A grown woman is on all fours chasing the red point of a laser light as it darts across the floor of the garden court in the airport Holiday Inn Select. The man wielding the laser moves it erratically. The catwoman pounces, again and again, only to find the light has already darted away. Occasionally, she mews in disappointment.
It's a game I often play at home -- with my cats.
Catwoman is frolicking as she and about 50 other furries wait in line at the Memphit Furmeet ice cream social, the closing event for the annual convention of fursuiters and furry fanatics.
I'm sitting with my best pal Greg taking it all in. We'd read about the furries online and in magazines. There was even an episode of CSI that centered on this strange subculture in which people parade around in animal costumes. For some, it's just plain fun, and for others, it's more about, well, animal lust.
So when we heard there was the annual convention of furries in Memphis on Labor Day weekend, we promptly signed up -- strictly in the interest of broadening our horizons. We borrowed costumes. I chose to be a slutty white cat, and Greg donned a lot of black furry material, along with some sort of fuzzy Russian hat and bondage ankle cuffs and a collar. He didn't exactly look like an animal. When people asked, he described his getup as a "whore bear."
Sticking out from beneath the shirts of many in line are furry tails: tiger tails, leopard tails, squirrel tails -- you name it. Some wear fuzzy animal ears. A few even have on full-body animal costumes, like the kind you might see a mascot wearing at a football game. These people are known as fursuiters and enjoy special privileges at the convention, like their own private lounge.
Greg and I have attended workshops, dances, concerts, and all sorts of convention-related activities with these folks, and as weird as their dress and behavior might seem to outsiders, it's beginning to seem normal to us now. We don't find it terribly strange that the guy sitting next to us is eating ice cream in his personal dog bowl.
But it didn't start out that way ...
Friday: Volleyball and Karaoke
As we pull into the hotel parking lot, I spot a couple of cars with stuffed animals in the window. A lifeless plushy gopher, with its head squished up against a back window, seems like a sort of welcome sign signaling that we are in the right place.
Since it's our first night here, Greg and I decide to go sans costumes. As a last-minute addition to my street clothes, I tie a white tail around my waist.
As we enter the lobby, it appears that I have the right idea. While some guests are dressed in full-body fursuits (faux fur, by the way), most are dressed in jeans and T-shirts, with a tail hanging behind.
As we head to the registration desk to pick up our name tags, we walk past several groups of people gathered at tables in the gaming area. They're playing card games that look like "Magic: The Gathering." It dawns on us that we are surrounded by nerds -- the kind of people you'd probably see at Mid-South Con, the local convention of hackers, Trekkies, and anime freaks. We feel right at home.
A volleyball game is under way in the garden court. Both teams are made up entirely of fursuiters. Cheetahs and tigers hit an oversized fuzzy pink and purple volleyball over a net to foxes and rabbits and bears, who scramble to hit it back. Suddenly, I'm overwhelmed with childhood enthusiasm. I begin to wish that one of the players would wave at me or give me a lollipop or something. They're so darn cute.
After the game, there's a karaoke session. Expecting to see these same fuzzy animals attempting to sing "Bootylicious" in full costume, I'm a bit disappointed to find that most of the karaoke participants are people dressed in street wear.
One girl has signed up to sing Meredith Cole's "Bitch." When the emcee calls her up, he says, "I thought you were a mare. Why are you singing this song?"
"I like it," she responds with a knowing smile.
Greg and I exchange looks. We're not sure what this means. She isn't dressed like a horse, but it's definitely a sure sign that we're in furry land. We soon realize that karaoke isn't much fun when you're sober, and after hearing an ear-piercingly horrid rendition of "American Pie," we decide it's time for a drink.
There's a bar in the hotel, but we opt for the nearest convenience store to buy a couple of 24-ounce beers. We drive back to the hotel lot and drink up in the car. When we return, we've both got a little buzz. We're just in time for the "Shake Your Paws" dance.
Unfortunately, the theme of the convention dance is 1950s rock-and-roll, which no one seems to be able to dance to. Eventually everyone tires of the music and leaves. Greg and I also call it quits for the night.
Saturday: Scritching and Nuzzling and
Furverts! Oh my!
Admittedly, Greg and I don't know much about the furries. We've read FAQ sheets on furry Web sites and articles in newspapers and magazines, but what really drives these people to dress and act like animals? Is it all sexual?
