Wild Kingdom

The furries are fighting like animals, just for a little respect

It's a clear, warm night, and the 17-year-old is on his roof howling at the full moon. Furboy Zero can't explain the feeling that compels this behavior. It just hits, and the stocky teen is on autopilot, planting his feet on the gate between the single-story white house and the driveway and hopping onto the roof. Like the feline he feels inside him, he slinks along the black shingles to the peak. And like the dog inside him, he throws back his shoulders, casts a head full of thin black hair skyward and greets the glowing white orb with two prolonged howls. He's not thinking about anything except how pretty the moon is.

"I like the moon and it deserves a howl," Zero says.

Things he likes get a howl. A handful of buddies, his girlfriend, his chinchilla. Things he doesn't like aren't as easily negotiated. His mind is a minefield of misfiring synapses and chemicals that don't go where they should.

Furboy Zero gets in the mood for a howl.
Daniel Kramer
Furboy Zero gets in the mood for a howl.
Shrag as a samurai jaguar: He gets a "vicarious thrill" when people laugh.
Daniel Kramer
Shrag as a samurai jaguar: He gets a "vicarious thrill" when people laugh.

Beneath him, his parents and his seven-year-old sister are asleep. The howling doesn't wake them up anymore. Not even the neighbors complain. No one's ever thrown a shoe or called the pound. Up here, his stomach full of Reese's Puffs and antipsychotics, he can enjoy the vista in peace. Down there, it's a bit more difficult. People are cruel, not cuddly.

That's why it's more fun to be Furboy Zero, the hybrid cat-dog-rodent, than it is to be Michael Reed the teenager. But sometimes people look at you funny or shy away. They don't understand, so they fear.

It ain't easy being furry.

A turtle, a wolf and a raccoon walk into a coffee shop.

No, it's not a bad joke. It's the Houston Furry Advance Team, three critters venturing out of the World Wide Woodland to meet a reporter in the Montrose. If they like what they see, if they think the reporter's on the level, they'll give the other furries the paws-up.

The furries feel persecuted by Vanity Fair, MTV and syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, all of whom hinted that furries are cultish perverts who dress up like animals and sodomize unsuspecting teddy bears. To the furries, a reporter traipsing through their online habitat is a poacher. And that's what happened the week before, when the Houston Press entered their Texasfurs.org to inquire about story interviews. Feathers ruffled, fangs were bared and tails shot between legs.

Enter the advance team.

This afternoon, the furries are in their human form, which is to say they look like computer geeks on casual Friday. Shockwave, a 39-year-old father of two, is the unofficial spokeswolf. He's cynical and defensive, for good reason. He has a bet with a rabbit that the reporter will ply him with questions about "yiffing," the furry term for sex. A cold beer is on the line.

Of the three, only Andrew Mutchler, a 35-year-old bachelor turtle, says he'll allow his name for publication. Shockwave and Paracelsus, a 31-year-old father of two, say they don't want to expose their families to potential fallout; e.g., Your dad's a freaking raccoon?!

They're three peaceful nerds who like anthropomorphic animals in art, literature and movies but say they have to operate under the radar because of sensationalized media coverage. The general public accepts their kin -- anime and sci-fi fans -- but the minute you say you're a furry, the villagers bust out the torches.

Shockwave and his friends, who have 24 years of furry experience among them, insist there's nothing remotely risqué about the life of a furry. The majority of interaction takes place online, with participants instant-messaging each other as their animal "fursonas."

Furries have been around for thousands of years -- they just didn't have a name, says Paracelsus (he borrowed his name from a 16th-century alchemist). Egyptian animal deities inscribed in pyramid walls, Aesop's Fables, Peter Rabbit and Watership Down are all in the furry tradition. Maus, a furry graphic novel about the holocaust, depicts Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, and is the only book of its kind to have won the Pulitzer Prize.

"Furry" is a meta-genre, says Paracelsus. Many people aren't just into being furries, but apply furry aspects to their love of anime, role-playing, "cosplay" (a costume-based fandom) and science fiction.

Modern furry fandom began as early as the 1960s, when sci-fi writers and comic artists were focusing exclusively on animal characters. By the late 1970s, their followers had started fanzines to network and deal in their own stories and art. That led to informal gatherings called furmeets, where they shared their art and talked about all things furry. For these sessions, enthusiasts met in homes or went to the zoo, the mall or to theaters showing furry-themed movies.

In the latter half of the 1980s, furries were grouping together at established science-fiction conventions throughout the country. In 1989, the first furry convention, held near Los Angeles, attracted 90 people. Last year, nearly 2,000 attended Anthrocon, the premier national meeting.

Much of that growth has been attributed to the Internet. Furries no longer have to rely on sporadically produced fanzines to connect with faraway followers. They even engage in role-playing games on furry MUCKs, multi-user chat kingdoms.

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