Wild Kingdom

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

Regardless, he still got pummeled by the bullies. Part of it was the long hair, part of it was being shy and sweet. Those traits earned him "fag" and "girl." He says when the mean kids ganged up on him, he just waited out their punches, knowing that soon he'd be home with his animals. He'd be on the floor, meowing with his cats, howling with his dogs.

"I've always been, like…in touch with my animal inside," says Reed, who often steals the rawhide bones his mother, Sherri, buys for the dogs. "It just kind of felt right."

That same feeling is expressed by other furries -- many of whom are outsiders like Reed. Shockwave the wolf grew up a sci-fi fan in Brazoria, where his preacher called Dungeons & Dragons the work of Satan and his mother confused science fiction with Scientology. He says his affection for the genre became stale once far-flung fancies became actual scientific breakthroughs. But he finds the furries -- he discovered them through a chat channel in 1992 -- to be sheer fun.

Shockwave calls furry comics "a metaphor for different races."
Daniel Kramer
Shockwave calls furry comics "a metaphor for different races."
Furry fandom bonds Melonson and Reed.
Daniel Kramer
Furry fandom bonds Melonson and Reed.

Furry literature and comics can also be "a metaphor for different races," Shockwave says. "It's really easy to look at humanity from an outside perspective if you eliminate humanity from the equation entirely and you say, 'Okay, everybody's now an animal.' "

On top of the requisite teen angst, some of the younger furries interviewed for this story wrestle with extreme geekiness, bisexuality or learning disorders.

As Shockwave says, "When you are pretending to be a seven-foot dragon, it doesn't matter what your skin color is, what church you go to, where you live. Those things vanish. So there is a great deal of attractiveness to anyone who has been marginalized or has never felt popular or felt like they never belonged anywhere."

That observation sounds on point to Constantina Boudouvas, a behavioral therapist at Baylor College of Medicine's Menninger Clinic. She's been reading about furry culture for the past six months.

"I think what it offers people is a sense of community and a way to connect," she says. "I think there's been traditions in different cultures, going way back, of people identifying with different animal totems and drawing strength from animals by identifying with them."

Media coverage has made already skittish furries more hesitant to go public with their passion. Last year, an MTV special focused on an extreme sect of furries who have sex in their costumes. Vanity Fair apparently came up short on kinky furries for a 2001 piece, so several hundred words were included about an unrelated male sexual fetish for watching high-heeled women squish insects.

Because of these portrayals, Samuel Conway, a Pennsylvania chemist who organizes Anthrocon, shuns the media and bars reporters from the annual festivities.

"He is wrong for thinking that bad press and ugly rumors are going to disappear as long as we ignore them," Shockwave says. "He's a sharp cookie, clever guy. But I respectfully disagree with him on that."

Public uncertainty about the group also makes it more difficult for kids living at home to "come out" to their parents -- something that Shockwave, a father of two, understands.

"It's 'deviant,' it's unknown, it's 'an opening for a cult' -- I've heard all kinds of stories," he says. "And it doesn't matter how they misunderstand, it is almost universal that the parents will misunderstand…And when it is something as completely alien as fandom -- it does not matter what kind of fandom -- my first reaction is going to be no. Speak first and get the facts later."

As Shockwave says, "People need an escape."

Reed initially found that escape in the ever-increasing number of animals brought in by his mother.

Down the road from their house near Hobby Airport, Sherri Reed maintains a makeshift menagerie -- a sanctuary for neglected horses, emus, rabbits, chickens and ducks.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, Sherri walks barefoot through the grass and dirt, unfazed by the myriad piles of interspecies feces, to give water to the world's fattest pot-bellied pig. Sherri's home and animal shelter are all about creating an atmosphere of love, which is why she and Reed's stepdad never understood the cruel treatment Reed had to endure at school. Home was a warm, loving environment.

Warm, but weird.

Wild squirrels, lizards, mice and ferrets play in cages in the foyer, alongside a drum kit, piano and shelves lined with bongos, African statuettes and crude wind instruments. Somewhere down the hall, a cockatoo named Kumanu-Nani releases a shrill cry, sounding like an old screen door in bad need of oil. It's Mutual of Haight-Ashbury's Groovy Kingdom.

It wasn't surprising that the introverted Reed wouldn't go anywhere without a struggle, except to the zoo. Drawn to the lions and wolves, he'd look into their eyes and say, "Hello. How are you?" It never mattered that they didn't respond. He respected the animals, admired their instinct. It was their instinct that made them stable, unlike the weird thoughts in his head or the unpredictability of his peers.

But Sherri, concerned with her child's fear of everything except enormous wild beasts whose fangs could rip a man apart, eventually dragged him to a psychiatrist's office.

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