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.