London's furries hanging out by the Thames (Photos by the author)
"I've never had relations with a snake-lion before. There's something about racoons, though. And wolves, too. They're kind of sexy."
It's 2PM on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in a wine bar near St Paul's Cathedral. During the week, this place would be populated by the investment banker types that give Occupy protesters fever dreams. Today, however, it's playing host to a meet-up of London's furry community, people who dress up in animal costumes – or costumes of new, imagined creatures – and hang out in wine bars, or other suitable venues.
The guy I'm talking to is wearing a badge with "SciBat" – his furry name – written on it, alongside a hand-drawn illustration of a faux-mythical, disconcertingly buff creature with bat ears. More prosaically, SciBat – who's real name is Gavin, a computer programmer from Hither Green – has thinning hair tied into a ponytail and wears an ill-fitting shirt covered in psychedelic patterns.
London's fur-wearing enthusiasts congregate here twice a month for a friendly knees-up in which they sit around playing complicated fantasy board games like Space Alert, draw animal cartoons in sketchpads or simply drink and shoot the shit about the difficulty of buying a unicorn outfit to fit a 48-inch chest. From where I'm standing, I can see at least 20 fully-grown adults in colourful animal outfits being served by slightly bemused weekend bar staff. There's a Japanese guy wearing a ratty dinosaur's tail; a man in a plaid shirt with a multi-coloured racoon's head; a white tiger with a perky tail; a kitten with giant, sad eyes; several wolves; and a dinosaur with a yellow Mohican. I'm here to try to understand just what it is about dressing up as a big sad cat-human in public that's so compelling.
Before coming, I'd worried slightly about what to wear, but there was no need. According to a recent survey, only 15 percent of furries actually dress up, although a majority have anthropomorphic avatars – animals with which they identify and feel "an important emotional or spiritual connection" to, be the creature "real, fictional or symbolic". Buying all the gear isn't cheap – a partial animal costume, including a head, paws and tail, will set you back £300. A bespoke full-body suit can be ten times that or more.
"You've got to decide whether you're natural or a toony," Rufus the Tiger tells me, his tail straggling over his blue camo trousers. "A lot of people are toonies." Looking around, I see what he means: there are very few realistic animals here. Most costumes are a blend of two or more creatures – there's a goat with a dorsal fin enjoying some pork scratchings at the bar, for example. Many more veer towards the fantastical, with Pokemon and Japanese manga influences both popular.
I turn back to SciBat. What's the most important aspect when creating a costume?
"How cute it is."
Cutesiness definitely appears to be a big factor, with a lot of the mascots gambolling around the room or whooping and cuddling in the garden outside. Many don't respond verbally when spoken to, instead cradling their cheeks with an "oh me, oh my" coyness. While most are chilled out, there is a sense of hyperactive near-hysteria among others, as though they're a bunch of nerdy kids in the playground given an hour's respite while the school bully's inside bog-washing emos.
No doubt this is partly due to the crowd's composition. The first thing that strikes me is how young a lot of the people are, with many either 17 or 18. One 24-year-old tells me he feels ancient, though in reality there are plenty here in their thirties, forties and above. The second thing I note is the scene's inherent geekiness. This is a room full of desperately nervous young men, the snaggle-toothed, soft-bellied and pony-tailed. It's a room in which Game of Thrones viewers will have already read all the books, a fact they will remind you of regularly.
The so-called "furry fandom" itself is relatively new, born out of sci-fi and comic conventions in the 80s and then disseminated via fanzines and the internet. Furriness is an 80 percent male persuasion, though girls are increasingly getting into the scene, with some here today. Like all subcultures, this one has its own vocabulary. Terms include "scritching" (mutual grooming); a "fur pile" (when a bunch of furries lay on top of one another); "yiffing" (having sex) and "spooging" (ejaculating).
I get chatting to two very cute dogs by the fruit machines. At least, I assume they're dogs. One turns out to be a "Mango" – a mixture between a mongoose and a dingo – and the other is a prairie dog called Éclair. One of the things about this environment is that you tend not to have any idea of the genders beneath the suits, and I'd been under the impression that both were guys. In fact, Mango is an IT worker called Antony, and Éclair is a girl called Anne-Marie. I ask how long they've been into dressing up.
"He's five years old," Antony says, referring to Mango as though it were a separate, sentient being.
Are he and Éclair a couple?
"Yeah, more or less."
Apparently they met on a furries dating website called pounced.com.