Greg hopes so. He's bisexual and often flamboyant. He's joined me on this journey in hopes of getting, or at least witnessing, some furry action. I'll settle for just getting scritched -- an affectionate ritual in which one fursuiter runs his or her claws down the back of another.
Over the course of Saturday afternoon, we get a closer look at these odd characters. Through various conversations and workshops, we learn that furries are fans of anthropomorphic art, which features animal subjects with human features. For many, the buck stops there.
Others, like the folks we see playing card games and gaming online in the Internet room, are into role-playing as anthropomorphic figures in cyberspace.
Only a few people here have a furry sex fetish. They're referred to as furverts or plushies. For obvious reasons, they tend to get more press. But if they are present at this convention, they're not making themselves known -- much to our disappointment.
We're in costume today. We didn't wear full-body fursuits, but since most attendees don't either, we don't feel out of place.
We wander into the "dealers' den," the room where vendors are peddling everything from tails and ears to chain-mail belts and stuffed plushy animals. At one booth, we see evidence that there are some furverts at the convention.
An artist is selling adult furry sketches. Cats with human vaginas. Naked squirrel girls on Sea-Doo's. Erotic skunk ladies posed on top of hot rods. His portfolio could easily be right out of Playboy, if it weren't for all of the tails and whiskers.
Greg is slightly creeped out, but I want a souvenir, so I purchase a drawing of a naked cat lying spread-eagle on a bed, playing with a ball of yarn. Her breasts and, um, everything else are exposed.
After shopping, we decide to kill some time in the Horsebrutality Suite, which is furry-speak for the hospitality room, where conventiongoers can score free drinks and snacks. It's run by a few men from Tsarus, a local gay Levis/leather club.
We munch on chips and salsa and sing along to the fabulous dance mixes they're playing. Obviously, these guys have better taste than whoever was coordinating the music for last night's dance.
A kangaroo wearing a visor, a hoodie, and some raver pants walks in and attempts to pour a cup of coffee. He can't see very well with his costume head on, and he can't talk loud enough for anyone to hear. Greg senses his struggle and helps him out. Kangaroo guy bows his head in thanks and heads for a chair. Once seated, he realizes that he can't drink the coffee through his head, so he turns to Greg and motions as though he's sipping through a straw.
There are no straws, but Greg hands him a coffee stirrer. Kangaroo makes a thumbs-up sign, but when he puts the stirrer in his coffee, it sinks. He hangs his head in discouragement, places the steaming, untouched coffee on the table, and waves goodbye. Several people sigh, "Awww, poor kangaroo" or "That was so cute." It's true. When in costume, people who might otherwise be overweight or homely look absolutely adorable. (I found out later that kangaroo man was actually a hottie.)
Next, we attend a workshop on cross-gendered characters, which turns out to be more boring than it sounds. It's a small group of mostly men who enjoy dressing as female animals but don't necessarily dress in drag as people.
After the workshop, we have some time to kill. A bulletin board in the gaming area is covered in note cards from conventiongoers. The messages, which often include names and room numbers, mostly suggest that people drop by and chat. Others seem more sexual in nature.
One particular card gets Greg's attention. It simply says, "TML Party -- 7:30 p.m."
"We have to go to that!" exclaims Greg. "I bet it's some crazy sex stuff."
I predict that it's probably just some gathering of gamers playing something we don't understand.
But Greg insists, so I grudgingly follow him to the fourth floor. As we approach the room, my stomach knots. I'm nervous that these people are going to make fun of us for trying to crash their party. I want to turn back, but Greg knocks anyway.
An overweight guy answers the door almost immediately. He has an imploring look on his face, as if asking, Who are you and why are you here?
"Is this the TML party?" Greg asks.
"Yeah," says the guy, but he doesn't offer to let us in.
"What does TML mean?"
"Are you into tapestries?"
"You mean, like weaving."
The guy looks insulted. "No."
"Well, what is it?" Greg is now becoming impatient.
"It's really freaky," he answers, still avoiding a direct answer.
"Can we come in and watch?" asks Greg, now certain that illicit sex acts are occurring in the room.
The kid shrugs, turns to his friends, and asks their opinion. They shrug, and he says okay. But it's too late for me. I'm running down the hall toward the elevator. I was quite sure we didn't want to be stuck in some room with strangers doing God knows what.
