It’s misunderstood and often maligned but members of the furry fandom say their costume wearing culture is all about art, expression and finding your tribe.
It’s misunderstood and often maligned but members of the furry fandom say their costume wearing culture is all about art, expression and finding your tribe.

‘It’s not about sex’: Bizarre world of the sci-fi furries

The door of the suburban brick home opens and Foxy Malone ushers me into another world.

Between the bookshelves stacked with sci-fi paraphernalia and unicorns, stands a bald man with a pot belly, snugly wrapped from neck to foot in bright yellow duct tape. His arms are outstretched; the right resting on a mop, his left on a broom.

"Let me know if your hands go tingly," says a young woman, ducking under an arm with a roll of tape as she continues wrapping him up.

Another duct tape wrapper stands back to assess the job. "He's a Simpson!" he chortles.

Griffin Watson. Picture Mark Cranitch
Griffin Watson. Picture Mark Cranitch

 

In fact, he's a furry. He goes by the name of Kelpie, which, of course, is a waterhorse, a shape-shifting spirit that lives in Scottish lochs, and he is having his duct tape dummy prepared so that he can create a full-body suit made of faux fur in the likeness of a raccoon. Simple, really.

 

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Still don't get it? Here's an explanation from the woman doing the wrapping, a fursuit maker known in the furry world as Skye, the wolfdog, real name Gabi (surname withheld for fear of trolls).

"You remember when you were a kid and you said to your friends, 'What would you be if you were an animal?' And you were like, 'Oh, I'd be a wolf'. We take that into our adult lives and turn it into an artform and a performance."

And yet, that's just scraping the surface of the curious world of furries. It's a subculture, born out of science fiction conventions in the US in the 1980s, but not every furry is into sci-fi, and not all furries wear a fursuit.

It's a fandom - or furdom - but the characters are self-created, not replicas of popular superheroes or cartoons like the swarms of Spidermen that come out during Supanova.

Gabi, 21, with the head of Skye, her wolfdog character, or fursona. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Gabi, 21, with the head of Skye, her wolfdog character, or fursona. Picture: Mark Cranitch

It's often painted as a fetish but whoa, hold your waterhorses, that's the type of talk that ruffles the fur of many in this tribe.

"If people don't understand something, they attack it, don't they," says Foxy Malone, aka Christine Bradshaw, a postal worker from Brassall, Ipswich.

At 54, Bradshaw is what is called a Greymuzzle, an older, long-time furry, and while others get sniffy over questions about kinkiness, Bradshaw "just laughs". There's no more sex in the furdom than any other fandom, she says.

Bradshaw's introduction to the furdom came in 2000 when she stumbled onto furry-inspired art while looking for webcomics on the net.

The lover of fantasy literature and gaming delved deeper and got chatting online to a Brisbane furry, who told her they had regular catch-ups. Bradshaw was in the middle of a bad marriage break-up, needed an outlet, so went along to a coffee meet.

Christine Bradshaw, 54, is front and centre, without a fursuit, in a sea of furries at Furdu on the Gold Coast in 2018. Picture: Aaron Coffey
Christine Bradshaw, 54, is front and centre, without a fursuit, in a sea of furries at Furdu on the Gold Coast in 2018. Picture: Aaron Coffey

"I joined for the artwork and the people; they were fun, and had fun." Back then, there were about a dozen Brisbane members. Today, the furdom is big enough to hold a convention - Fur Down Under, or Furdu, of which Bradshaw is the chair.

Come early May, 500 furries from around the country will converge on the Gold Coast for a three-day extravaganza of all things furry: sharing anthropomorphic art, going to workshops and playing games, all wrapped up with a mass frolic on the beach in full furry regalia.

If not for COVID-19, there would have been 1000 attendees at what is Australia's biggest furry convention. Bradshaw hopes her very first fursuit will be ready by then.

Fursuits are expensive - ranging from $500 to $20,000 if you want an internal airconditioning system - and Bradshaw hasn't been able to afford one. She's made do with some ears, a collar and a tail until now.

