When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them that, among other things, I study furries. Usually, their reactions fall into one of three categories:
a) Positive recognition: “Oh yeah, I know about furries! They’re really cool! I loved The Lion King!” It’s always nice to hear this.
b) Confusion: “Wait… what the heck is a furry?” An understandable response – many people have never heard the term “furry”, and I can’t fault them for it since it’s likely irrelevant to their interests.
c) Negative recognition: “Ugh, furries… Yeah, I’ve heard about those freaks… “
This article is targeted toward the last category of responses, as it’s often the case that people who hold these beliefs base them on misconceptions derived from inaccurate media representations of furries. A startling number of people base their entire understanding of the furry fandom on a 7-year old episode of The Tyra Banks Show, a 15-year old article in Vanity Fair, or a 13-year old episode of CSI. And, in some respects, I can’t really blame them: if you don’t personally know a furry, or have any reason to look further into the subject, it’s tempting to believe that any information seems better than no information. On these grounds, my hope is that a lot of well-validated data on furries will overturn a lot of these flimsy, largely unsubstantiated misconceptions.
Let’s start with the basics: What is a furry? A furry is a fan, just like any other fan. There are fans of pretty much anything: sports, music groups, television shows, celebrities, science fiction, model trains... the list goes on. So, what exactly are furries fans of? Anthropomorphic animals – a fancy term meaning “animals with human traits”. Examples of anthropomorphic animals abound in our culture: Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny are famous examples of such animals, walking and talking like humans. Other examples range from classic stories (Charlotte’s Web, Redwall, Watership Down) to sports mascots (the Toronto Raptor, Benny the Bull of the Chicago Bulls). So, in the same way science fiction fans like stories and artwork that feature science-fiction themes, furries are people who like stories and artwork that feature anthropomorphic characters.
Despite being as simple as “fans of walking, talking animals”, a number of misconceptions exist about furries.
1.“Furries are people who think they’re animals.”
Popular media often struggles when it comes to defining what furries actually are, because anthropomorphic animals are a somewhat unusual thing to be a fan of. Moreover, when you’ve only got a 2-minute segment in a news program or a 300-word article limit, it can be unappealing to spend half of your time explaining what a word like “anthropomorphic” actually means. Instead, people often opt for a simpler, if inaccurate definition of furries as people who wish they were animals, or who actually think they’re animals.
This misconception is largely based on a conflation of the terms “liking”, “longing for”, and “identifying as”. After all, there can often be a correlation between the two: a person may be a football fan because they, themselves, played football in high school. But it doesn’t take long for the absurdity of this equation to become apparent: are Star Wars fans defined as people who believe they are Jedi? Are Harry Potter fans people who believe they are wizards? To be sure, these people may find it fun to entertain fantasies about being a Jedi or being a wizard, but it’s a far cry from saying that their interest is defined by such fantasies. They are, first and foremost, fans of particular content, and that’s exactly what furries are.
That said, there is a group of people who self-identify with animals – that is, they believe that they possess the mind or spirit of a non-human animal “trapped” in a human body. The term for this group is not “furry”, however: they call themselves “therians”. And while 15% of furries would also consider themselves to be therian, the majority of furries do not, and most therians would not consider themselves to be furries.
2.“Furries are people who wear costumes / suits.”
One of the most visually distinct elements of the furry fandom is the fursuit: a mascot-style suit which can be worn by a person to make them resemble an anthropomorphic animal character. Most media portrayals of furries feature fursuits because they’re often vibrant, eye-catching, and unusual. They visually encapsulate what many people assume a furry ought to look like, based on the definition.
There’s just one problem: fewer than 20% of furries actually own a fursuit.
Again, it’s illustrative to compare furries to other fan cultures. If I were writing a story on Star Wars fans, the first thing I would do is find a picture of fans dressed in robes wielding plastic lightsabers. If I were doing a piece on football fans, I would find pictures of cheering people who were wearing jerseys and who had painted their faces in their team’s colors. Such images epitomize visual elements of their respective fandoms, but it would be inaccurate to define football fans as “people who wear jerseys and paint their faces”, because this is only one of hundreds of ways a person’s interest in football could manifest itself: some fans collect memorabilia, some buy season tickets and attend every game, some participate in fantasy football leagues, and some casually watch a game every Sunday night with their family.
Similarly, a minority of furries manifest their interest by dressing up as their own anthropomorphic character (known in the fandom as a “fursona”). But most show their interest by viewing, commissioning, or creating furry-themed artwork, stories, music, and games. Chances are you’ve walked right past a furry on the street or sat next to one on the bus and had no idea, because, like most fans, their interests lay primarily in the production or consumption of media content, not in playing dress-up. And, even when it does involve dressing up, it’s usually reserved for conventions or other fan gatherings, not day-to-day life. But a picture of average-looking people holding books or pictures from their favorite artists isn’t as eye-catching as a person dressed up in a six-foot tall fuzzy blue cat suit that cost a thousand dollars.
3.“Furries are people with a fetish.”
People have an innate desire to understand the world around them. When we see something we don’t understand, we naturally try to explain it. And, when it comes to really unusual human behavior, we often fall back on one of two explanations: “it’s a sex thing” or “they’re crazy”.
Given that most people find it unusual to be interested in anthropomorphic animals, they assume that those who are must have some weird kink or fetish. After all, why would a person go to all the effort of wearing a big fuzzy suit if they weren’t getting some sexual gratification out of it? Or why would an adult possibly like stories about walking, talking animals – something kids generally like – if they weren’t tremendous perverts?
It’s informative to ask similar questions about equally unusual hobbies, like model train collecting. Do people who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars building and collecting model trains do it because they get some sick, perverse pleasure out of doing so? Is it solely for sexual gratification?
