"Rodent Party. Room 1131. 10 p.m. Saturday. (Yiffy)."
The notes are all tacked to a bulletin board, full of missed connections and mesages like "Who gave Mix a ride?" and "Xander is here! Come find me!" with room and telephone numbers and sketches of grinning or leering unicorns, wolves and foxes.
I figure this has to be it. Room 1131 has to be where the depravity will take place.
I button a newly purchased fake cheetah tail to the belt loop of my jeans. With tail on and notebook abandoned, I'm trying to pass myself off as something I'm not.
I've already spent the better part of two days hoping to blend in with nearly 2,500 conventioneers at Anthrocon, the world's largest gathering of "furries" ... folks with a deep appreciation for humans with animal characteristics. How deep that appreciation goes can vary. Some furries simply wear tails and ears; some make art starring human and animal hybrids. Others create online personas of themselves as part-animals. At least one guy, it seems, attends conventions wearing a menacing black leather fox mask and suit.
So far, I've seen a guy explaining to his rapt audience how he uses tiny fans to cool the inside of his giant, fully articulated shark's-head mask ... and how he manages on the dance floor without whacking folks with his tail. I've seen young men walking hand in hand, with fox, wolf and tiger tails dangling behind their jeans. I've been warmly hugged by strangers ... wearing full, mascot-style animal suits.
I've also been led to believe "yiffy" is synonymous with freaky/sexy/crazy. This party's got promise.
Still, I'm all nerves making my way down the 11th-floor hallway of the Westin Convention Center hotel. I'm not entirely sure I want to witness people in rodent suits having kinky sex with each other. Then again, I'm not sure I want to miss it, either.
Leery of what I might be interrupting ... the party began an hour ago ... I start rehearsing what I'll do when I arrive. Play the innocent? Feign expertise on yiffy rodent relations? Rip off my pants and go for broke?
The door's propped open an inch or so, and I push my way in.
The rodent party, as it happens, is about as yiffy as a high school AV-club meeting. About 15 people sit on the room's two beds, talking and drawing animals and comic-book characters in sketchbooks.
No one's in a fursuit ... the full, mascot-style animal costumes some at the convention wear. Few of them are even wearing tails.
When I enter, a man sitting on the floor by the door announces to the room at large, "A GIRL!" I've just doubled the female population of the party. Polite inquiries are made about what species I am. I'm a rat, I'm pretty sure, despite the cheetah tail. (At the convention's merchandise tables, the five-dollar tail choices were cheetah, zebra or tiger.) I find a seat on the floor, and try to arrange my tail so it's not poking me ... or anyone else.
A laptop computer pumps music ... at least one video-game theme ... into the room. At one point, a cell phone loudly rings out the Star Wars theme. People are murmuring about characters in online games, about other conventions and college classes. There's a handle of Captain Morgan's rum and several 12-packs of Coca Cola. The rum's been dented to the tune of about half an inch and is being ignored, but Cokes are getting hard to come by.
The men on the beds lounge against each other and scratch and pet each other's occasionally shirtless backs. It's more physical intimacy than you might find at, say, a shot-and-beer bar, but it's affectionate, not lustful. It's clear that an orgy ... involving members of any species ... is miles from breaking out. As with the rest of the convention, the room's vibe is creative, accepting ... and, frankly, a little nerdy.
When I leave, I get a few gentle hugs. One man gives my tail a friendly squeeze. Most revelers don't even look up from their sketching.
Ask 10 furries what being a furry means, and you're liable to get at least a dozen answers. But the boilerplate response is that a furry is anyone who enjoys an anthropomorphic blending of humans and animals ... in comic books, cartoons, fiction and, occasionally, through costuming.
One thing most furries agree on is this: They aren't sex freaks.
Even so, to many outsiders, "furry" has become synonymous with "pervert." Throughout the convention, the locals at the hotel bar describe the event as "some sex thing" in incredulous cell-phone calls as they watch con-goers in the lobby: Some are in full cat or unicorn getups, hugging each other and snapping photos, or taking advantage of the wireless Internet to update their blogs. A few take up places in the bar itself, tails draping from the stools.
