The excitement soon dissipated when I tried Ember on for the first time and realised how claustrophobic she felt. Struggling to breathe, I started to seriously wonder how I would survive the weekend.
When I arrived at the Mantra Hotel carrying Ember’s head under my arm, a girl in the elevator looked at me and said, “You’re in for a fun weekend.” It sounded like a vague threat.
Facing my fears I registered for the con (which is what the cool kids call it) and went to a seminar for first-timers, wearing my tail and paws. The hosts of My First Fur-Con, a cartoonish fox and a bearded man clad in a black T-shirt, welcomed us newbies with an R18+ warning. “This is an over-18 con, so there might be a few swear words,” they started. “The first thing you need to realise is that you’re representing the fandom so you need to be on your best behaviour – at least 90 per cent of the time. Of course, at night there’s going to be some bad, bad behaviour.” A chill went down my spine.
Over the course of an hour, the fox and the bearded man explained the dos and don’ts of the weekend. Do: “Take a fucking shower before you use the hotel spa.” Don’t: “Press all of the buttons in the elevator and joy-ride to every floor.” It seemed like the sort of advice you’d give any group of kids congregating en masse – nothing was very furry specific.
But then they shared some interesting info: not all furries wear fursuits. In fact less than half of the people at the con would be wearing one. These people still consider themselves furries, they just don’t express their appreciation through costuming because the suits are expensive, hot and/or uncomfortable.
Basically, they’re like nudists who wear clothes to nude beaches because they don’t like getting sand everywhere. I also found out that, fursuit or not, the majority of convention attendees would be male. A Fur Science report by the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (yes, there’s an entire institution dedicated to furries) found the majority of furries are under the age of 25, and 84 per cent identify as male.
Additionally, furries are at least 2.25 times more likely to have Asperger’s syndrome than the general population.
The research also found that 65 per cent of furries keep their hobby a secret from their family. Their fear of prejudice is founded – furries are significantly more likely to have a history of being physically and verbally bullied.
One of the FurDU volunteers spoke about having to take a fursuiter to hospital last year after he was attacked on the street.
The seminar hosts advised us against wearing our fursuits out and about at the Gold Coast’s popular Cavill AvenueMall, which was fine by me given I could barely make it to the hotel lobby without walking into a pot plant.
Thankfully, I didn’t cop any abuse at the convention. In fact, it was the complete opposite; I was adored. Without my fursuit head on, I was just a redheaded girl wearing a tail. But as soon as I put Ember on, I became a superstar. Within minutes of suiting up, a girl ran up and hugged me and another person asked to get a photo with me.
The cat was out of the bag, but I was starting to feel as if curiosity was killing yours furry. I was desperate to distance myself from the weirdness around me. And let me tell you, there was weirdness.
I’ve never met so many men with strong body odour and vape pens. On the second day, I came across a group of three furries standing in a circle and meowing to each other as though they were having an actual conversation. Then there was the kelpie who kept running up to me out of nowhere, rubbing his nose against my nose and making a “boop” noise before running away. Not to mention the dragon who pretended to behead people with a sword.
When I went to lunch (as myself) at a restaurant around the corner from the convention, I overheard the waitress talking about the furries. “I have no idea what it’s about, but they dress up with ears and tails. They’re crazy,” she told a customer, who shook his head in disgust.
I felt weirdly defensive about my furry friends but understood her confusion. I’d asked myself the same question: why on earth would someone dress up like an animal – especially in public?
When I posed the question to my fellow furries, they all had different reasons for joining the fandom.
Adam, a 30-year-old excavator driver from Melbourne, first got into it because he had a childhood obsession with Animorphs – the science fiction series about teenagers who could change into animals. “As a kid, I was really interested in Animorphs and would always draw myself as an animal. My fursona is a blue heeler called Acid,” he explained enthusiastically, before asking me for my phone number. Around 20 per cent of furries believe they are spiritually connected to animals and some think they are an animal trapped in a human body.
