This weekend 2000 self-proclaimed ‘furries’ - fans of anthropomorphic animals in cartoons, anime movies, literature and computer games - checked into a conference hotel in Berlin for Eurofurence, Europe’s largest furry fandom convention.
In addition to workshops, art exhibitions and live performances (including a ‘Pawpet show’) , the event centred around the ‘Fursuit Parade’, some strutting their stuff in sports-mascot-style onesies rented just for the occasion, others displaying £5000 bespoke creations incorporating animatronics, lovingly rendered to represent a fully-fledged ‘fursona’ honed over years of furry fandom.
Not all Furries are into dressing up (whereas some occupy the middle ground of a fox-face-mask and bushy tail over jeans) but for committed fursuiters, this was their chance to go wild, and on Sunday night, the beer garden of the Estrel Hotel was crammed with dancing foxes, lions, wolves, tigers and cats, waving their paws in the air like they just don’t care.
For many furries, the 2014 Eurofurence (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) felt like a watershed moment; after years of being maligned and misunderstood, the response in the media was largely positive.
There were no muckraking reports in the press billing the festival as a sex party, and when the police showed up, it was only to examine and admire the prop patrol car created by organisers in keeping with the festival’s ‘Crime Scene’ theme. (Previous themes have included ‘Aloha Hawaii’ and ‘Kung Fur Hustle’.) Reception staff at the Estrel Hotel gamely accessorised their crisp work uniforms with cheetah-ears and giraffe-patterned fuzzy bow-ties.
The cultural historian Fred Patten, who has written extensively about anime, fantasy and science fiction subcultures, dates Furry Fandom back to a Bostonian science fiction convention in 1980, where a discussion group about intelligent animals in literature, TV, periodicals and film spawned semi-regular informal gatherings at further conventions.
By 1983, the term ‘furry fandom’ was being used in fanzines, denoting ‘the organised appreciation and dissemination of art and prose regarding ‘Furries’, or fictional mammalian anthropomorphic characters’ - although many fans consider the origins to be much earlier, dating back to Osamu Tezuka’s 1950s series ‘Kimba, the White Lion’, Richard Adam’s 1972 novel Watership Down, and even George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Furry fandom is a surprisingly little-known subculture, but where it is known, the idea persists that it’s all about sex - kinky sex between socially inept oddballs who only fancy cartoon foxes, to be precise.
Even the most active furries - including Eurofurence’s organisers - conceal their true identities behind anamorphic avatars and pseudonyms like @BigBlueFox and @Cheetah_Spotty - but insist they are proud of their furry status, simply mindful of public prejudice.
“If you think we’re secretive and suspicious, it’s only because we’re sick to death of reading that furry conventions are all about sex,” says Liza, a 29-year-old graphic designer and furry artist based in Brighton. In a recent survey, only 37% of furry respondents claimed that sexual interest is important to their furry activities. For the majority, it’s about a shared cultural obsession, an online community and a burgeoning artistic genre.
“There are some seriously talented a artists out there, creating beautiful charcoal illustrations of furry characters, computer-generated montages, or incredibly detailed funny cartoons,” says Leo, a 38-year-old programmer from Glasgow.
“Linking all furries to fetishism is like saying all Japanese animation fans are Kigurumi (masked cosplay) fetishists, or that the Trekkie phenomenon only happened because everyone wanted to shag Mr. Spock,” says Liza.
“It’s extremely insulting - but thankfully people are starting to wake up to the fact that furry fandom is a cultural phenomenon rather than a sexual peccadillo.”