Part of the blame lies with recent episodes of MTV's Sex2K and CSI, which both focused on the few furries who take their hobby to the level of obsession and fetish ... the ones who use fursuits as an integral part of their sex lives.
But most furries blame their reputation on a 2001 Vanity Fair article by George Gurley. The piece, which introduced "yiffy" into the general lexicon, highlighted the bizarre practices of Fox Wolfie Galen, who admitted to experimenting with bestiality involving German shepherds and Labrador retrievers ("the dog started it," he claims) ... before settling on a sexual preference for plush animals and sports mascots. "If a mascot walked into a room surrounded by naked women," Galen told Gurley, "I'd be thinking about the mascot."
"Every family reunion has a crazy Uncle Frank that the kids aren't allowed to talk to," says Anthrocon chair Dr. Samuel Conway, known in convention circles as Uncle Kage. He's disgusted that few media accounts mention Anthrocon's nonprofit status, or the thousands of dollars it raises every year for animal charities ... almost six grand this year for the Western Pennsylvania National Wild Animal Orphanage. "After interviewing several very upstanding, educated people, [Gurley] found this guy, our crazy Uncle Frank. Once that hit the public imagination, there was just no going back. This is why we have been very, very media shy."
"Shy" is an understatement. It took several e-mails, and increasingly desperate levels of wheedling, to cajole a press pass for the convention. And even journalists who did get passes were kept on a short leash. On the official press tour, reporters from CP and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were led around by three members of the convention staff, including Dex, the official press raccoon.
To maintain the illusion of being an animal, people in full fursuits generally refrain from speaking (a habit which results in lots of hammy gesturing on the convention floor). But Dex was willing to break character and talk about the rest of his life as Clarke Braudis, magician and, yes, former Chuck E. Cheese character. As we made our way around the convention floor meanwhile, a woman in a red "Anthrocon Security" T-shirt tailed us for the rest of the afternoon.
Maybe they wanted to keep us away from the pale, skinny girl with all the facial piercings that almost recalled whiskers. Perhaps the vixen in a cut-to-there red evening gown was taboo. Could it be that the government had classified the technology behind the 12-foot-tall robo-dog, who did a lap around the convention floor emitting laser sounds?
In any case, the efforts at spin control were not entirely effective. When a film crew from KDKA couldn't produce a press pass, its camera remained outside the convention center, capturing unauthorized images of a wolf and lizard dancing for the camera, and quick shots of bears and people with tails walking past. "Seen anything furry lately?" anchor Ken Rice asked in his report, which bungled the name of the convention as "Arthrocon."
It's not hard to sympathize with KDKA's confusion. Reached by phone in New York, Gurley says that when he took his Vanity Fair assignment, "I thought it was too far out. I went to the convention in Chicago. I walked in [and] was like, 'Oh, no, no way am I going to be able to crack this scene.' It was really something to behold." After being at the convention a while, though, he says that it stopped seeming really weird. "There's something sweet about it ... and twisted."
His piece even gave voice to furries who felt they weren't that unusual when compared to, say, football fans. "You think we're weird?" one furry asked Gurley. "Look at the 350-pound guy that's got his body split in colors half and half, he's wearing shorts and paint and nothing else, and he's screaming, 'Vikings!'"
Gurley says reaction from furries to his piece was about half positive: "I didn't get any death threats but there were a couple unhappy furries."
There still are, it seems. Outside the convention center, a convention-goer who saw a CP photographer's camera demanded to see a press pass. "We're keeping a close watch on you," he barked.
Maybe it's strange that we find furries so exotic. The blurring of lines between humans and animals in stories and art ... anthropomorphism ... is an ancient ideal. The concept underlies Native American totem animals, African trickster gods and Egyptian deities who were part human and part animal.
