Furry Research: The Humanization of Animals

Furries play a starring role in a 2006 paper that explores ‘animal geography’, an emerging field of cultural research related to human-animal interaction. The paper’s author believes that furry phenomenon is on the leading-edge of changes affecting society as a whole: the replacement of human-human social contact with human-animal social contact.

The paper, written by Dr Heidi J. Nast and published in ACME, is titled “Loving… Whatever: Alienation, Neoliberalism and Pet-Love in the Twenty-First Century” (link to full text). If that sounds like tortured prose, then, well, you should read the article itself. It’s not easy going. But hidden under the unwelcoming academic language is a fascinating perspective on the furry phenomenon.

Nast’s point mirrors one I’ve made in a previous article, Furry As An Alternative To Religion. She notes that traditional community structures—archetypically the rural village church—have broken down in the modern world. People have moved into cities, lost connection with the people around us, and this has left us feeling alienated and alone. It’s a sad irony that many people feel lonely, while simultaneously being surrounded by other human beings.

I argued that furry provides that missing sense of community, and Nast makes a similar argument although she sees furry as one example of a wider cultural shift. She thinks that people are projecting human characteristics onto animals, as compensation for a lack of real human contact.

Nast sees this happening most obviously in the first world’s growing trend for pet ownership. She argues that domestic animals are much less likely to be working animals, and much more likely to be a humanized ‘member of the family’. Pets are de facto children to many people, offering a big advantage over real, human children: pets are less inconvenient. She writes:

“…pets (especially dogs) today supersede children as ideal love objects; they are more easily mobilized, require less investment, and to some degree can be shaped into whatever you want them to be”

 

Nast points to a growing marketplace for inessential pet ‘care’ as evidence. If she were writing her article today, she might also point towards the tendency for people to create a social media presence, like a Twitter feed, on their pet’s behalf. And she argues that people are spending time and money on animals, instead of spending that time and money on humans.

The time and money being spent on non-humans is also institutional, including scientific research and charity. Cats can be cloned (for a price); you can take your pooch to a ‘dog psychologist’ (for a price); urban animal welfare is increasingly focussed on minimizing euthanasia (at a cost to human taxpayers). Nast suggests that this time and money would be better spent on minimizing human suffering.

Nast feels that, by humanzing and infantalizing animals, we become less connected to other humans. She goes further to suggest that this is linked to consumerism, where animals are a convenient replacement for human beings because the relationship is uneven. We can, essentially, spend money on our non-human family without having to worry about whether it’s useful in any way. As Nast puts it:

“…the hypercommodification of pet-lives [and our]… post-industrial lives and places… [are] tied firmly to neoliberal processes of capital accumulation more generally and the attendant growing gap between rich and poor.”

 

Which sounds a bit like something you might read on an Occupy Pet Warehouse flyer.

To put it in a less tortured fashion: Nast sees our human-like engagement with non-human animals as evidence for the inhumanity of a capitalist world.

The furries fit into her argument because our human-to-human contact takes place through an animalistic lens. We are humanizing (virtual) wild animals and using them for our own ends. As she puts it:

“In the case of furry fandom, humans [present themselves as animals], this transmogrification apparently being needed in order to facilitate human contact, sociality, and love.”

 

Like the people who humanize their pet dogs, we furries are focussed away from human society. We focus on ourselves, or on the part-human versions of our fellow furries, or on non-humans altogether.

Furry, in Nast’s eyes, is a product of our dehumanized capitalist world. We socialize through the guise of animal-people because our world doesn’t allow us to (easily) directly socialize with human beings.

***

Now that all sounds like Nast has gone off the deep end. But plenty of evidence from the furry world supports her ideas.

Firstly, ever notice how much easier it is to interact with a fursuiter than the person inside? Most of us (and many non-furries) find it more natural to initiate social contact with the animal-person.

Secondly, furry’s spread throughout the world broadly correlates with deregulated capitalism. First in the USA in the 1980s, then other modernized western nations such as the UK, Australia and Germany in the 1990s, then the remainder of Europe and South America in the 2000s, and more recently capitalist Asian nations such as Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

Thirdly, we furries are relatively alienated from greater society. That’s because, as a group, we often don’t meet society’s norms: perhaps it’s because of unusual sexuality, or geekiness, or distaste for mainstream culture. This alienation reduces our engagement with fellow human beings.