So what will this vixen outfit look like? "My name has always been Foxy; Foxy Malone," says Bradshaw. "But I'm not a fox. I started out as a horse but now I'm a snow leopard. Which confuses people."

Members of the furry fandom at a tenpin bowling outing. Picture: BoxerFox
Members of the furry fandom at a tenpin bowling outing. Picture: BoxerFox

 FUN IN FUR

It's peak time for fursuits in the lead-up to Furdu and Gabi, 21, is pumping out tails, manes and oversized-paws like a wolfdog with eight paws.

Crammed into her double garage at Runcorn, in Brisbane's outer south, are bolts of coloured fur, blobs of foam and a half-finished purple and turquoise drekkubus lying limply across shelving.

That's a long-eared, horned mammal, by the way. It's kind of like a feline and kind of like a dragon and completely made up.

If a furry finds a cartoon-like wolf or fox fursuit too mundane, they create their own "species" and put it online for the furdom to marvel over. Entire worlds are imagined by these would-be Tolkiens, with back histories, battles and lore just like Middle-earth.

Gabi at her sewing machine in her workshop, preparing fursuits. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Gabi at her sewing machine in her workshop, preparing fursuits. Picture: Mark Cranitch

The drekkubus is from Beryl Shad, for example, a vast land of six nations ranging from alpine forests to red deserts, and they horde trinkets, sleep a lot, have excellent hearing and a vulnerability to mosquitoes.

It was created by an American furry and lots of furries loved it. Fans of the drekkubus are allowed to be one, too, provided they meet certain specifications. A drekkie isn't a drekkie if it has wings, obviously.

"Being a furry is a lot like any other fandom," says Gabi, "but I guess it's different in a lot of ways and it's more on the strange side, which I totally get."

On a corner shelf sits the very first head Gabi made of Skye, the winged wolfdog, her "fursona", or furry persona.

It's a primitive specimen, a bit too much nose and tiny ears, but not bad for a 15-year-old. That's when the fantasy lover and thespian discovered the furdom.

The updated version of Skye, Gabi’s bubbly fursona. Picture: Mark Cranitch
The updated version of Skye, Gabi’s bubbly fursona. Picture: Mark Cranitch

She was into cosplay and attending the Queensland Academy for Creative Industries at Kelvin Grove when she went to Furdu 2016 to help with the convention's technical production as part of her course.

"I just rocked up and never looked back," she says. "When you see furries for the first time in their full glory, they're huge. So much larger than life. And I guess that magic pulled me into the world."

A question kept buzzing in Gabi's mind: What would my fursona be? That's the starting point for a furry; conjuring an animal that either suits their personality - or a personality they covet.

"While the fandom is an animal-centred thing, there's a whole lot of humanity in being a furry," says Gabi.

"Some people's fursonas are their ideal of a person; they'll be this happy, bubbly person, really optimistic, they like flowers, plant gardens and sometimes you'll see people with really honest reflections of themselves. Really imperfect characters, flawed."

A flurry of furries at South Bank. “There’s a whole lot of humanity in being a furry.” Picture: Mark Cranitch
A flurry of furries at South Bank. “There’s a whole lot of humanity in being a furry.” Picture: Mark Cranitch

Gabi's favourite video game growing up was Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, in which the lead character transforms into a wolf. "I thought that was really cool," she says. She liked blue. She Googled "blue wolf fursona". She saw one with wings; another had freckles.

"So I thought, I'll have freckles, wings, I like that belly and I like the fact those ears are opposite colours, and I stuck all those things together and made my character," she says.

"Some people have really elaborate back stories for their characters but I don't." There is a small subset of furries in the global furdom called therians, who believe they are spiritually connected to animals or were animals in a past life but Gabi's not one of them. "I don't think I'm a wolf," she says.

But she's a handy seamstress, so she got out the Janome and Skye came to life. Friends began asking if she'd make them a tail or a suit and after much trial and error and battles with glue guns and foam, her skills grew.

She's now a full-time fursuit maker, with much of her work coming from overseas. She's this year's guest of honour at Furdu.

