Furries: How unleashing your inner animal brings friendship, love, community

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

A cheetah, an eagle, and a giraffe walk into a barbecue. There isn’t a joke; this is something that is happening in real life.

On an unseasonably warm fall afternoon, more than 100 people dressed in full-body animal fur-suits have gathered at a public park in Plymouth for an afternoon of grilling, sports, and the occasional game of fetch. This is the fall picnic for MNFurs, Minnesota’s premier furry association.

In attendance are a wide variety of people of all ages, sizes, and genders, and there is all sorts of cute, funny, and straight-up weird behavior happening. A dragon and a raccoon are drawing with sidewalk chalk, while a guy dressed in a T-shirt, cargo shorts, and mouse ears is firing up a grill. Across the field, a dog decked out in leather and metal is cracking a whip like a K-9 dominatrix hybrid. In the pavilion, unicorns, cats, and lizards sit together, eating standard picnic fare, playing Magic the Gathering, and taking turns posing for photos with each other.

Even Santa Claus is in attendance, handing out stuffed animals to two people dressed as a rabbit and a deer.

Meanwhile, a calico cat is running, bouncing, and dancing with all of the charisma of, well, a cat. His name is Further Monigal.

A 25-year-old IT systems manager, Further (also known as Sean Groomes in his human form) has been enamored with furry fandom since his middle-school days when sites like Angelfire ruled the web. 

Clockwise from left: Willy the Wolverine, Further, Rocko Fox, Sky Husky, Dish Doge, Pocket Deer, Diesel Doberman

Clockwise from left: Willy the Wolverine, Further, Rocko Fox, Sky Husky, Dish Doge, Pocket Deer, Diesel Doberman Colin Michael Simmons

“I really enjoyed fantasy and roleplaying online, and pretty soon I started seeing these avatars of anamorphic creatures,” he says, recalling his fur origins. “I didn’t have any association with [furries] before that; I didn’t even really have any interest in animals. But after I talked with some people who were into it, and they showed me artwork and things like that, I thought, ‘Oh, okay. I’m in.’”

For many years, Groomes says, his fursona was contained to the online world. However, in 2014 he made the transition from online cat-man to real-life furry, having his own fur-suit constructed to meet the specs of his character. From there, he began attending meet-ups with MNFurs, as well as conventions and gatherings all over the world. Today, he has a wide social circle of furries and fur-accepting friends. But when he first began to dip his paw into the fandom, he wasn’t quite as forthcoming.

“I didn’t tell anybody about it,” he admits when asked how his friends and family reacted. “It was pretty easy to keep it to myself since everything was pretty much 100 percent online.”

Soon, however, Groomes says he began to feel comfortable in his own fur around his newfound group.

“I identify more as a furry than anything else in my life,” he says with certainty. “Some people look at it like it’s weird, but to me it’s about creativity and imagination, and those are the kind of people I connect with.”

While the picnic is very much a family-friendly event, Groomes points out that being a part of furry culture doesn’t mean you can’t act your age. Various bars, including the Eagle, host furry nights where the young and young at heart can party their tails (and ears and whatever else) off. Groomes himself says that he has planned furry brewery crawls around town.

“What you see in furry culture is a microcosm of the world as a whole,” he says. “The same way you grow up and change and experience new things in your life, we do that too, just while wearing fur-suits.”

After taking the time to watch other furries interact with one another or having a quick perusal of the MNFurs online community forum, it’s easy to see that Groomes shares an outlook with other members of the fur community locally, as well as on a global scale.

“There are big conventions all over the world,” he explains. “I went to one over in Berlin [Eurofurence], and there was a dance competition, vendors, and artists. But there are also panels on topics like mental health and how to create a successful startup company. It’s fun, but it’s also about furries helping other furries to be successful in their lives.”

While his main motivation to join the fur world was to have fun, Groomes explains that he respects the fact that furries are committed to helping each other become successful, and hopes to one day be an example for the next generation.

“For me, this is something I plan to do for life,” he says. “It’s a natural part of my life and my growth. And as I continue to grow and advance my life, I look forward to being one of the gray muzzles [slang for elder furries] who can contribute money to putting on conventions and helping new furries to get as much from the culture as I have.”

Even furries go gray

One of these gray muzzles is “Amethyst,” who is the oldest member of MNFurs at 63. Because of her elder status, many of her fellow furries call her “mom,” a title Amethyst gladly welcomes.