In more modern times, animals and humans are blended frequently in pop culture: Think Daffy Duck and characters from Adult Swim. But while animal-humans are old as myth, the Internet is fairly new ... and it's played a crucial role in connecting anthropomorphic fans to each other, and to the idea that they aren't alone. Many furries speak of having eureka moments when they first ventured online to find anthropomorphic art or fiction.
Today, the U.S. has no fewer than three major furry conventions. Anthrocon began in 1996, Midwest Fur Fest started in 2000, and California's Further Confusion kicked off in 1996. Each has grown steadily and now draws thousands of attendees each year.
"The interesting thing to me is, you don't have to explain a sci-fi con," says "Artemis," 24. "It's stranger than the now-common Klingons at sci-fi cons, so it's a great attraction to onlookers."
Artemis is an industrial engineer in northern Illinois. He's not a fursuiter, and his furry experience seems pretty tame: He talks mostly of bowling and playing softball with other furries (not in costume). Many of his other furry interactions are over the Internet, where he often knows only their self-created names and identities ... their "fursonas." His fursona is a skunk.
He's identified as a furry since '98. He says he'd rock a skunk suit if he had the time and money, but for now, his furry expression is mainly going to cons and keeping in touch over the Internet. The Vanity Fair piece didn't help his family understand him any better; Artemis says his older sister didn't speak to him for almost a year after she found it. In fact, he needed some prodding to talk at all: "The general rule for furries is, don't talk to reporters. The smart ones don't. The dumb ones ... well, you found Vanity Fair already."
From appearance alone, it would be hard to tell Artemis and his friends from any other bowling-league team. Some fans are furry on the inside: A fursona need not correspond to a person's attire at a furry event. As described by WikiFur (www.furry.wikia.com), a WikiPedia-like online encyclopedia, "[S]omeone who says they are a Furry is expressing an interest in anthropomorphic animals and/or creatures. How deep or meaningful that interest is varies greatly from person to person. Also, the breadth of a person's interest in the fandom, and what ultimately makes them Furry, is specific to each individual."
The range of commitment is visible at any one of the convention's 70-plus panels, discussions and workshops. If it weren't for the tails poking through a few of the chairs in the ballroom, you might think you were at an engineers' convention instead.
One of the first panel discussions of the weekend is "So This is Your First Con?" It's run by Conway, convention program director John "K.P." Cole ... who looks like an anonymous businessman in a natty suit ... and 2 the Ranting Gryphon, a lanky guy with a shaved head, goatee and sunglasses who doesn't dress like a gryphon at all. (2, who claims that no one can run faster than he ... because a gay furry stand-up comic from Arkansas has a lot to run away from ...says his gryphon fursona came to him in a dream. That's all he'll reveal about it.)
There are roughly 50 newbies in the room; this is as close as most will get to the presenters, who are the convention's rock stars. But Uncle Kage tells them to avoid any reporter who isn't accompanied by convention staff; 2 says he'll eat unruly reporters' faces.
The panelists also offer lessons on etiquette. They bring up one of the crowd's two fursuiters ... a fox ... to demonstrate that giant animal heads have compromised peripheral vision. As 2 and Kage stand off to the side, making rude gestures that the fursuiter can't see, they note that it's best to approach a fursuiter from the front. They also explain that it can get brutally hot inside a suit, so lions, tigers and bears get first crack at the elevators.
Then, there's a lesson on "six-two-one," a vital numeric code. It's likely, the panel explains, that guests will have so much fun at the con they'll forget some fundamental things ... like the need to get at least six hours of sleep, two meals and one shower every day. Uncle Kage even draws on his expertise as a chemist to break down the concept of body odor. Conventioneers, he warns, may become desensitized to their own funk. Among other things, that risks further alienating "the mundanes" ... those who live outside "the fandom" ... whom they might share an elevator with.
