That Whole “Furry” Thing

At furry conventions, I tend to physically stand out from the crowd. I’m older than most furs, and don’t tend to wear “convention gear” like ears and a tail. Indeed, due to sheer absent-mindedness I often even forget to wear my badge. So it’s natural, I suppose, that “outsiders” often approach me and ask “Sir, what is this whole “furry” thing about, anyway? Why is everyone here dressed so strangely?”

So, in turn it’s also natural that I’ve given considerable thought to the matter. “We’re people who like anthropomorphic art and literature and such,” is my usual quick-and-dirty answer. “Think Nick Wilde, or Bugs Bunny.” And that’s usually good enough; people approaching a stranger in public generally aren’t seeking anything more. Yet this is also the simplest and most facile of all responses, one that opens more doors than it closes. For the people surrounding us when this conversation takes place have often traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to be there, crossed entire continents and oceans on journeys that they’ve often saved for years to undertake. With all due to respect to Nick and Bugs, there’s clearly something much deeper at work.

This is a problem I’ve been thinking about from many different angles for over fifteen years. It was about a decade ago that I first proposed— in a similarly-themed column in a similar venue— that people become furries largely due to being exposed to large numbers of anthropomorphic images during early childhood, specifically during the period of brain development when self-identity is established. (In this stage, children the world over begin to obsessively draw crude circles. Then eyes and a mouth appear, at first grotesquely mis-placed and then growing ever more certain, until it’s clear that all along the goal has been to create a recognizable human face. Many experts believe that this is an outward manifestation of the child learning “I am a human, and these are my kind. I am one of these.”) When one’s environment is populated with warm, smiling plush animals, not to mention colorful, attention-fixating “living” images playfully capering across the video-screens that seem to soak up an ever-growing proportion of our childhood, well… I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of today’s furries scowled in infantile concentration and scrawled out pointy ears atop the heads of those first clumsy images, and perhaps whiskers, muzzles and outsized eyes as well. I don’t claim to know this for fact, nor is it a theory I’m advancing in any sort of serious academic way— I’m a retired auto worker, after all, not a developmental psychologist. But it’s compelling enough that, as a thoughtful non-professional. I’ve never come across a better theory.

Because, you see, furry clearly runs deep. It has to, or else people wouldn’t willingly spend so much or travel so far or, for that matter, expose themselves to so much ridicule. Over and over again I’ve met furs who’ve “discovered” the fandom at a relatively advanced age, and it’s almost invariably a profoundly emotional experience for them. They smile and weep and claim to feel “at home” and “among their own kind” for the first time ever. (Certainly this was the case for me.)

Does this sound like something rooted in the very core of one’s self-identity, or what? I’m lucky in that I have two clear memories of being three years old. One of them is of me picturing myself as an anthropomorphic character. Not as a pretend-thing— to me it was real, the way I was supposed to be shaped. Not only do I suspect that I’ve been shaped that way somewhere deep down in my own head ever since, but I also suspect that many other “hard-core furries” are “wrong-shaped” as well. If my theory is indeed correct, this has profound implications both for us as individuals and the fandom as a whole. Even the sexual aspects of the furry fandom seem— to uneducated me, at least— rooted in a “different” self-identity at the very deepest of levels. The vast majority of the sex-poses and erotic situations portrayed in furry erotica are perfectly accessible to humans of fully normal anatomy. Yet for some (not all, and probably not even most!) furries these otherwise very ordinary portrayals convey far more power when the characters wear permanent fur coats. Why does this matter so much, if not that it reflects a “kink” in our innermost self-identities?

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. One of the few demonstrably unique traits that defines humanity is the ability to put one’s self in someone else’s head and see things from their point of view. (Studies show that the majority of four-year-olds are capable of this, while most two-year-olds are not. It’s an intellectual leap chimps and other species never take.) I suspect that people who have a fuzzy (pun intended) sense of self-identity tend to be better at this than “ordinary” people. Which in turns quite logically leads to increased empathy and all the things that follow from it. Including perhaps the tendency towards acceptance and tolerance that pretty much everyone, even outsiders, perceives as one of the more remarkable hallmarks of our fandom. I’d also submit that it also probably makes for a higher level of creativity in general— certainly as a writer I’ve personally benefitted from the ability to “see through alien eyes”. In fact, I’ve almost come to regard it as a sort of social superpower.

So that’s what I, in my uneducated, non-professional way, think furry is really all about. It’s a broadened sense of self-identity that sometimes arises due to a child-rearing practice quite common in our culture— that of drowning our children in highly-attractive anthro-imagery during a key developmental stage, imagery close enough to human that we “mistakenly” incorporate it into our deepest sense of self. We seek each other out and rejoice in our brotherhood because we really are different in a fundamental and basic way, and delight in each other’s art and culture because it truly does diverge in significant, important ways from mainstream society’s product.