Clearly, the argument is an absurd one. But, to be fair, it’s not completely unfounded. After all, furry pornography does exist. However, it’s important to keep two points in mind: fandom-related pornography is not unique to the furry fandom, nor is it a defining feature of the furry fandom. Let me explain.
People are fans of things, and they like sex. As such, people combine their natural fan interests with their sex drives all the time. If you like cars, then you’ll probably enjoy pictures of beautiful-looking, rare or exotic cars. And what’s better than a picture of an awesome-looking car? An awesome-looking car with an attractive model draped across it! What’s better than a football game? A football game with attractive-looking cheerleaders! What’s better than a video game? A video game featuring attractive-looking characters! In all of these cases, we can acknowledge that fans have a naturally-occurring sex drive without assuming that they have a “car/football/video game” fetish, and the same thing goes with furries. If people are fans of something, there will also likely be artwork / stories that infuse sexuality into that fan content, regardless of what it is.
And while pornography is present in all of the fandoms mentioned above, no one would define these fans on the basis of pornography. Video game fans are not defined as “people who are sexually attracted to video game characters”, football fans are not defined as (but may be) “people sexually attracted to cheerleaders”, and car aficionados are not “people who are sexually attracted to cars”. In the same vein, while furry-themed pornography exists, it is not the case that furries are “people with an animal/fursuit fetish”, especially when the data show that furries report “community” and “belongingness” as the biggest draws of the furry fandom, and when fewer than 5% of furries say that sex/pornography is the biggest draw of the furry fandom – something you would not expect if the furry fandom were a fetish.
4.Furries are delusional / dysfunctional people.
If unusual behavior cannot be written off as “a sex thing”, people may turn to a different argument: “they’re just crazy”. To this end, I’m often asked whether furries are delusional or suffer from some form of psychological dysfunction. Despite the prevalence of this belief, the data suggest otherwise: studies of furries suggest that they are no more likely than the average person to suffer from mood disorders (e.g., depression), anxiety disorders, attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder, to be on psychotropic medication, or to suffer from a physical disability. In fact, evidence suggests that there is only one condition in which the prevalence may be higher in furries than in the general population: Asperger’s, or high-functioning autism. That said, it’s worth noting that an increased prevalence of a relatively rare condition is not the same thing as saying that it’s common in the furry fandom: even the most liberal estimates of prevalence rates of Asperger’s syndrome in the furry fandom suggest that, at most, it’s still less than five percent of furries.
To put it simply: a lot of things make the furry fandom the interesting and unique culture that it is – but psychological dysfunction is not one of them.
5.Furries bring bullying / ridicule upon themselves.
Those who have heard about furries are likely to have learned about them from relatively negative sources: from media or internet sources that ridicule furries. Furries are often viewed as a punching bag for the internet, for the media, and for other fandoms, a group that can be picked on or trivialized with relatively little consequence – a position that, in previous decades, was held by Star Trek fans and, more recently, has been replaced by bronies (adult, largely-male, fans of My Little Pony).
Much of the stigma directed toward furries is based on the belief that furries bring it on themselves: that they actively and openly flaunt their unusual fan interest or seek to make others feel uncomfortable with it, and receive negative responses from the media and from the internet as such. However, it’s worth noting that studies of furries suggest that, even early on in childhood, furries – before they self-identify as furries or even know what the furry fandom is – experience significantly more bullying, on average, than non-furries do. This is, in part, due to the fact that furries, like other fan groups, are largely “geeks” – including interests in other traditionally “geeky” subjects (fantasy, science-fiction, video games, comic books, science, board games, etc.) They experience significant bullying for having geeky interests, as other geeks often report experiencing.
And, like other geek subcultures, furries find validation of their interests and emotional and social support through communities of like-minded others. Most furries report that finding the fandom was a life-changing experience, with some claiming that the community even saved their lives. It’s worth noting one important distinction for furries – unlike other geek communities, the furry fandom remains largely stigmatized. Other traditionally stigmatized “geek” communities have become less stigmatized and more accepted socially in recent years: the recent popularity of the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings films have made it far more acceptable to be a science-fiction or fantasy fan, and the growing popularity of video games have removed the stigma of the “gamer” identity. But compared to other geek fandoms (e.g., anime fans, fantasy sport fans), furries still say that they fear being “outed” as a furry to their friends, family, and co-workers, and still expect significant social backlash if people discovered that they were a furry. In fact, far from being flamboyantly, in-your-face furry, most furries keep their furry interests a secret for years. It’s this experience of shared stigmatization that draws furries to one another and makes the furry fandom such a tight-knit and interconnected community.
Hopefully this article has helped to dispel some of the misconceptions you may have held about the furry fandom. Of course, it’s unlikely that a single article will undo years of bad press for the furry fandom – millions of people will continue to mistakenly assume that furries are people who wear fursuits, think they’re animals, or have a weird fetish, and it’s unlikely that the fear of stigma felt by many furries will disappear anytime soon. Still, if this article helps people to recognize these misconceptions when they see them, and cause people to speak up when a friend or relative makes an inaccurate statement about what furries are, it would go a long way toward helping furries dispel the negativity surrounding their fandom. And, in the end, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re a geek, whether you happen to like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, or board games or computer games. And, as geeks, we’re in this together; we know what it’s like to be picked on for loving the thing we love. There are enough people out there picking on us and propagating misconceptions about who we are. Let’s not help them by throwing our own under the bus.
About the author: Dr. Courtney “Nuka” Plante earned his PhD in social psychology from the University of Waterloo in 2014 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Iowa State University where he studies the effects of fantasy activities on real-world thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. He is the co-founder of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project – a team of social scientists who have been studying the furry fandom for the past 6 years. He is also a furry.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.