Forget those kinky stereotypes. Fur fandom, prairie-style, is a welcoming embrace for lonely outsiders.
By MEG CRANE
We like to fit people into boxes, sort of like in The Breakfast Club. You’ve got jocks, nerds, popular kids, rebels and outcasts. But even the outcasts of pop culture have a circle of friends just like them, so they’re not exactly “outcasts.”
But what if you’re wildly into something so alien to everyday culture you really are an outcast? Something like, say, a penchant for anthropomorphic animals, like the hare in Alice in Wonderland, Mickey Mouse and company or Alvin and the Chipmunks? And what if you even identify with an anthropomorphic animal and like to dress up like your furry alter ego?
Now that’s an outcast.
“Finding oneself on the social perimeter is not just sad but also dangerous,” note social neuroscientists John T. Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo in a recent paper on “Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation.”
Feelings of isolation, the Cacioppos write, can lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, decreased sleep and resistance to blood flow in the circulatory system, all of which lead to higher death rates among people who don’t have close relationships.
Health impacts aside, feeling isolated and not having people to confide in downright sucks. Even the jocks and popular kids among us have been there.
Contrast that with the empowering feeling of discovering a community full of people just like you. For someone whose thing is anthropomorphic animals – whether it’s playing video games with them, drawing pictures of them and/or dressing up like them – a “furry community” is where they’ll find their kindred spirits. It’s where they will no longer feel like outcasts.
Winnipegger Zach Palay was in college studying to be a technical writer when he attended his first Wild Prairie Fur meetup in March last year. As soon as he walked in, other members swarmed in to greet him with a hug.
“Immediately, I just felt extremely welcome,” Palay recalls. “I think that was the first time I had a good feeling about something from someone I don’t know hugging me.
“I have depression. I’ve got social anxiety, ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve got the works. And a severe inferiority complex. But I think that was the first time in a long time that I felt like I actually belonged somewhere and I wasn’t going to be constantly judged.”
Contrary to popular belief, “furries” like Palay are not people who dress up as animals and have sex.
“Every fandom has that dark corner that no one wants to touch,” says Palay. Not only does Wild Prairie Furs (wildprairiefurs.com) not have wild orgies, they’re an all-ages group that prohibits alcohol, swearing and other inappropriate behaviour when youngsters are around. That includes its 265-member, kid-friendly Facebook page.
At its root, a furry is just someone who has a strong affinity for anthropomorphic animals. For Palay, it started as a love for video game characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Star Fox. Others, like Palay as he got older, prefer to create their own “fursonas.” Some are happy just to write about or draw these characters. But others – the ones most visible in the community – will actually create or commission costumes for their fursonas. These furry suits are expensive, so few furries can afford to sport a full-body fursona. Most will just have a tail, a head or paws.
Psychologically, these characters mean different things to different furries. For some, their fursona is a person entirely separate from themselves: when they get into character, they become a different person. For others, the fursona is a mask they can hide behind while being their true selves. Still others see no difference between themselves and their fursonas.
Palay knew that his self-identification as a furry would give him something to talk about with the others when he first met up with Wild Prairie Furs, but he worried that was all he’d have in common. He fretted over the possibility that they’d have nothing to talk about and he wouldn’t make any friends. But when he got there, his fears about not connecting quickly dissipated; he clicked with his fellow furries right away. “I think that was the first time in a long time that I actually smiled genuinely,” Palay said.
This fellowship is such a new experience for Palay he’s still at a loss for words to describe what it feels like. He’s changed a lot, he says. He used to be too anxious to eat out or go to the movies alone. Hitting up the bank was a challenge, and he was afraid of coming across as goofy in public. But now, doing these things is exhilarating.
He’s learning a lot about himself in the process.
Palay has five fursonas, all of whom portray a different part of himself. He doesn’t rock any fursona suits or dress like his characters. Instead, he writes out their characteristics and has a friend draw the character based on his description. Sometimes it’s only later that Palay realizes he’s written himself into a fursona; other times, he’s endowed a fursona with characteristics he only wishes he had.
Palay’s first fursona was “Spyke,” an anthropomorphic hybrid of an Arabian wolf and a vampire bat. “He’s a humanoid looking wolf with big bat wings on his back.”
When conceiving the character of Spyke, Palay emphasized Spyke’s spirituality. Palay had strayed from his religious roots, but Spyke helped him realize he’s actually become a spiritual person, and he’s acting that way more in his everyday life.
The fursona most popular with his friends is “Kane,” a mythical creature called a sergal that looks like a combination of a wolf and a reptile. “His fur is a matted sort of blood colour, because he bathed in his parents’ blood,” says Palay. His teeth are filed to points, his spine crooked and he’s covered in scars. “He tore out his own eyeball and ate it. So it’s just sort of already saying this is the embodiment of all my negativity, all of my anger – the bad parts of my personality.” Kane is so full of Palay’s rage it was terrifying even for Palay to see the drawing of his dark fursona the first time.
In contrast, “Silver,” is a lynx who embodies Palay’s inner feminine side.
Palay’s other two characters are “Arson,” a “furry terminator” who resembles a wild boar, and a blind mandrill with reptilian cybernetic legs and an arm named “Falanks.”
Through his five fursonas, Palay has a safe psychological space to explore himself in a constructive way, identifying traits he wants to change and those he wants to express even more.
In contrast, Palay’s friend and fellow furry, Orion Snow, has just one fursona, and it’s who he is every day. Snow – who is in his 30s and struggling with post traumatic stress disorder and insomnia – has even adopted the name of his fursona, a snow leopard made of translucent ice who has the aurora borealis flowing through him, lighting up his spots. Snow even tattooed the coloured spots on his right arm.
“Others have this separation and dress up and get in their fur suit and portray their fursona as a way to release their inner selves and be themselves, and some use it as a shield,” says Snow. “I don’t need that shell. I don’t need that protection. I just am myself.”
Snow has always been that way, even before joining the furry community. But he always found it difficult to meet people he could connect with. Other than work, he rarely left home because he had no friends to go out with. But since joining Wild Prairie Fur, he says he no longer feels so alone. He even helps others in the group feel more connected, acting as a support figure they can call on. When someone is suicidal, Snow will open his door to them. If anyone needs to talk out a personal issue, he’s all ears. And he knows he can turn to others when he needs help himself.
“With them, it’s all about acceptance and understanding. And people listen and talk to you and add on how they feel,” says Snow. “It’s just automatic. We don’t really think about it, we just do it.”
Snow has been a member of Wild Prairie Fur since it was started in 2012. In that time, he’s seen many people benefit from the supportive environment. In particular, it’s been a valuable support group for youth who don’t have parents or peers who understand them. This judgement-free space gives them a place where they can come out of their shells without fear.
Creating this community does take work. Members who aren’t on the same page of positivity and acceptance do sneak into the group. Such people, Snow says, are quickly confronted – in a friendly manner – and called out for their behaviour. Only after several warnings is someone kicked out of the group.
Really, these are the only criteria for belonging to Wild Prairie Furs; you don’t even need to be a furry. “We have people in our group that don’t even [identify] with being a furry. They’re just our people. We just call them our people. They don’t have to [identify] with a specific animal. They just want to be in an environment where they’re accepted and can talk,” says Snow.
And that’s exactly what they’ll find at Wild Prairie Furs.
Meg Crane is a freelance writer, founding editor of Cockroach and associate director of Forever MicroRanch Sanctuary. But, most importantly, she’s an expert of working while snuggling animals of all kinds. Follow her on Twitter @MegCrane. (cockroachzine.com).