Beneath a tree at the edge of the woods, Kelly McLaughlin looked out at the loved ones who had gathered here for her wedding.
Interspersed among her family and friends stood a black and white wolf, a red and blue winged dragon and some jungle cats. Near her side, a bridesmaid was bedecked not in a gown, but in the costume of a fantastical fuzzy creature with a spiky tail. Hairy purple ears peeked out from McLaughlin’s bridal veil. Her beloved Joey Mullen’s tri-color tail rustled in a pre-storm breeze.
This love story was not one of sci-fi or Greek mythology. McLaughlin and Mullen are just two members of a local contingent of furries, a subculture of creative, and often misunderstood, animal lovers who had come together, some in costume, for the group’s annual picnic in St. Paul.
The Minnesota chapter of furries regularly draws 100 or more members to events, but organizers say there are many more people across the country who partake in the fandom, or community.
“Think of geek fandoms — animé, steampunk, sci-fi, ‘Star Wars,’ ” said Matt Hibbard, MNFurs president and human alter ego of Aerak, a wolf. “This is anthropomorphic animals.”
Ever been to a comic book convention, or even a “Mad Men” party? People dress up as their favorite characters all the time. The difference with furries is that these fans of cute creatures create their own characters rather than turn to the pages of a comic or to a TV show. Many of them draw or write whole back stories.
Only about a quarter of the group’s members dress up in character, Hibbard said. For one thing, the cost of a full “fursuit” can be prohibitive (starting at $1,000 or more). Plus, the fursuits can be hot and uncomfortable (small fans inside the foam-padded heads can help). Many furries, therefore, will come only with a tail tied onto a belt, or fuzzy slippers that resemble paws, or headbands topped with perky ears.
The species run the gamut: everything from lovable back-yard bunnies to mythical dragons and unicorns. Then there are the animals heretofore unheard of in nature or literature, with coats of hot pink or Cookie Monster blue, a rainbow tail or wings on land creatures that have never flown.
Many furries say they realized early on that they had a connection with animals, and it sometimes alienated them until they found online or in-person communities.
Collin O’Connor, MNFurs secretary, had a rough childhood, and “the one thing that had always called to me was the animal world,” he said. “Animals always went through challenges and overcame. I would think, ‘Why can’t I overcome, too?’ ”
He learned about the spiritual side of animals in American Indian faiths, how some represented courage and strength, “and that really clicked with me.” At 16, he discovered a Twin Cities area community of people who felt about animals the way he did. He went to a meeting.
“I got up there, and I was like, ‘I found people like me,’ ” he said. “These were people who understood me, and I felt accepted for the first time.”
O’Connor doesn’t outfit himself as the creature he’s created — a dragon named Ridayah. But costuming helps some furries express themselves in ways they couldn’t in everyday clothes.
Andy Laub, who was suited up at the picnic as a “deer with a little bit of raccoon thrown in” named Ringer, gave his character qualities he wished he had in himself: “more outgoing, able to have a better time and less inhibited,” he said.
“The nice thing about that,” Laub said, “is that once you start portraying the part, you start to become that way outside of the suit.”
Furries’ bad rap
Public gatherings in costume can be a spectacle. Traffic on the road alongside the picnic slowed as rubberneckers rolled past a meadow full of human-sized cartoon creatures.
Furries tend to use that visual attention to do some good. The local chapter, which was recently granted nonprofit status, volunteers each year at the Como Zoo Boo, marches in the Winter Carnival parade and helps out at animal shelters to find adoptive families. Hibbard even starred, as his wolf, in a closed-circuit television show broadcast at St. Paul Children’s Hospital.
Furries say it’s about being social — meeting people with similar interests and helping brighten other people’s days. They recoil at the idea, put forth on a 2003 episode of “CSI,” that it is a sexual fetish.
“This suit will never be used for anything other than being outside, having fun,” said Kristian Johnson, who was outfitted as an Australian sugar glider named Agave that looked like the cute little skunk from “Bambi.”
The idea that all furries are doing something taboo was perpetuated in news media reports last fall, when a Chicago hotel was evacuated during a furry convention because of a chlorine gas attack. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski walked off the set laughing during a news segment about the incident.
“People are uncomfortable about things they don’t understand,” said picnicker Dave Engle, who was robed in black, carried a staff and wore the head of a villainous-looking crow named Xiouo.
Furries say those misconceptions damage their reputations and create a hurtful stigma that can follow them into their day-to-day lives. Two furries at the picnic asked that their last names not be used because they worried that being associated with the fandom would affect their career prospects as a law enforcement officer and a pilot.
Kristin C., whose family ran an animal rescue in Dakota County, always had an affinity for animals. In the red, yellow and orange suit of Banana, a “winged fox corgi,” she said she tries to keep her personal life separate from her professional life. “Going into a [police] department, [being known as a furry] can cause problems, because they can question what you are doing,” she said. “When I interview, I want to interview based on my merit.”
But Keith E., a pilot now based in Maine, whose alter ego is a fox named Vulan, admitted it’s not just because of “CSI” that outsiders might bristle at the activity. “This is weird,” he said. “The reason I think people push it way out is because we are already on the edge.”
Frolicking and Frisbee
On the meadows and under the trees at Hidden Falls Regional Park, the picnic’s activities were innocent. Furries in and out of costume grilled burgers, threw a Frisbee, played Hacky Sack and horsed around the same as any other group of friends might. A couple of them brought their kids. As for contact, they did hug a lot. But who wouldn’t want to hug a 6-foot bunny?
The wedding couple decided to forego full suits of fur, which would have precluded them from speaking their vows audibly and exchanging rings. Ears and tails were their versions of a gown and tux.
The ceremony was quick. McLaughlin, aka Aurora Star (part wolf, part husky), and Mullen, aka Lucky Pup (a fox-wolf), each read, from a slip of paper, the standard vows ending with “till death do us part.”
Then the officiant, who identifies as a gray house cat named Lady Amethyst, pronounced the couple husband and wife. The audience applauded, and the furry animals danced and cheered.
As far as weddings go, said McLaughlin, this one was “something different.”