“I’m old enough to be a lot of these kids’ moms. Or grandma. Or great-aunt. It’s what makes me unique,” she says. Her name, she explains, was actually chosen for her by the other members of the group, as they felt it represented a lady who should be shown respect.

Amethyst identifies as a cat, with the color purple being her signature look. Her hair has bright purple highlights, staying consistent with her fur-brand. Just like Further, she is outgoing and extremely personable, but is quick to point out that she tends to spend more time chatting or playing games than raging out at a furry bar crawl.

As with cartoon characters, pants are optional. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

As with cartoon characters, pants are optional. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

“The older members of the group are more sedate,” she explains. “You’ll see them at these events sketching or talking about things that are more techy. I like spending time with them, but I also love hanging out with the younger group. It’s just like any other society: You have different groups and you don’t always stick with just one set.”

While Amethyst enjoys spending time with furries of all ages and backgrounds, her initial motivation for getting involved was to help her connect with just one particular furry: her son.

“I knew my son was involved with it, and did a lot of photography. So at the fall picnic back in 2013 we agreed that I’d come with him to check it out for myself,” she remembers. “I think he warned everyone that his mom was coming, but they accepted me and were a great group of people.”

Amethyst says she took an immediate liking to the group, asking them about their connection to the furry world. Some had lesser developed characters, where they simply had a name and an animal identity. Others were far more invested in the fantasy world.

“They had multiple fursonas, background stories, and all of these sort of storylines going on,” she remembers. While she’s quick to point out that everyone in the group is respectful of one another and their interests, some take things a bit further than others.

“Sometimes I think some of them live a little too much in the furry world,” she says. “It’s a wonderful escape, but some furries are so wrapped up in it that you just want to ask if they know about what’s happening in the real world.”

As for the relationship she was able to form with her son, Amethyst beams about the opportunity to connect with him in a unique way.

Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

“It gives us time together we wouldn’t have otherwise,” she says. “When we see each other outside of the gatherings, we don’t just discuss the fandom, but it does give us an additional item to talk about.”

While Amethyst’s son did not want to speak with us about his own entry into the fur world, he did share that having his mom participate in the fandom has felt like a natural fit, and has given them the chance to bond in a way parents and kids don’t frequently get to.

Unlike Groomes, Amethyst does not have a fur-suit of her own. This isn’t uncommon in the culture, as suits can costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and some people choose to simply embrace their inner animal in their minds instead of actually becoming the embodiment of their fursona.

Despite her choice not to suit up, she explains that the MNFurs group is open and accepting of all comers, regardless of their age, sex, or the amount of fur they wear.

“I think a lot of people assume that furries in our fandom are into an alternative lifestyle,” she explains. “That might be true, but you get people of all different backgrounds and belief systems. For example, I’m a straight, conservative, person of faith. Some people with those beliefs might accept me for being a furry; some might not. I think of it like this: I’m not here to try and shove faith down anyone’s throat, but I’m also not forsaking my faith. Instead, I want everyone to feel comfortable—including myself—and it’s important to create an environment of love and respect.”

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

While age, religion, and sexual orientation may disappear when putting on a fur-suit, the reality is that wearing the suit itself is a hotly contested topic. The members of MNFurs are accepting of all furries, regardless of what they wear, just like Amethyst. That sentiment, however, isn’t necessarily true in other fur-covered corners of the world.

All kinds of animals are friends in the furry kingdom. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

All kinds of animals are friends in the furry kingdom. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

According to Groomes, there are some furries who believe that it is their responsibility to police what is “authentic” fur culture, going so far as to shame others in the fandom who choose to do things like take off their heads in the presence of non-furries, or even make judgments regarding the color of their suits.

“I think the issue is that there is a low barrier of entry for furries,” explains Groomes. “If you have a good idea, and can bring it to life, you can become a very popular and successful artist within the culture. That’s great, but that can lead to people getting involved because they like the attention or the fame, and not because they truly enjoy the fandom.”

The competitive nature of artistic individuals is fairly easy to spot in any medium, from musicians to actors to cosplayers. But to Groomes, the fact that furries do not have a preconceived set of rules or expectations should lend itself to expanding the imagination instead of limiting it.

“We have no mainstream canon to go off of,” he says. “There is no commercially successful TV show or anything like that about furries. That means there really aren’t any characters for us to base ourselves off of, or any rules or limitations. What we do is cut from our own imaginations.”