Just as we ourselves do.

In other words, I think furries really are different. Most of the passers-by at conventions who question who and what we are will never in a million years either truly understand us or what it is that we’re so profoundly rejoicing in together. Yet because of our innate flexibility of identity, we have no problem whatsoever understanding them.

Advantage, furries!

About Rabbit

Rabbit Is the author of over thirty published furry novels and novellas as well as numerous columns and articles in other furry venues. He's a retired Tennessee auto worker.

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16 thoughts on “That Whole “Furry” Thing

  1. ” In this stage, children the world over begin to obsessively draw crude circles. ”

    I don’t quite understand this sentence. Check me if I’m wrong but, is it written correctly?

    1. Let me try a rephrasing. “All over the world, children in this particular stage of development begin to draw imperfect circles over and over again.”

      I hope that helped, and thanks for reading!

  2. good article, I love the way [a][s] discusses this kind of sociological…. stuff….
    Thanks for writing this, learned something new.

  3. Great article. I’d like to suggest a different theory about why all this is happening at this point in history though, as I suspect that exposition to cartoon characters is not creating something new here but rather triggering a resurfacing of natural psychological tendencies which had been actively opposed by cultures of the past.

    I do not believe that we are hard wired to obsess over humans only and to distance ourselves from other species. Children don’t do that naturally, and neither do most primitive/pagan cultures, as they tend to accept that man has an animal or part-animal nature and integrate it in their religious beliefs. In fact the evolution of Western cultures feels at times like a desperate struggle to oppose the conflation of human and animal by any means, both philosophical and practical, until antrhopomorphism came to be considered childish stuff for the most part, a concept be set aside with coming of age so one could move on to the more important adult stuff.

    With secularization brought forward by the modern age though the pendulum has swung towards a more relaxed attitude in culture and nowadays we are ok with adults loving activities which are just evolved versions of childish stuff, such as sport fandoms, popcorn movies or videogames. All those activities stem from “childish” instincts which we are no longer forced to set aside as we come of age, and it is becoming accepted that such activities can be part of a person’s identity rather than the shameful filler for spare time they would have been considered a couple centuries ago.

    It’s only natural that the instict to anthropomorphize stuff is being liberated in the same way, aided by scientific evidence that there humans and other animals should be considered part of a continuum and not really different categories. I can’t prove such an instinct exists, but it isn’t difficult to see potential connections with the “Biophilia hypotesis” proposed by some eminent ethologists ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biophilia_hypothesis ) and with the ability to put one’s self in someone else’s point of view that you mentioned.

    (In fact there are many similarities between the stuff we enjoy in the furry fandom and concepts found in pagan cultures. I would recommend the documentary “Pagans” produced by Channel 4 for some striking examples. It’s an overview of the culture of ancient pagan cultures of nothern Europe and they had it all: animal costumes, animal totems, rituals and occasions in which people would relax their sexual orientation, animals as symbols of eros, etc. The context was different of course, but the underlying way of thinking about animals feels the same to me.)

    1. Thank you for a thoughtful reply nearly as long as the original piece. Or perhaps even longer!

      Personally, I’d like nothing better than to see some serious research done along the very different but equally interesting lines we’ve proposed. I can’t help but believe that the results would be of significant value in terms of understand the human condition in general.

      As for your last paragraph– why not submit an article here on the subject? You clearly write well, and I’m certainly interested in the potential subject-matter. I bet many others would be, as well. Tell the editor I sent ya!

      1. Thank you! I have actually exchanged messages with JM before and even thought of possible articles to submit, but I always struggle a lot when trying to write from scratch (hence the long reply, for some reason I manage to express my ideas much better when replying to something). That documentary might actually be a good starting point for an article though. I’ll give it a try soon.

        1. Again, I look forward to reading it!

          As an author myself as well as someone who loves the art of writing for art’s sake, may I offer some completely unsolicited writing advice? Please understand that I mean absolutely no offense– only encouragement!–and am genuinely just offering what I hope might be a helpful suggestion.