For others the fur-life is about self-expression and creativity. Claire was interested in creating an entire character and fursona. “I remember the first time I saw a furry, I was at an anime convention. A group of them walked by and I was instantly drawn to them. I followed them around all day,” says the 19-year-old, whose fursuit celebrates her love of anime with subtle nods to Japanese culture. Art has a strong relevance in the fandom; furries often draw images of their fursonas and commission artists to do the same. They wear the laminated drawings on lanyards around their necks, as well as badges of their characters.
For Michelle, being a furry was about belonging to a community. Research shows that furries benefit from interacting with like-minded people and can improve their self-esteem as a result. “I come from Chicago where the world’s largest furry convention [Midwest FurFest] is held; 8000 people attend every year. The Australian community is a lot smaller but much less cliquey. In America, there’s a real hierarchy and internal drama. Here, it feels like a real community,” says Michelle.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics doesn’t have any official data on the number of furries in Australia (oddly enough), but the Australian Furries Facebook page has 1250 followers and hundreds of people attend the conventions that are held in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney.
Anna, who is in her late 20s, enjoys the anonymity of wearing a fursuit. “My fursona is its own character and it’s taken on a life of its own. Like, it’s me, but it’s something else as well.” Dancing as Ember at the Friday night disco, I understood the appeal. The “Dance Like No-One’s Watching” meme may be lame, but there’s some truth to it – it’s liberating to bust a move in a room full of people where no-one knows you.
When I told my friends about my weekend plans, every single one of them asked if the furry convention was some kind of fetish sex party. I prayed to God that it wasn’t, but there were definite sexual undertones to the experience.
Hugging, heavy petting and sexual innuendo were rife. When a furry in a blue suit clocked my red suit, he whispered, “If we rub together, we’ll make purple.”
I soon realised that there was valid reason for the first rule of the con: “Costuming is not consent.”
The lewd drawing class was by far the most popular seminar I attended – more than 60 people sat in the audience and watched an artist draw a seductive honey badger in hotpants. The crowd laughed every time the artist said penis.
It was like grade eight sex education, only more awkward.
However, FurDU chairwoman Christine Bradshaw (also known as Foxy Malone) says it’s a misconception that the fandom is all about sex. “There’s some bad connotations,” she told the ABC. “They don’t come here specifically for that, and it doesn’t happen in the con space or they’ll be kicked out pretty quick.”
I’m not sure I entirely believe her. I heard lots of talk about afterparties in the hotel rooms and there was a mysterious midnight event called AD (After Dark), which I wasn’t game to attend.
While I half expected the convention to be one big orgy, I didn’t realise it would be such big business.
Fursuiting is expensive. My partial fursuit cost $355 (full suits can cost thousands). To get to the con, I spent $300 on flights, $310 on the hotel and $80 for a two-day convention pass. And that doesn’t include my bar tab or the $10 I spent on a commissioned drawing of my fursona at The Dealers Den – the convention’s marketplace where artists sell drawings and badges, and fursuit-makers take commissions and sell antibacterial spray to clean the suits.
I met a full-time fursuit-maker from Canberra who started working in the industry three years ago and charges $500 for a head (it’s an extra $50 for a moving jaw).
Having spent so much on a suit, it makes sense that people would want to show them off. The pinnacle of FurDU is a beach walk, where the furries parade 200 metres from the hotel down to the beach for a massive group photo on the sand.
I spent all weekend dreading it. While I’d gotten comfortable walking around the hotel in my fursuit, I was petrified of wearing it outside. Thankfully, as a first-timer, I wasn’t allowed to wear my full fursuit without a handler, so I settled on wearing just my tail. (In retrospect, that might have been worse because I was identifiable.)
I tried to hide in the middle of the group, but there was no escaping the attention. People lined up to take photos, cars beeped their horns and kids asked for high-fives. The furries revelled in the limelight.
By the end of the festival, I understood the different reasons that people took up fursuiting, but I kept asking why. Why do they feel the need to do this?
After racking my brain for an explanation, I remembered a question someone had posed at the first-timers seminar on day one. The man in his late teens raised his hand timidly and asked: “How do you go about making friends with people?” All he wanted was to be accepted and to feel as if he belonged, which is something we can all relate to.
Furries – they’re just like us. Sort of.