Some of the bolts of fur that Gabi will convert into bright and unique fursuits. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Some of the bolts of fur that Gabi will convert into bright and unique fursuits. Picture: Mark Cranitch

"The sense of community I have gotten from the fandom is huge; it's such a great, welcoming community," Gabi says.

She met her partner, Zac, 22, a chef - aka Balto, another wolfdog - through the furdom. His Facebook cover photo is dreamy artwork of Skye and Balto, skipping hand-in-hand past a Shinto shrine.

Art is central to the furdom. Gabi has hundreds of pieces that she's commissioned of Skye, and her many other characters, which include Passito, a grumpy, purple kangaroo.

Struggling artists often tap into the furry community because of furries' insatiable desire to see their alter ego "come to life", while some established artists fetch $20,000 or more for their work. Nothing is too fanciful: a wolfdog can fly through space; a dragon can sashay down the Champs-Elysees.

"It's definitely escapism and anyone who says it isn't is lying," Gabi says. "It brings a lot of people joy because they can immerse themselves in these characters. It's an escapism in the same way that Star Wars is escapism or watching anime is a form of escapism. People invest themselves full-on into this world."

Unmasked: A group of furries, including Gabi, aka Skye, on the left, gather together to celebrate the furdom. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Unmasked: A group of furries, including Gabi, aka Skye, on the left, gather together to celebrate the furdom. Picture: Mark Cranitch

The majority of furries are content to create a fursona that lives on in artwork but others can't resist the urge to get a suit.

Some fursuiters immerse themselves in their character; they woof or roar or preen and will not speak. Others are just dudes who hang out in (very hot) faux fursuits.

Many take on a fursona completely unlike their human self. The shy geek becomes a flashy feline. "It's kind of like a mask, a cover," Gabi says. "You can line up a bunch of fox fursuiters and you would not know who's black, who's gay, who's blind, who's deaf," she says.

"It's a community that will accept you no matter what, unless you're racist or anything like that. You find a lot of furries say they never really felt they fit in," Gabi says.

"That's not saying everyone is an odd one out; you'll get some who were superdooper popular at high school, you get heart surgeons, lawyers, all popularity and mental health levels.

"I feel like it should be talked about a lot more, a bit of a psychoanalysis of the fandom; a lot of people will often say that they were bullied."

A fursuit head waits to be brought to life by its owner. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
A fursuit head waits to be brought to life by its owner. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

There is some serious study into furries. One of the world's largest furry conventions is Anthrocon, held every year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which had close to 10,000 attendees in 2019 and is a big money-spinner for the city.

Anthrocon has long been chaired by one of the best-known Greymuzzles of the furdom, Dr Samuel Conway, or Uncle Kage as they know him, a Samurai cockroach. In real life, he's an organic chemist.

At each Anthrocon, a team of sociologists and psychologists with the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, known as Furscience, conducts surveys.

It reports that more than 60 per cent of furries were physically or verbally bullied in adolescence, compared with 37 per cent in a control group. They are predominantly white, under 25, male and tertiary educated.

Furries are five times more likely to identify as homosexual compared with the general population, and are more likely to have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

Part of a tribe: Many furries were bullied as kids and have found support and friendship in the furdom. Picture: BoxerFox
Part of a tribe: Many furries were bullied as kids and have found support and friendship in the furdom. Picture: BoxerFox

Uncle Kage features in the award-winning film released last year, The Fandom, which details the rise of furries from its genesis at the science fiction convention LosCon 1980. It's a fascinating exploration of how an art movement, turbo-driven by the internet and IT geeks, became a global subculture.

Two men, Rod O'Riley and Mark Merlino, bonded over a LosCon exhibit of sci-fi inspired, anthropomorphic art. Weasels with antennae, to be exact.

They found like-minded artists and at each new sci-fi convention, artists with a bent for anthropomorphism - some from Disney studios - would gather in hotel rooms to draw animal-like characters with human features, often buzzing about in spaceships or walking on Mars.

By 1989, the first furry convention, ConFurence Zero, was held in California, attended by one of the world's first fursuiters - Hilda the Bambioid, a kind of dominatrix space deer.