That’s not to say that Nast gets everything right. She lumps furries into three broad categories:

  1. egg-heads with more or less intellectual interests in how and why a society or group anthropomorphizes animals
  2. furries [who] assert a particular animal identity, either playfully or believing that they were animals in a former life, or that they are an animal trapped in a human body
  3. persons erotically and/or sexually invested in their animal-identity

It’s not hard to poke holes in her categorization, an exercise I leave to the reader.

She also asserts that furry “involves largely ‘white’ adult populations“. While mostly true, this misses the point: furry is not a monoracial phenomenon, as evidenced by its spread across the world. However I can see how she could draw this conclusion from her happily unscientific data collection method: looking at “photographs of furries reproduced on various websites“.

***

The biggest flaw in Nast’s ideas is, I think, her willingness to tie everything back to capitalism and consumerism. She presents it as a fait accompli, which I suspect is normal for academics performing research in the field of cultural geography. I don’t want to explore the validity of this point of view—I’m sure that readers will hold a range of strong opinions—but suffice to say that I don’t think Nast makes a compelling link.

To be fair, her focus may be geared toward the sensibilities of the journal that published the paper: ACME. ACME has the following mission statement, which you read at your peril:

“The journal’s purpose is to provide a forum for the publication of critical work about space in the social sciences — including anarchist, anti-racist, environmentalist, feminist, Marxist, non-representational, postcolonial, poststructuralist, queer, situationist and socialist perspectives.”

 

So ACME is not exactly aiming for political moderation.

As an aside, check out ACME‘s unintentionally ironic guidance for prospective authors: “The style that ACME advocates emphasizes clarity, accessibility, and care in writing.

Happily, Nast’s article is written to a higher standard than that. However it’s not an easy read by any means. So I can’t really recommend it, despite its worthwhile and unfamiliar approach to the furry phenomenon.

Dr Nast is writing a book on the topic: Petifilia: Volume 1. Presumably furries will make another significant appearance. I’ll read it with interest.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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12 thoughts on “Furry Research: The Humanization of Animals

  1. Doesn’t seem a very sound comparison to me. Most furs I know actually loathe the way cats and dogs are portrayed by the media and exploited to sell stuff which is ofter annoying or even harmful for the animal. I can’t picture myself many furries being _that_ kind of enthusiastic pet owner… the vibe is just too different.

    While pet pampering is certainly a form of humanization I see its purpose being the polar opposite of the purpose of furry humanization. We look up to animals and project onto them traits which we consider virtues, whereas bringing a dog to a dog psychologist or a cat to a grooming salon seounds like looking down upon them and projecting human vices and failures upon them. One approach is humanization, the other is infantilization. They may be two faces of the same coin but I’d rather see them as two competing cultural approaches.

    Also the spread of furry culture correlates with many other things besides of the spread of deregulation, most notably the spread of internet, resurgence of political conservativism, massification of writing as a mean of everyday communication, fast population growth and urbanization, noticeable losses of biodiversity even in urbanized areas, increasing censorship and self-regulation in mainstream media, greater availability of information about obscure animals… and not all of these changes are consequences of rampant consumerism, and I’d argue that some are actually necessary premises to it.

    1. Hi Scale. Thanks for the interesting comment. I think that my first impressions on Dr Nash’s article were similar to yours. It kinda felt like she was sneeringly looking at people who infantalize their pets, and, of course, furries. And I felt like it was too much of a stretch, and a bit unfair, to conflate the two.

      My train of thought, and my article, went a little like your second paragraph: once you get into the nitty-gritty, it’s clear that she has an interesting and worthwhile perspective. As you put it: like two faces of the same coin.

      I never really got on board with her argument though, well formed as it is. I think she is stretching a bit to tie a cultural phenomenon into evidence of some greater societal shift. As you say, a lot of things have happened in the world over the past decade or three, and it’s optimistic to say that (a) causes (b) with any sort of certainty.

      Still, I appreciated the article for its new perspective. Us furries tend to be analytical types, and look to data for explanations. A bit of philosophy is a good tonic.

  2. I think Dr. Nash is from Mars, and making this stuff up out of her head. She has clearly failed to spend any time observing furry interaction and environments if that’s her best understanding of the phenomenon.

    Yes, many furries are probably alienated from human society at large, but the reasons are more complex than what she seems to have inferred. In fact, this alienation might even be caused by people like Dr. Nash who try too hard to “normalize” everything based on their own narrow views of humanity and society.

