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.
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.
Furries can be as kid-friendly as Bugs Bunny, but a lot of furry art has an erotic edge. Because furries afford animals every aspect of human behavior, there is a strong sexual component to their human-animal hybrids. That's why some artists warn on their Web sites that the material is not suitable for those under 18, but instead of beaver shots, there are, well, shots of naked beavers. Half-clad cat ladies may purr in provocative poses on the sites. Others show body-builder rhinos stroking hideously engorged members, or lions doing it doggy-style in bed.
As Paracelsus says a few days later, "I'm not saying that I don't appreciate images of naked human females, 'cause I do. But the addition of the exotic it adds an element of cuteness."
Case in point: the 1973 animated film Robin Hood. What's considered by many people to be among the worst Disney movies ever is a touchstone with furries. As far as they're concerned, it was one of the first furry feature films and really grasped the concept of anthropomorphism. It also introduced furries to a certain female fox who continues to capture their hearts.
"Can you honestly tell me that Maid Marian is not attractive?" Paracelsus asks.
The samurai jaguar is on the prowl.
If he could, Shrag would stroll lithely through the halls of the Hobby Airport Marriott like a true member of Panthera onca. Instead, he walks like a fortysomething techie in an $800 animal costume.
A fan mounted inside the foam head keeps the temperature tolerable, if not exactly pleasant, as he cautiously plods past booths overflowing with sci-fi paraphernalia.
Shrag figured the sci-fi convention would be an appropriate place for the debut of his fursuit, and he's glad he did it. Despite the fact that the suit affords no peripheral vision, and that perforated plastic eyeholes obscure his forward line of sight, Shrag feels buoyant. He loves the attention, especially from the kids.
A father approaches with a cute toddler. Through the eyeholes, Shrag can't even tell if the kid's a boy or a girl. Whatever the gender, the child gushes at the sight of the samurai jaguar, emits a joyful yelp of "Kitty!" and reaches to stroke the animal's soft, smooth fur.
More than a year after the convention, the encounter is still one of Shrag's fondest fursuit memories.
"My heart melted," says the 46-year-old, who asked to go by only Shrag, a name he took by combining "shred" and "frag." He likes fursuiting for one reason: It makes people happy. "It gives me kind of a vicarious thrill to have people laugh it just feels good," he says.
Shrag says his parents and non-furry friends don't have any major problems with his fursuiting. "They think I'm a little weird, but that's okay," he says. "I don't mind being considered a little weird. Makes life interesting."
Growing up in Galveston, Shrag rescued stray animals and loved watching cartoons on TV, particularly The Pink Panther. When he was six or seven, kids in his neighborhood formed a Pink Panther fan club.
He stumbled onto furry Web sites just over three years ago, got hooked and saw his first fursuiters at a 2000 Memphis convention. The next year, he was awed by Masquerade, skits performed by fursuiters at the biggest convention, Anthrocon.
Shrag ordered a $580 jaguar suit online and spent a few hundred more customizing it. A longtime sword collector and martial arts fan, Shrag created a "samurai jaguar" fursona, complete with a robe, black ponytail wig and hakama -- the skirtlike pants worn by samurai. A hand-forged katana sword on his hip was the final touch.
Last year, he and his friend, a fox who goes by Hali, performed their first Masquerade skit in front of nearly 1,000 furries at the Philadelphia Adam's Mark Hotel.
Their sketch, "Proof of Marriage in the Animal Kingdom," received a lukewarm response, mostly because Shrag and Hali had a tough act to follow.
In the previous skit, a black rabbit aborted the script by getting down on bended knee to ask his otter girlfriend to marry him. Overcome with emotion, the otter fluttered her paws in front of her eyes and stepped back in disbelief. It was one of the convention's highlights, and quite possibly the only time in history that a guy in a rabbit outfit proposed to a woman dressed as an otter.
Nine-year-old Michael Reed liked the way the sound felt in his mouth, as if he could taste the vibrations. Years before he began howling at the moon, the boy would spend the entire day making that noise, a sound like a sputtering engine.
What he really felt compelled to say was the F-word, over and over, but that got him in trouble. It came out at the worst times -- in class, in front of the cool kids -- and he looked like a freak. There were other things he couldn't explain, like the constant counting, the blowing on the hands or the contorting jaw movements.
After a while, he was able to disguise the flurry of fucks by paring it down to the simple pleasure of the k.
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.
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.
Tourette's, the doctor said. It was the first diagnosis in a succession of psychoses that included ADD, OCD, agoraphobia and bipolar disorder. No instinct whatsoever. He needed his animals now more than ever.