At other furry events, "mundanes" wouldn't need much alienating. The Masquerade, one of the convention's marquee events, consists mostly of people in fursuits dancing and lip-synching. At first, it's odd to see the stage fill with foxes, wolves and raccoons rocking out to Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." But after awhile it starts to fall into place. It's just people enjoying their own silliness, but these people happen to be dressed like animals. It's like karaoke without the margaritas and drunken secretaries, Chuck E. Cheese without the stilted animatronic creepiness. Each night there's a dance, and while it would be unusual to see an anteater with a dangling pink tongue at a nightclub, the glow sticks and dance moves are nothing you haven't seen before.
If you want to see the real kinky stuff, you'll have to go to the art show.
As a visit to the convention's art gallery suggests, furries don't just blur the lines between animal and human; they also blur the distinction between innocence and kink. There are actually two art galleries, in fact, separated by screens: One is for general consumption; the other, guarded by a man who sizes up the ages of those who want to enter, is geared for mature audiences. On one side, unicorn people frolic cheerfully across the canvas; on the other, they appear prominently in sex scenes that also feature bondage scenarios, creatures with multiple penises and hermaphrodite animals.
Not surprisingly, art and comic books loom large in the furry experience. (In fact, contemporary furry fandom arguably got started in the mid-1980s, with a comic book called Omaha the Cat Dancer. The book follows the life and loves of Omaha, a sexy catwoman who makes her living as an exotic dancer.) The tables of exhibitors also suggest the dual nature of the furry world.
Many of the artists display pictures of noble wolves and heroic lions ... while also displaying a binder with dire warnings intended for those under the age of 18. Within the binders lie images for more sophisticated tastes: sassy kitties with human breasts instead of rows of nipples showing their panties; skunks with raging erections bound with ropes; heroic Dobermans with manly chests and bright pink penises standing upright and leering at one another. It's not exactly bestial, because the "animals" aren't animals, really. They aren't quite humans, either.
One of the largest clearinghouses for furry-targeted comics is Rabbit Valley, a Massachusetts-based comic-book publisher and seller with a big booth at Anthrocon. Proprietor Sean Rabbitt (yes, that's his real name, and no, the irony is not lost on him) carries everything from innocent Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd work to more explicit titles ... which, he says, are quite popular. Coyote River features the adventures of Charles and Buck, wolf and rabbit farmhands whose sexual adventures compromise their work on the farm. In Service with a Smile, a panther named Kaput encounters two randy "men" on his break at HickDonalds.
"It's a fantasy type of thing," Rabbitt says of the sexually explicit art. Because it depicts something that can never be real, it's a safe way to explore fantasies, he says. "It's theater of the mind."
The most popular Rabbit Valley title is the non-explicit Circles, an iconic furry comic based on the lives of six gay animal-men living together in Boston ... one has AIDS, one remembers the Stonewall riots. They span generations, and have earned syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage's stamp of approval.
But while a lot of furry art ... like the scene in general ... seems to skew toward gay men, some furry art heroes have considerable crossover appeal. You've probably seen the work of Scott Shaw! (Yes! With an exclamation mark! It's not a typo!), an Emmy-winning writer and cartoonist and guest of honor at this year's Anthrocon. He's worked on Bart Simpson comic books, and done animation for Disney and Hanna-Barbera, including Muppet Babies and The Flintstones.
As a kid, he says, the two most important things in the world to him were cartoons and dinosaurs, so The Flintstones were a natural draw. He's always had a soft spot for gorillas, and while he wouldn't call himself a furry, there was that incident in college ...
"I wore a gorilla suit for a party," he says. "When nobody can see your face, it's very easy to lose yourself in a character. I get the sense that people here are more playful. It's cute, it's not creepy."
Indeed, Anthrocon vendors sell ears, tails, masks, cute little wind-up hamsters, buttons and T-shirts. And of course, artists are taking commissions for custom fursuits. (For the discerning furry, off-the-rack simply won't do.)
Most conventioneers ... upward of 90 percent of them, by some estimates ... aren't fursuiters. A handmade suit can cost a few hundred dollars and countless hours of painstaking, trial-and-error labor; a top-of-the-line commissioned suit can run upward of $12,000. Most fans don't have the time, money or inclination to commit to it.
