, according to the study, some 25 percent of furries keep their fursonas totally separate from their sex lives. For many furries, he says, "This is an idealized version of themselves and they don't want to taint it. For them it would be like drawing genitals on Mickey Mouse."
While Kylani knows there are furries who are into the sexual aspect of the lifestyle, she doesn't know any, and she's not wild about being accused of bestiality or stereotyped as hypersexual. She's also skeptical about those apocryphal tales of costumed orgies. "I'm very sex positive. As long as it's two or more consenting adults," she says. But, "the last thing people want is to get semen on their very expensive fursuit. ... They get very hot and very sweaty and not in a sexy way ... and they're super hard to wash," she adds, laughing. It's an observation repeated (usually with chuckling) by every furry who agreed to be interviewed. In fact, those suits are damn pricey — upward of $2,000 for a custom model. And they're so cumbersome and stuffy that some furry conventions feature "headless lounges" where participants can take off their foam-packed animal heads and sit in front of a fan.
The bestiality rap is unearned, according to Plante, and abusing animals is reviled among the community, which is largely made up of animal lovers. In fact, he says, "There's been a long history of people missing the point ... they go on the assumption that this is a fetish." He says there is a sexual aspect to the fandom because furries are, after all, only human. Mind you, roughly 38 percent of furries surveyed by the IARP say sex is part of their interest but not a defining element (most cite community as key). Thirty-six percent say the sexual aspect is a major draw. Plante estimates that sexual themes are no more prevalent than among comic book fans, for instance. "If you are a 25-year-old male and you're into comic books ... the natural sex drive is already there," he says. And if superheroes enter your sexual imagination and your eyes linger over those tights, "you're just combining your interests."
Fair enough when it comes to Captain America and Wonder Woman, but what about the animal thing? Plante finds the hand wringing silly and blames a "sex negative" society. "You pop a pair of furry cat ears on somebody instead of lingerie and suddenly it's scandalous. ... A Playboy bunny can put on a pair of ears and nobody bats an eye." The bunnies shaking their tails around Hefner's mansion and people in skimpy animal costumes on Halloween are accentuating their human bodies and hinting at an animal nature. And that's a far cry from bestiality. It's actually pretty cliché.
Tucking a lock of wavy brown hair behind her ear, Crysta (fursona name) leafs through sketches — some naturalistic, some humanoid — from the wolf comic she's working on. She wears a tie-dyed T-shirt emblazoned with a phoenix. She's in her 20s but came up with her fursona as a child. It morphs into a new creature every year — a dog, a horse, a snake and once even a human. It wasn't until an old boyfriend introduced her to furry culture that she put a name to the role-play she'd kept going in her imagination into adulthood.
Her alter ego, a strong and adventurous heroine, goes into every part of her life. Among friends, she'll use animal gestures here and there and do a little "skritching," or affectionate scratching similar to grooming. "Gonna say it: Having someone scratch your head is the best thing ever," she proclaims. Like Kylani, she studied wildlife and loves furry art, but some of her drawings and the ones she enjoys looking at are a whole lot friskier.
Plante says the term for furry-themed erotic art, "yiff" (what the mating fox says, apparently), is used ironically and is as uncool as "nookie." But it still pulls up quite an inventory on Google — cartoon images (not actual animals, folks) of wildly varying artistic skill, that skew more Jessica Rabbit than Bugs Bunny.
"Sometimes I'm like, 'That's a really nice piece of art,' and sometimes it's like, 'That's hot," says Crysta. She laughs and turns her large, hazel eyes to the ceiling. "It's porn!"
According to the IARP's numbers, among furries, 96 percent of fellas and 78 percent of ladies view porn with anthropomorphic animal themes, though it seems to be mixed in with PG furry art. Crysta says it's all good fun; nobody gets hurt and it's a little more creative than typical pornography. "And there's a curiosity about what that would be like and feel like," she says, and she sees nothing wrong with exploring that kind of fantasy. She recalls a Christian friend confiding in her that he was worried about some of the images he'd been enjoying online. Crysta rolls her eyes at the memory. She told him to forward them to her for an opinion. "I was like, 'Dude, you might be a furry.'"