However, he goes on to explain that this blank page occasionally opens the door for individuals to deem themselves the authority on what is and isn’t acceptable character development or costuming.

“You get people who will try and say that someone’s suit needs to follow a certain set of color patterns, or that their artwork doesn’t fit with the image that they have in their own minds,” Groomes says. “I say treat furries like family.”

A couple who plays together (in costume), stays together

Romantic relationships are also very much a part of the fandom.

Take “Unico” and his wife, “ShadowRunner,” for example (they chose not to reveal their real names, and Unico went so far as to keep his majestic unicorn head on throughout our conversation). They met and became involved before ever putting on the suits, but much like Groomes, their mutual love of fantasy and imagination brought them together.

Oh, and unicorns.

“We met in an AOL chatroom for people who were interested in unicorns,” recalls ShadowRunner, as she holds on to her husband’s hoof. “We were talking for a while, and ultimately I moved from Pennsylvania to be with him.” Roughly six years into their relationship, Unico found a new outlet for that unicorn passion when he stumbled onto the furry world online.

“I ended up getting into this on accident,” says Unico. “I have always been interested in literature and artistry and writing, and I ended up finding an online fur group.”

After learning quite a bit about the fandom, he floated the idea of exploring the fur world in real life to his wife. Somewhat surprisingly to him, she didn’t hesitate.

“I figured why not?” says ShadowRunner. “I’ve always pictured myself as a unicorn, so this felt like it would be fun.”

It was after their introduction to the community that they tied the knot. However, they decided to take the plunge in human form.

“We didn’t end up doing a fur wedding,” Unico laughs, as he and ShadowRunner exchange glances. “We’ve talked about maybe doing a fur celebration for our anniversary. We’ll see.”

Though Unico and ShadowRunner are just like any other happy, committed couple you’d find in any other walk of life, if you approach almost any non-furry on the street and bring up the fandom, the most common stereotype is that there is a deviant sexual element involved.

When presented with this idea, Groomes laughs.

“That’s the first thing anyone ever asks me!” he exclaims. “Everyone wants to know about the sexual aspect!”

And yes, there is a sexual aspect, Groomes says. But that doesn’t mean that furry culture is sexually perverse.

“I think people get this idea that anything that isn’t in line with what they believe is automatically deviant,” he says. “Sure, it’s no lie that sexuality within the fandom is more open and not frowned upon, but I think that says more about the demographic than anything else. Just because a group of like-minded people are sexually attracted to each other and happen to be a part of this culture isn’t unlike any other group of people with similar characteristics. It’s just that people don’t really understand what being a furry is all about, so it’s automatically demonized.”

His demographic, for example, tends to be predominantly liberal and progressive. Groomes, who met his current partner at a furry convention, says that people’s expression of their sexuality within the fandom can come from different motivations.

“For some people, it’s just about identifying as a furry first, and then obviously being a sexual person is just naturally something that comes with growing and maturing. Others, however, are there because the fur-suits and the furry culture is how they get sexually excited. And that’s okay. There’s no right or wrong; there’s room for everyone.”

A beast of a different kind

Whether it’s bar nights, boyfriends, and social gatherings all over the globe; family bonding opportunities for a mother and son; or a strengthened sense of community and friendships that comes from being furries (Unico and ShadowRunner mention mini-golfing, sushi dates, and even helping out with a Boy Scout camp as activities they’ve embraced in full fursona), the furry culture within Minnesota shares a lot with those who will never don a zebra head or cat tail.

“It’s about wanting to be with people who appreciate you for who you are,” Groomes explains. “That’s something people all have in common, no matter what community you identify with. In some ways it’s like being in a frat in college, or being someone who loves anime and goes to comic cons, or people who are really into sports. You find what you identify with and that defines who you want to spend time with. The rest of growing and experiencing life is pretty similar; it just depends on what kind of suit you want to wear.”

While he’s seen a lot of change and growth in the fandom since his original entry into being a furry, Groomes says that the people in his life have come to accept his weekend-warrior fursona as Further Monigal, and have actually come to get a kick out of it.

“At work my co-workers will be like, ‘Oh, you’re taking PTO this weekend? Are you going to do your dress-up thing?’ And I just tell them, ‘Yep! Headed to Europe for a week dressed like a cat! Bye!’”

View our photo slideshow of furries taking over Minneapolis here