Reed began finding them in human form after a girlfriend introduced him to her world of furries. As a high school sophomore, he had his final showdown with the bullies about his new interest. A big junior, who had overheard him talking about furries with a teacher, confronted him at a bathroom urinal between classes:
"You like to have sex with stuffed animals!"
His back to the junior, Reed recalls thinking of only one thing to say.
"I'll pee on your leg if you don't leave me alone."
With those fightin' words, the two were at each other, arms locked, spinning around until an instructor arrived to pry them apart.
That was the last time Reed took any flak for being a furry.
His longtime friend Candace Melonson has worn a headband with leopard ears every day for the last three years. Her fursona is a white wolf named Kyandichan, but she's thinking of becoming an ocelot. Reed wore Melonson's wolf suit to an anime convention in The Woodlands last year, and he relished the attention.
For his fursona, Reed developed Furboy Zero, a cat-dog-rodent hybrid created by a mad scientist bent on world domination. The good-hearted Zero escaped from the lab and tries to spend his life spreading love and joy.
With such open parents, Reed hasn't had to hide his fursona, although revealing it to them was difficult. He timed his announcement to coincide with last year's MTV special on furries, telling his parents to watch a show that turned out to be exploitative.
He recalls their reaction: "They're like, 'Do you want to dress up in a fursuit and have sex with men?' "
Reed explained it wasn't an accurate representation, and they've never questioned him again.
He knows his habits are peculiar, but he feels comfortable in his skin. Or fur.
"Being weird is normal," he says. "If you're normal and if there's nothing, you know, interesting about you, I find that weird."
Reed wants to go to college and hopes to start a video game company, where he can make games like his favorites, Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 7.
But his more immediate goal is to make his fursuit, an inverted Siberian tiger -- black fur with white stripes. He wants to put it on and drive to Tokyohana, his favorite sushi bar. He once saw a magician perform there, making people's eyes light up as he strolled from table to table wowing them with sleight of hand. Reed relishes the chance to walk through the restaurant's doors and introduce the patrons to Furboy Zero.
Does he think he'd be welcome?
"I'm not sure," he says, mulling it over. "I'm hoping so."
Ever since the infamous Katy Mills Fursuit Fiasco of 2001, local fursuiters say Houston just isn't fursuit-friendly.
On that day a year and a half ago, according to a 30-year-old red unicorn named Bayne, about five furries flocked to Katy Mills to see The Lord of the Rings. Afterward, Bayne and a fellow fursuiter, a red-tailed hawk, decided to throw on their suits and take a trip through the mall. They changed in the hawk's van and emerged in full fursuit force.
"Once back inside the mall, we got the usual reactions kids laughing and following us around, people wanting to stop us for photos, mothers bringing the smaller kids up for a closer look," Bayne wrote in his online journal.
But it wasn't long before Katy Mills security descended upon the hawk and Bayne with SWAT-like ferocity. Not knowing what kind of dangerous lunatics they had on their hands, about seven guards surrounded the stunned unicorn and hawk and asked them to remove their masks.
Unbeknownst to them, the fursuiters were violating the mall's no-masks policy.
"Anytime that anybody would be masking themselves somehow, you never know if somebody's trying to hide an identity or possibly lure children or whatever," says mall marketing director Pamela Miller. "They were asked to remove their masks and they refused."
That's because, Bayne wrote, "One of the first rules of fursuiting is you don't remove your mask in public. It tends to scare the kids, reveals your identity generally just destroys the magic."
According to Bayne, his feathered compatriot asked the guards if they could step outside before removing their masks.
"Do it now!" the guards ordered.
The hawk complied, but Bayne held his ground.
That's when, according to Miller, "the unicorn actually went running off he then ran over by [the mall nightclub] Midnight Rodeo, which is when Katy police took over and kicked them out."
Bayne also became "verbally abusive" with the security guards, Miller says.
They retreated to the hawk's van and were leaving when a Katy squad car flashed its lights. The hawk pulled over but refused to show them his ID.
The cops bent his feathered frame over the hood of the van, frisked and handcuffed him. They told him to sit on the curb while they ran background checks.
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"After ten or 15 minutes they'd apparently satisfied themselves that we were just a couple of harmless nuts in animal costumes and not really escaped psycho killers or terrorists," Bayne recalled.
But some of the furries have manipulated the incident to illustrate Houston's intolerance toward anything different. They say that nothing like that would happen to fursuiters in L.A. or New York. In other cities, activities like fursuit bowling are more common. No one can remember the last time 'suiters went to the lanes in Houston.
But despite the humiliation, Bayne now looks back on the debacle with a cooler head.
"I realize I was in the wrong here to be so obstinate, and the whole thing could have been avoided if we'd checked with someone in charge first," he says. But "we were just trying to have some fun in our own way and maybe bring some other people some smiles as well."