Crysta sees Puritanism and a warring obsession with sex as the reason the media and the general public freak out and zoom in on the sexual element of the furry life, ignoring the camaraderie of shared interests. She shrugs. "Because something is different, we're against it. We're horrified, but we're kind of curious." She says she's a sexual person, adding with a laugh, "even though I don't get any right now." She personally can't handle gory images and "vore," in which anthropomorphic characters engulf one another in a puzzling sexual way. "Sometimes I feel like, why is this a thing?" she asks, smiling and covering her face. But she's not judging anybody.
The nonjudgmental nature of the furry community is a big part of its draw. With the exception of things that are illegal, not too much will get you kicked out of the club. Still, Plante says the vast majority of furries "don't want to hear about sex in fursuits, and while they might not reject you, they don't want to know." The same goes for vore, enthusiasts of which he calls a "minuscule" part of the fandom. What will raise the hackles of fellow furries is making the community look pervy to outsiders. In March 2001, Vanity Fair ran an article, "Pleasures of the Fur," that lumped the fandom in with bestiality, animal cruelty and "plushies," people who have sex with stuffed animals. Then a 2003 episode of CSI titled "Fur and Loathing" depicted outlandish fursuited orgies. Those depictions caused many furries to tire of being portrayed as sex nuts in the media and they muzzled up.
Buster is not sure about talking. He leans into the table on his elbows and looks around the café. His backward hat tops a rounded face and soft, sleepy eyes. He's worried the article will reflect badly on the fandom and other furries will hold him responsible. He also doesn't want to use his real name, because neither his family nor his coworkers know he's a furry, and he's not confident they would understand.
While he's not a small guy, his fursona, Buster, is a brown shepherd-lab puppy who's all about play and joy. He doesn't own a suit but he lets the character come out through running, jumping and being "in the moment." He says his alter ego gives him freedom to return to childlike play and express his "authentic self," even if it's one he only shares with his closest friends or at conventions.
Buster draws a hard line between his fursona and his sexuality. He's homosexual, but he's not out to his family about that, either. He'd always been "animalistic in the bedroom," scratching and biting here and there, so pet play was a natural fit. During pet play — a branch of submission/domination role play that is outside the furry fandom — he explains he's not a fully formed anthropomorphic character like Buster, just a dog with collar and a master who gives commands, expects obedience and might use a rolled up newspaper now and then. When you consider the mainstream success of E.L. James' books, it's not that wild — sort of Fifty Shades of Greyhound. The scene gives him some of the same respite from societal expectations that his fursona does — he references the famous Samuel Johnson quote, "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." Buster is about bringing out his true personality, but pet play is about vanishing into a role and becoming something he's not. And he doesn't expect all furries to understand. Even in the typically accepting fetish community, he says people who don't get what being a furry means are put off.
Plante says staying in the furry closet is not uncommon given the stigma surrounding the community, and there's even some nerd-on-nerd hate. According to the IARP's research, furries perceive hostility from outsiders keenly. And not for nothing. The group surveyed sports fans, whose response was "overwhelmingly negative" toward furries, and despite some overlap in membership, even anime fans' perception of furries was "generally negative." Et tu, Sailor Moon? Isn't that the pot calling the kettle freaky? Plante says it's not such a shock, just one stigmatized group throwing another one under the bus to avoid an embarrassing association.
The furry community may not have many allies outside, but inside it's created what Plante sees as a safe space to experiment with one's identity. He observes, "It's hard to judge someone if you're wearing a pair of cat ears." That applies to sexual orientation, too. A recent IARP study found that while 90 percent of Americans say they are heterosexual or mostly so, that number is down to 35 percent among furries, with 25 percent checking off mostly or exclusively homosexual and another 25 percent seeing themselves as bisexual. Nearly 2 percent of furries identify as transgender, which is twice the percentage of anime fans and four times that of fantasy sport fans.