          Being able to write such highly-effective replies as the one above, while at the same time not feeling confident when composing original articles, might well reflect inexperience or a sense of uncertainty in dealing with a written work’s internal structure. Comments and rebuttals both tend to “borrow” the internal underpinnings of the original piece, whereas creating new material from whole cloth requires an author to develop an original framework from scratch. No writer is equally strong in all skill-areas. (I, for example, am notoriously inept at self-editing.) It’d be a darned shame if an easily-resolved issue were to deprive the world of the many wonderful works I suspect you’re quite capable of creating. So…

          Assuming I’m right about structure being a problem, I’d suggest you sit down at your keyboard and _force_ yourself to focus on organization. (The harder and more unnatural it seems, the more strongly I’d suspect that this is indeed a key issue for you.) One good way to approach the matter is to first list the points you’d like make as “bullets” in whatever order they occur to you, then group them by subject matter. Finally, rearrange the groups into the sequence in which they’d most logically and effectively be presented. When you actually write the piece, mind you, the final result not only may but very likely _will_ diverge significantly from your “blueprint”; that’s both natural and to be expected. The key is that you’ve been forced to think about structure and planning ahead in general before beginning the actual composition process. While there’s considerably more to organizing a well-written article than just what’s covered here, it’s an excellent place to begin and many renowned columnists– mostly those that tend to rely on the power of their ideas over literary skill– have built successful professional careers on little if anything more in the way of technique.

          Or so it seems to me, at least. Your mileage may vary.

          1. Thank you for the advice! It sounds spot on because I’ve written stories and short articles before and my process is, well, rather chaotic. I often start with a paragraph which is supposed to be in the middle of the piece and then try to grow everything else around it. (I have similar problems with drawing too, possibly related.)

            So I’ll follow your advice and give it a try. I’ve been watching the documentaries again while taking notes and I think there’s definitely enough material for an article.

  4. This was a great read. I always knew that furry was more than just being a fan, since I had felt deep emotional attachment to furry from a young age. Reading this helped me realize just how and why it is so important to me. Thanks for writing this!

    1. Thank you for reading it, and even more for taking the time to comment as well!

      Just keep in mind that I really _am_ merely a thoughtful layman, and my musings on this subject are just exactly that– mere musings, as opposed to established scientific fact. Apply grains of salt accordingly.

  5. I have waited to see this sort of text put together for so long now that I was very close to writng about this subject myself. It frustrates me to see people online call themselves furry, and then say it’s just an superficial appreciation of anthropomorphics(and dissmiss any identity related aspects), when to me and many others its clearly so much more. I think that the points that you made here truly are what defines being a furry: everything from the self identity to how it affects one’s interaction with the world. This is the sort of thing i want people to see and hear when they are introduced to furry’s existance.

    I do feel uncomfortable to a certain extent with the “origin story” you propose, for two reasons :
    1. I think its just too simple in a way. Human beings for the most part are very flexible and adaptable creatures, and its quite possible that such early experiences will have an effect on self identity, but this explanation may obscure something more profound about humanity and the sentient experience. The hypothesis brought up by Scale is much more robust in that sense, although it too has its flaws(we dont need pagans to justify furry, for example).
    2. Saying that furryness is a side effect of the developmental environment is a VERY easy tool in the hands of any psychologist attempting to ‘cure’ it, and any hater/just-non-furry trying to explain it away. This mindset if, popularised in mainstream society, may directly lead to the death of anthropomorphic cartoons (and, joke aside, many furries, advertantly and inadvertantly), and who would want that?

    Rabbit, thank you for another great article! :)

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and I’m glad you enjoyed!

      For my own part, I’m not at all worried about the future of anthropomorphic cartoons. They’re not only far too culturally-embedded by now to be done away with, but also much too beloved as well.

  6. My view of furry conventions is limited to the one I can afford to goto, which is my local fur con namely Midwest Furfest. Which is really the highlight of my year, and last year was like every year before it. ABSOLUTELY FUN!!! I really don’t see an explosion of cartoon characters over the last 3 years, although there was one furry dressed up as Nick Wilde, I would say at least 97% of the fursuits where original designs. Being a greymuzzle myself, and one who chooses not to fursuit. I really didn’t stand out. I would say some 63% were like me dressed in their normal clothes, no ears or tail. But like every year I was accepted by the old and young and those in between. Not for who or what I am, just because I was a furry. Which I think is the best part of any fur con. I been to a couple of other cons, and not spoke with anyone. Which is totally opposite of my experience at MFF.

    But I would admit my favorite part is watching non furries freak out, by fursuiters and those who wear ears and tails. One even spoke with me and was surprised I was an furry. Usually they listen and once they understand, we watch each others backs. They understand…at least I hope so.

    Good article

    1. Thank you for your kind words!

      I attended many of the early MFF’s, up until about 2008 or so, and had a wonderful time there as well. (When I finally quit, it was entirely due to personal circumstances and nothing to do with the truly excellent con and staff, and it’s entirely posssible I may someday show up there again.) Perhaps we’ve even passed each other in the corridors?

      At any rate… Thank you again for the kind words, and for taking the time to comment!

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