  3. I first stumbled across “cultural geography” on Uncyclopedia. The definition there was clearer and more coherent than that on Wikipedia. This is generally not a good sign for an academic field.

    That said, I agree with the part about humanizing animals for our own ends, but I don’t see how deregulated capitalism is a necessary factor. People have had trouble talking to other people for a long, long time (case in point: Romeo and Juliet). Furries, in the context of this paper, are just one more case of awkward social interaction eased through use of an intermediary; in this case, fantasy animal characters.

    1. To be fair, cultural geography is a newish field. I think the failure is Wikipedia’s: it’s not always great when describing topics that come with their own jargon. Concepts, written by insiders, tend to retain that jargon and so end up being a bit impenetrable.

      I certainly wouldn’t write off an entire field of academia on the basis of its Wikipedia article! Although I’ll agree it seems a bit fringe; certainly a lot of the concepts that are taken as inherently true seem a bit wacky to me. I ended up deciding that the language (‘neoliberalism’; ‘libidinal economies’; ‘post-colonial racialization; etc) is intended in a more neutral way than its normal context, i.e. batshit activism. But it took a lot of difficult reading for me to get that far.

      In terms of ‘deregulated capitalism’, for example, I think she is simply referring to the world since the Industrial Revolution. So a move towards economies of scale and cities, and a move away from subsistance living and small village communities. And I can see some truth in furry as an essentially urban phenomenon… although you only have to look as far as QJ’s article, tracing furry back some 30,000 years (http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2013/02/28/performance-in-animal-costume-an-ancient-art-english/), for a counterpoint.

      Your final sentence almost deserves an [a][s] article of its own. It’s an interesting suggestion, that we furries are at least partly driven by a desire to interact, and that we find it less awkward to use our animal-person avatars. If furry is about personal identity (and I think it is), then your idea suggests it’s as much about our relationships with other people than it is our relationship with ourselves. Although obviously you put it a lot more succinctly.

  4. While it sounds interesting, the fact that she uses things like ‘pictures gathered vie the internet’ as ‘data’ leads me to suspect that, while she might hit a few things, she’s probably missing completely when it comes to the bigger picture. I think the recent furry survey by Nuka and associates has a lot more weight to it because they went out of their way to do the research and be as non-biased as possible.

    1. Hi Christopher, thanks for the comment. I think you’re spot on about the limitations of Dr Nash’s data collection method, but I think the bigger point is that her research isn’t based on firm data, be it survey responses or anything else so tangible. Her work might be better categorized as philosophy: it’s an intelligent, thoughtful perspective on furry.

      I see more as complementary to the excellent work being performed by Nuka et al, rather than something comparable.

  5. I am so happy and relieved to see folks reading my work that are invested in the communities about which I work–even if it is critical. These are exactly the kinds of conversations that are needed and I’m so grateful for the input I’ve seen thus far. So sorry it trailed off in June of last year (someone just forward this to me). I am especially thankful to JM for trying to see the positive in all of this. I think the one person who pointed to the differences between infantilization and humanization are right-on. I also think that I did not take into consideration the honoring of the animal in all of this. And, yes: a lot to be desired from my demographic analysis! Anyway, if anyone is still out there (here!), I’d be happy to engage. And, no, I will not be talking about furries in my forthcoming book. The essay you saw in ACME was really just putting these issues out there in my field of study, geography. If anyone is interested in what this is, I’d be happy to elaborate on what human geography entails and how cultural geography fits into it.

    1. Hi there, and thanks for stopping by. I’m really pleased to see that you’ve read my piece, and thankful for your kind words.

      I hope I did some justice to your essay. I know that it wasn’t written for a lay audience, and I’ll hope you’ll forgive me for a few simplifications as well as the inevitable points I have wrong. I certainly think you have a fascinating perspective on the furry phenomenon, and one that is worth discussing and unpicking and exploring.

      I would love to chat with you further on the topic, with an eye to writing about it more on [a][s]. I’m sure that you can help me with things I have wrong, or have oversimplified, and maybe talk about aspects of your analysis that weren’t appropriate for this particular essay.

      I’ll drop you an email at your DePaul address, which is listed online, if that’s okay with you.

      And yes, I’m sure that one or two of the other commenters would appreciate a bit of background on cultural geography – Laurence in particular. I hope you don’t take his broad dismissiveness towards geography too seriously – commenting on the internet is not a subtle art and I know Laurence well enough to know that he doesn’t intend it that way.

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