But some do.
If you saw Lionel "Solion" Vogt walking down the street in his hometown of Atlanta, it's very likely that his barrel chest, golden mane and beard would call to mind a lion, with no costume needed.
"I'm very much of the lion persuasion," Vogt agrees.
He's got a table at the artists' alley, a first-come first-served area for con-goers who have art to offer but don't want to make the financial commitment of buying table space.
He's got a few lion heads, some tails, a fox face. Ears are $15, tails $45. The masks range from about $300 to $700 ... depending on how much you want the mask to do.
Two of the masks he's brought to the artist's alley are spectacular lions: huge, elaborate masks with thick flowing manes. But their looks are perhaps the least interesting feature. One has a camera installed in one eye, allowing the wearer night vision of up to about 50 feet. The other has special speakers in the ears, which amplify the wearer's own hearing to levels normally outside the range of human hearing. Vogt says if you're going to go to the trouble of dressing up as a particular species, you may as well enjoy some of its natural advantages too.
In addition to being an artist and an engineer, Vogt is a transhumanist. He believes that technology must be applied to the human form, if we're to survive what he sees as the inevitable destruction of the planet by humanity's crass treatment.
"Transhumanism means the use of technology to augment or change ourselves," he explains. "People don't realize that unless we get off this planet and expand the horizons we can sustain on our own, if some massive catastrophe befalls us, it was all for nothing.
"This form is not perfection," he says, indicating the human bodies around him. "This is not perfect for walking on Mars and feeling the sand between your toes."
The changes will begin simply, he says, with tails being grafted onto humans or skin color being changed. But gradually, humans will be able to swim the depths of the ocean or fly through the air.
"There's no reason why you can't have superpowers, why you can't experience new perspectives," Vogt says.
Vogt says he had no inkling that he had a speck of artistic talent until, a year-and-a-half ago when a friend desperately needed a fox face for a live-action role-playing game. Vogt tried his hand and found that he had a real facility for making masks.
"There are some fursuiters who are the innocent fursuiters," he says of his peers at the convention. Mascot-style fursuiters like press pet Dex are different animals from Vogt. "It gets back to a childlike innocence." Transhumanists, however, are a different breed entirely.
One of the most famous is known as Stalking Cat, who has appeared on Ripley's Believe It or Not, Larry King Live and other TV shows. Stalking Cat's appearance is startling evidence of his belief that he truly is part cat: He's tattooed fur patterns on his skin including his face; his teeth are capped to resemble fangs; he's had his ears surgically pointed; and he's silicone injected into his face to give him a more feline appearance. He's not at the convention ... his blog says he couldn't afford to make the trip ... but Vogt claims him as a friend.
"He's taken on the vision of being what he wants to be," Vogt says. "He's taken on the responsibility of making the changes."
Mundane concerns like finding and keeping jobs have prevented Vogt from doing anything so drastic, but he's still finding ways to enjoy animal characteristics. Currently, he's working on building artificial legs that will allow him to run with six-foot-long strides.
While certain that technology will eventually allow humans to adapt, Vogt isn't sure it will happen in his lifetime. Hence, the bracelet he wears: It looks like a MedicAlert bracelet, but it actually signifies his membership in Alcor Life Extension Foundation. When he dies, Vogt plans to be cryogenically frozen, and he figures that by the time technology evolves enough to thaw him out, the modifications he craves will have become available.
He sees his version of furry fandom as a sort of ambassadorship to the future ... as the line between humans and animals is able to be blurred, some societies will have an easier time than others accepting new and different forms. So, he says, being exposed to fursuiting will help ease the transition.
Some have labeled Stalking Cat as dysmorphic ... a condition in which the sufferer has a warped, hateful perception of his or her body. Vogt insists that his fixation on changing his form isn't about that at all. It's also not about mere looks.
"It's about experiencing life from a new perspective," he says. "There are visceral experiences that we cannot have in our current form."