Greg runs after me, angry that I may have messed up his chance to see a furry scene. After some Internet research, I learn that "tapestries" is an online message board that serves as "a cross between a real-life BDSM play party, a free-form role-playing environment, and a social gathering place all within a furry theme." So apparently the furverts had been right under our noses.
We consult the board again, hoping for another chance to catch a furry party. One note, written in purple marker, reads, "Paw Party!" We decide to check it out.
We enter the room and a guy I recognize from karaoke the night before tells me we'll be learning to sew our own paws. Not what we were expecting, but it still sounds fun.
After a quick tutorial, we start to sew. People keep dropping in and asking what a paw party is. Some inquire as to whether it's X-rated. The guy hosting the party politely says no, there's nothing freaky going on here, and most turn to leave.
After we complete our paws, it's nearly time for the Howl at the Moon dance, which we're hoping will be more exciting than last night's lame prom.
In the ballroom, the music is pumping. When "Dirty Pop" by 'NSync comes on, Greg grabs my hand and we run to the dance floor. People are piling in, many dressed in full furry costumes. After a few more fun campy songs, the DJ switches to electronica.
I recognize a guy in raver pants and a hoodie as the kangaroo guy. He isn't wearing his kangaroo head. His dance moves flow, and he starts to break-dance, and everyone clears a spot for him on the dance floor.
When kangaroo guy gets tired, he heads out the door. Greg gets up and follows him out. When he returns a few minutes later, he says, "I got scritched! I hugged the kangaroo guy and told him he did a good job, and he scritched me!"
Suddenly, I am jealous. I tell Greg I don't believe him, so he sets out to prove that he can get scritched again. He walks toward a guy dressed as a cat and hugs him. Cat guy affectionately scratches Greg's back as Greg shoots me an I-told-you-so look. And then to my disbelief, cat guy nuzzles his head into Greg's neck. Now, I am really jealous.
Sunday: Reality Check, Please
On Sunday, we wake up late, missing the workshop on werewolves. We do arrive in time for the furry masquerade, the annual closing-ceremony talent showcase.
Had we not been exposed to the eccentricities of furry life all weekend, we'd probably have been a little weirded out by the masquerade. But by now we feel as though we are slowly becoming anthropomorphic figures ourselves. We both notice that our once uncomfortably hot costumes are becoming rather, well, comfortable.
The masquerade turns out to be a montage of furries singing, acting, and dancing. A dinosaur by the name of Sonic Blu has a comical swordfight with a bear-looking creature. A colorful fox performs a dance routine to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." And Sonic Blu returns to perform a parody he wrote to the tune of "Walking in Memphis." It's called "Furries in Memphis."
A little while later, we find ourselves sitting at the ice cream social watching catwoman chase a laser.
As we're beginning to realize how much we'll miss these weirdoes, a guy in a polo shirt and khakis approaches and asks if he can take Greg's picture. I'm no longer in costume, but Greg's still decked out in his whore-bear get-up.
Greg flashes a smile, and the guy points his camera. Flash. "What's your name?" Greg casually asks.
"Stan. I'm kind of here for anthropological reasons," he explains.
Greg and I exchange looks. And then we realize Stan was like us, just here to check these people out and see what the furry life is all about. And he thought we were furries.
And in a way, we have become furries -- at least for the weekend. We may never don our tails again, but we had a damn good time. Who cares if some of these people have weird fetishes? They are open-minded, good-natured, and accepting people, and all we've been doing is searching for furverts and freak shows.
Stan gave us a reality check, an unintentional bitch-slap. We realize it ain't easy bein' furry.
As with any subculture, the furry world has its own lexicon of terms and slang. Here's a little insight:
Anthropomorphic - human traits conveyed upon animal beings; for example, human breasts on a cat
Furry Fandom - people who enjoy either dressing in animal costumes, pretending to be animals in cyberspace, or creating or collecting anthropomorphic art
Fur Pile - several fursuiters piled on top of one another and engaged in scritching or cuddling
Furvert - one who has a furry fetish
Mundane - one who is not a part of or does not understand the furry culture; an outsider
Plushie - a stuffed animal toy carried around as a keepsake; can also refer to a furvert
Plushophile - one who is erotically inclined to plushie toys
Scritch - an affectionate scratch using the fingernails or claws of an animal costume
Spiritual Therianthropy - a deep personal connection to animal totems
Totem - an animal one strongly identifies with
Yiffy - a word for a furry who is especially horny