When it comes to fursonas, things get, well, fuzzier. Let's say you identify as a heterosexual male. When it comes to your alter ego, it ain't necessarily so. Crysta says, "I identify as bi but lean toward straight. For my fursona, she's also bi, but I might express her a little more equal opportunity." Other fursonas may differ more strongly. In a 2011 IARP survey, the percentage of fursonas that were exclusively heterosexual was almost 10 percent lower than that of their real-life counterparts. There was a similar gap in the middle of the spectrum, with more fursonas than their furry owners marking off equally heterosexual and homosexual. "Our hypothesis," says Plante, emphasizing that more research and data are needed, "is that a fursona may be a way of compartmentalizing and testing the waters," saying, in effect, "'I'm not gay but my fursona is,'" and seeing how it goes. A fair amount of gender swapping goes on, too. The survey found that while 84 percent of furries at a convention were male and 16 percent were female, only 66 percent of fursonas were "entirely male," and 10 percent were "entirely female." The rest fell somewhere in between. "I would wager," Plante continues, "that there's nothing systematic about the fandom. ... More than anything, the fandom is a safe place for people to be who they want to be."
Michael Genzoli is 25, and he's been a furry since he was 12. He leans back in his chair, spiky black hair peeking out from a black ball cap with a fox logo. And he's fine using his real name instead of his fursona, Tokala. "It's never been anything I've ever felt I should be ashamed of," he says. He knows how lucky he is to be accepted by his family — his grandmother helped him find his first suit. He knows people who haven't had it so easy. His ex's mother, for example, "immediately got on the animal-fucker train" and refused to hear any more.
Tokala is blue — a Fennec fox and red fox hybrid — who's a bit more outgoing and playful than Genzoli is in daily life, though watching him chat up a woman about her boots, it's hard to imagine him as shy. His suit is partial — head, paws and a tail — but he's working on a full one, considering both the design and the maker as carefully as one might plan a serious tattoo. Since he was a kid, Genzoli has connected with animal characters in cartoons, and he wondered if it was normal that he was more interested in them than in fictional humans. Then he found his tribe. He's just gotten back from the Further Confusion conference in San Jose, where 3,560 attendees (some 700 in fursuits) showed up for panels, vendors, socializing and dance-offs. Genzoli especially loves watching people cut loose and get down in their animal get-ups, which is both physically impressive and hilarious. (Treat yourself to a video search — let's just say Lou Seal needs to step it up.) The conference was definitely not a den of faux fur lust. Neither are the furry hangouts with friends in town. Mostly they watch movies, drink, do some drawing and maybe scritch. "Who doesn't want to get their head scratched?" he asks. "It's great!" If somebody shows up with a suit, there's a lot of platonic hugging and petting, but not for too long, he says with a laugh, "those things are hot."
Which isn't to say he doesn't enjoy the sexual aspect of furry culture. "Something that arouses me is furry characters, so it kind of plays a part," he says. While Genzoli hasn't brought his fursona (or his suit) into the bedroom, his partners know about his interests before they start dating, since he and Tokala are more or less "inseparable." He does some online role play which can get steamy. Asked if he means an online game or chatting, he grins and taps his fingers on the table like a keyboard. His fursona is always male, and he prefers role play with women, but he's "not a stickler." In fact, he says of his online furry identity, "I am bisexual, but when it comes to me and other people [in daily life], I'm straight." As far as men in real life, "I've tried it and it just wasn't for me," but there are male characters that he finds "appealing."
He knows that some furries won't be thrilled that he's talking about his sexuality in relation to the fandom. "There are a lot of furries who wish it wasn't so ... denial might fit," he says. He says the hostility toward the community is unfair, noting that other fan groups, such as Trekkies, have adult themes, too, but aren't met with disgust from outside. "Who cares? Who cares if someone else wants to be an animal? Who cares if people want to have sex in their fursuits, or whatever?" Furries, he says, "aren't even the weirdest thing out there by societal standards."
While he gets why so many furries hide, it saddens him. Furries, he feels, need to "stop being ashamed of what we are." And if someone reads this and judges Genzoli, then he or she probably isn't a person he needs in his life. After all, like he says of his fursona, "It's me."