Skye, the wolfdog, leads the way on an outing at South Bank. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Skye, the wolfdog, leads the way on an outing at South Bank. Picture: Mark Cranitch

From the outset, sexuality and sex has been explored by some members of the furdom. But very few people outside the subculture knew about furries until 2003.

That's when the popular TV show, CSI, set an episode at a furry convention, complete with references to yiffing (having sex in a fursuit) and furpiles (a furry orgy).

Gabi is uncomfortable talking about furries and sex. She says almost every media organisation since CSI wants to paint her tribe as full of kinky sex fiends because it sells, not because its representative of the furdom, especially as its evolved over the decades.

"It just devalues all the fun and wholesomeness we have together," she says.

"People see us and go, 'Hey, that's weird, they must be really weird," she says. "I actually had my grandmother say that the other day and I'm like, 'Granny, please!'."

Of course, she says, you'll find references to furry sex on the internet. You'll find everything on the internet. "Anywhere you go, adults will do adult things," she says. "It exists, of course. But that is not what we are. The furry fandom at its core is a place for people to express themselves and be creative."

Just wholesome fun: Gabi, aka Skye, says the furry fandom is misunderstood. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Just wholesome fun: Gabi, aka Skye, says the furry fandom is misunderstood. Picture: Mark Cranitch

WILD IMAGINATION

It was the popular Japanese video game Animal Crossing, that hooked Danny Kerr into anthropomorphic art as a kid.

Season after season, Kerr immersed himself in this make-believe world with the help of characters such as K.K. Slider, the Jack Russell terrier guitarist, and the smug cat of the village, Raymond.

It's no surprise to hear what got him into the furdom when he was still in high school. "Characters!", says the 23 year old, wide-eyed. "Making your own characters. It's fun."

He could let his imagination run wild and as he negotiated the confusion of adolescence, he chose Vex as his fursona, a "hellhound german shepherd" with a spiked collar and red eyes.

"That's what I wanted to be like," he says. "He was edgy." But the car detailer is more confident about who he is now, grown into his skin, and so he's here at Gabi's place with his spray painter boyfriend Kai, 22, to deliver his duct tape dummy and pick the shade of red for the trims of his new character, Squid.

"He'll be really cheerful and happy and cute. The opposite to Vex."

The just-made “cheerful and cute” head of Squid, Danny Kerr’s new fursona, in Gabi’s workshop. Picture: Mark Cranitch
The just-made “cheerful and cute” head of Squid, Danny Kerr’s new fursona, in Gabi’s workshop. Picture: Mark Cranitch

So what is Squid? "The top half is a Shiba Inu, like the dog, and then the colours and the tail are oarfish-like," he says. "I'm really into deep sea fish right now."

He has artwork of what Squid will look like, complete with descriptions of Squid's physical traits: pointy Shiba ears, webbed paws, thick beaver-like fur, fishhook earrings.

Gabi is "super excited" about making the suit, which Kerr has already prepaid, cost $3600.

"It's going to be visually stunning," she says, but advises Kai, a fellow furry who made his own suit - a german shepherd called Calypso - that he might want to whiz up a plastic tail cover for when Squid is out and about.

Kai has always loved anthropomorphic art. "I used to draw it on everything when I was a kid but I never had a name for it," he says. It's a common theme among furries.

As The Fandom points out, our childhoods are filled with talking animals that teach us how to read and count. For some, it makes a deep impression.

Gabi gently readjusts the head of Squid over a mold. “It’s going to be visually stunning,” she says. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Gabi gently readjusts the head of Squid over a mold. “It’s going to be visually stunning,” she says. Picture: Mark Cranitch

"I liked how the Disney lions have human faces but they're not human and they're not animal. Then I found out about furries and I found there was a fandom, and I went online and I found all the art and I was like, 'Oh my god, there's people right here, in my own community, who are into it as well.'"

Finding your tribe has never been easier; it just takes a few keywords in a search engine and a journey down the rabbit hole. It's how many furries from around the world find Skyehighstudios, Gabi's fursuit workshop.

Her star in the furdom began to rise after beginning fursuit tutorials on YouTube about four years ago.

She often appears as the cheerful, cutesy Skye and puts up a video a week, with subscriber numbers growing astronomically from about 10,000 two years ago to close to 100,000 now.