Just then, a man with a goatee and a ponytail turns up. It appears he is a furry-fancier, or "furvert".
"Can you bark?" he demands of Éclair over his pint of London Pride.
"You don't bark very loudly. But that's the kind of dog you are – a little yappy dog. Can you yap?"
A koala bear at the next table looks on.
"And your nose – papier mâché, right?"
"It's plastic, actually."
"I bet it gets covered in cum," says the man with ponytail, breathlessly.
This seems like a natural point in the conversation to ask about the more sexual elements of the fandom, but Mango and Éclair amble out into the beer garden before I can bring it up.
The issue of how sexual the culture is won't go away. Furries themselves are understandably cagey; many distrust the media, who they say sensationalise things by making out that they're nothing but a bunch of perverts who get off on having sex in sweaty animal suits. Bar the excited furvert, I don't see much evidence of this. However, with the prevalence of furry pornographic images online, it's slightly disingenuous to claim that the scene has nothing to do with sex at all.
Opinions are split: in one survey, a sizeable minority of furries – 37 percent – said that sex is an important part of their activities, but then another quarter also said that it wasn't a factor at all. There are outfits specially modified for sex, "mursuits", but these are disparaged by many of the more straight-edge furries.
"We're not all fucking in the toilets like back in 1999," says Mike wistfully. He's a red-haired guy with a bird's nest of a beard and a Panama hat who introduces himself as a fine artist catering to the furry community. "The fandom has had to get a lot more careful."
Is being a furry all about sex?
"You're asking the wrong question. It's not that furries are sexual, per se. Furries are human, and humans are sexual beings. They say we're weird, but what about all those people who go to Star Wars conventions? I bet some of them have had sex in their costumes. It's no different, but the media never picks up on that."
So then what's the attraction of donning a squirrel suit to sink a few pints of real ale?
"It's about freedom. I prefer not to live in reality. My inner life is so vivid that it would be a waste of time. I worked in an office once, but I had to leave. Others have normal lives, and good luck to them, but I needed something different. Being furry is a reflection of that."
As we chat, a trio of volunteers in casual clothes and name-badges yell for everyone in costume to gather outside.
"Right, everyone keep together," they shout by the entrance of the bar. "Walkies!"
A parade of furries leaves the safe confines of the venue and marches into the street. I wonder how people will react, but the crowds – mainly tourists and people enjoying their weekends – are overwhelmingly positive. Taxis beep their horns, people wave from buses, tourists stand and stare. Kids in particular get incredibly excited, laughing and pointing and high-fiving the animals as they pass. To the uninitiated, I suppose the furries could just look like a bunch of slightly nightmarish football mascots on a bar crawl.
"Where are we going?" I ask a grizzled older guy in a cape.
"To the Tate Modern," he says "We're no longer welcome at St Paul's. We upstaged a wedding there once."
A hen-do on a beer-bike cheers. A Japanese woman says how sweet everyone looks and photographs her two daughters with the mascots. Soon we reach the riverbank and the furries mess around for a while, taking selfies at the foot of the Millennium Bridge. Then we cross the river. We're in front of the Tate's magnificent industrial façade. A street-performer blows huge, oily bubbles. The furries skip through them, goofing around with passers-by. A little girl plays with the pink tail of a dragon.
"It's like they're an exhibition from the gallery," a woman says.
"OK! Heads off!" shouts one of the organisers. He leads the group to a secluded spot by a nearby housing block. Here, everyone takes off the heads of their costumes and sits down, happy to escape the heat. Several of them place the heads on a row of bollards nearby. It's strange to see those heads all lined up there, disembodied, as though a bunch of revolutionary animals have just been guillotined.
"Orgy! Orgy!" the organiser jokes. "For the record, that's not happening."
When everyone's caught their breath, it's time to turn back. We cross Blackfriars Bridge, stopping for a group photo on the way.
Unexpectedly, I find the whole thing strangely moving. Many would regard furries as freaks, and even they admit that their interests are unconventional. But in defiance of people's opinions they're happy to reveal themselves to the world, coming out in public en masse, not giving a shit about what others think. And, of course, everyone we met along the way was accepting and positive anyway. Inadvertently, the furries have taught me a lesson – that it's OK to be who you want to be, and to celebrate it, as long as what you want to be isn't something super creepy that's going to bum out everyone around you.
As Mike says: "When you put on a fur suit you feel like you've changed, become better, something different, just for a while. You can do things you couldn't otherwise do."
All names have been changed.