Furries — those most maligned members of the geek tribe — are finally having their moment. Last month, when a fur convention was held at a Vancouver hotel that was also serving as a temporary shelter for Syrian refugees, the world beheld Syrian children giggling in delight at adults dressed as lynxes and ocelots. And of course there’s “Zootopia’’ — the hit animated film featuring an anthropomorphic fox, which Disney cannily marketed directly to the furry contingent.
What is a furry? They are, roughly speaking, people with an abiding interest in, identification with, or yen to dress up as, animals. For some, there’s an erotic component; for others the thrill is more spiritual. Either way, furries have been bashed ever since the Internet discovered their previously underground community. Humorist Lore Sjöberg famously placed them below “Trekkies Who Get Married In Klingon Garb” and “Pokemon Fans Over the Age of Six” in his Geek Hierarchy flowchart all the way back in 2002.
But furries are unfairly scorned. An interest in other animals is nearly a defining trait of human beings — we’re far more likely than other predators to connect with nonhuman species, a trait that may have been a key part of our evolution as social beings. People have literally been dressing up like and identifying with animals for hundreds of thousands of years. The conservationist and children’s writer Thornton Burgess wrote in 1922 that “[t]his interest is instinctive,” going back to the “dawn man,” and modern science has backed him up. Vanessa LoBue, a researcher at Rutgers, found in a 2012 paper that children prefer live animals — even snakes and spiders — over inanimate toys.
In donning furry masks and creating fursonas, furries are just expressing the same urge of trans-species empathy that has powered countless iterations of human culture, from Stone-Age animism to the animal-headed gods of Egypt to the fables of Aesop and legends of kitsune and werewolves. It’s something those Syrian kids immediately recognized — inside those fursuits, the furries of Vancouver were simultaneously less, and a lot more, human.
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.