"I'm pretty excited about getting to that; you get a plaque from YouTube. I'm very keen for that."

Skye, the wolfdog, recording one of her YouTube videos which have lead to her growing popularity among furries. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Skye, the wolfdog, recording one of her YouTube videos which have lead to her growing popularity among furries. Picture: Mark Cranitch

She was featured as a YouTube creator on the rise a while back, which helped boost her fanbase - and the trolls.

She has a long list of hidden users - "If you're going to bring negativity into my space, I'll get rid of you because it's my space" - but there's one comment she's framed, her way of thumbing her nose at the haters. It reads: "F..kin weird ass furry c..ts, WTF is wrong with you."

It's not easy being a furry. Some Queensland members have been physically attacked. The most high-profile assault occurred in Chicago in 2014 at a furry convention, when chlorine gas was filtered through the hotel's airconditioning system, sending 19 people to hospital.

But furries are not going away. Gabi knows her hobby and source of income is not for everyone. But she says furries do no harm - and more and more people are joining the furdom. Don't believe it? Go to the South Bank parklands on a Wednesday night; you're sure for a big surprise.

Furry picnic: Furries gather for a night out at South Bank. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Furry picnic: Furries gather for a night out at South Bank. Picture: Mark Cranitch

A BIG SURPRISE

As the sun sets over Brisbane's CBD, the furries are arriving for their picnic. It's all fluffy paws and squeals of delight as furries who haven't seen each other for a while hug each other, tails wagging.

A green-haired, caramel-faced, Dutch Angel Dragon is chatting to another one of her kind, a poltergeist horse-like species with wings and horns that has absolutely nothing to do with The Netherlands - the creator's horse was named Dutch. A Demon Dog sits watching; red eyes, white fangs, aloof. There's a bloke with a stuffed python around his neck.

Skye is here, and so is Zac, Kai and Kerr, and pulling up on a scooter with the sausages for the picnic is Benjamin Luke, 25, the organiser of this South Bank Fur Meet.

He's been part of the furdom since stumbling across a bunch of furries at Supernova about seven years ago. "I liked their high energy and creativeness," he says. The gang took off to now-defunct gamers' hangout Mana Bar in Fortitude Valley and talked for hours.

Griffin Watson, 20, is keen to show off his new fursona, Salva, the deer. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Griffin Watson, 20, is keen to show off his new fursona, Salva, the deer. Picture: Mark Cranitch

"A lot of us are nerds, you know," the biomedical science and mechatronics engineering University of Queensland student told me when we met earlier at his inner-city apartment. "We're geeks, and there's certainly a lot of overlap with furries, geek culture, cosplay and gaming."

Once the furries finish their barbecue, they'll put on all their trimmings and set off for a promenade around the parklands, stopping to pose for photos with passers-by as required.

It's the first SBFM for more than a year since COVID-19 banned gatherings and it is quite a turnout. There's at least 60 people, many with tails and paws, some with oversized heads of all guises, and one who has braved the stifling humidity to turn up in full fursuit.

It's new, you see, and Griffin Watson, 20, an apprentice fitter and turner, couldn't resist taking Salva out for a frolic. Salva is a deer, complete with real, dried antlers painted black.

Griffin Watson, aka Salva, based the colour scheme of his fursuit on the Jazz cup of the 1990s. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Griffin Watson, aka Salva, based the colour scheme of his fursuit on the Jazz cup of the 1990s. Picture: Mark Cranitch

It's a striking suit of blue, purple and white, the colouring based on a Jazz cup, the disposable type that Slushies were once served in.

Yep, the things that fascinate these fantastic critters can really boggle the mind of a non-furry.

Watch them, though, laughing and joking in their furdom, and there's nothing aggressive, nothing condescending, nothing "judgy" about them, as Gabi puts it.

Here, they can be what they want to be.

And right now, as the lights of the city flicker on, Watson wants to be Salva, trotting into an open meadow of grass and hamming it up for the camera, setting his alter animal free.

 

Originally published as Inside the bizarre world of Queensland's Sci-Fi furries



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