Two weeks ago, guests at a Hyatt Hotel in suburban Chicago noticed a strange smell coming from the ninth floor. First responders discovered a high level of chlorine gas in the air. Hazardous materials technicians eventually found what appeared to be powdered chlorine in the stairwell, according to a police statement. The hotel was evacuated. Nineteen people had to be transported to nearby hospitals after complaining about nausea and dizziness.
The incident occurred while the Hyatt Hotel was hosting the 15th Annual Midwest FurFest, a yearly fan convention for people who identify as "furries," a subculture that enjoys dressing up and roleplaying as large, anthropomorphic animals.
Hotel guests were given an all-clear from the police and were allowed to re-enter the hotel a few hours later, but not before local news affiliates showed up and filmed dozens of people in large furry animal suits prancing about on the sidewalk, playing in drum circles, cuddling up together for warmth, and taking selfies with police officers.
Police are investigating the incident as a possibly intentional chemical attack. And many in the furry community believe they were the targets. They've been around since the '80s, but are still one of the most misunderstood American subcultures. They fit into the pantheon of other ridiculed and mistrusted fandoms like Juggalos, the face-painted fans of Insane Clown Posse, or Bronies, the largely adult male fans of My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic.
Still, even today, these seemingly harmless oddballs are struggling to find acceptance; it doesn't help that there have been some well-publicized sex scandals involving furries in the last few years. Furries themselves will tell you that there's much more to their lifestyle, but beyond the animal costumes, what does it actually mean to be a furry?
The Chicago incident quickly became national news and mainstream media organizations had to then figure out how to explain furries to a national audience. MSNBC's Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski was literally unable to do it. She burst into laughter before having to actually get up and leave the set.
For the uninitiated like Brzezinski, it's understandably pretty hard to conceptualize what a furry is. And certainly, a series of high-profile, furry-related sex crimes over the last few years have made it almost impossible for outsiders to shake the notion that furries are some kind of absurd and dangerous fetish community.
In 2009, a 45-year-old woman named Richael Michels admitted to having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy she met at a furry convention, pleading guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault and unlawful sexual conduct. In 2012, two furries were arrested at a barbecue for engaging in "inappropriate behavior" in a public park in broad daylight. A few months later, Mitchell Beiro — a noted furry artist — was arrested after police seized thousands of images of child pornography from his home. Beiro pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor under 15. In 2013, a furry named Ryan Havens Tannenholz was arrested for allegedly having sex with his cat. And then a few months after that, a noted furry artist named Ted Sheppard was arrested and is currently serving up to five years in prison for sexual exploit of a child.
Members say they are regularly harassed, sometimes physically attacked, and can even lose their jobs for suiting up. Yet, furry conventions are getting bigger, and as the community ages, they're getting married and having families. They're ready to be understood.
"Most people think I'm a fox because of the song 'What Does The Fox Say,'" Tristan WolfHawk, a fox-wolf hybrid, said with a grimace as he situated himself in front of his computer during a recent Skype interview with BuzzFeed News.
Seconds later, Tristan's "mate" and fiancée, Kita, pounced into the frame wearing an oversize white Arctic wolf head and big fuzzy paws on her hands. Kita then did something she called "breaking the magic," a term furries use for removing their heads. Kita said that typically you're supposed to go somewhere private to remove your costume so you don't affect the roleplaying experience for other furries.
"Tristan WolfHawk" and "Kita WolfHawk" are "fursonas," which is the term furries use for their animal alter-ego. Both Tristan and Kita asked that their real names not be published.
"At my last job, one of my co-workers found out I was a furry," Tristan said. "They saw it through one of my messages on Facebook. And then the rumor spread like wildfire and I was basically told, 'You like to do it in the suit,' or, 'Oh, you use the cat box.'"
Tristan and Kita met a few years ago on FurryMate, a furry dating site. They started talking online, hanging out in the same chatrooms, and then finally, Tristan drove from Pennsylvania to Florida to meet Kita. Now the two live in the Orlando area.
Tristan is in his late twenties and works in IT — there's a joke in the community that "furries make the internets run," because so many of them work in IT. He said he's identified as a furry since he was 13 or so.
"We grew up with animated cartoons, animals that could talk, things like that, and it was just one of those things where you started wanting to emulate that," Tristan said. "It just solidified more of who I was."
Kita, who's in her early twenties, said her current fursona was originally based off a love of the animated movie Balto.
"I was probably around the age of 4," Kita said. "We grew up with Disney and almost every single Disney movie is a talking animal and it was just like, 'Oh my goodness, what would I give to have big fluffy ears and have paws and have a tail.'"
A furry chronology put together by fandom historian Fred Patten maintains that furries started surfacing in the 1980s at early science fiction and anime fan conventions.
Patten points to the 1980 NorEasCon II World Science Fiction Convention in Boston as the watershed moment for the furry fandom. A Seattle-based artist named Steve Gallaci entered a painting of a character he created — a female humanoid cat named Erma Felna — in an art show at the convention. Interest around Gallaci's character and his subsequent comic series exploded and led to "Gallacci groups" popping up at science fiction and comic conventions throughout the '80s.
The furry community kept growing during the later part of the decade, all the while becoming more and more distinct from its science fiction, fantasy, and comic book roots. In January 1989, a group of dedicated furry fans threw the first furry-exclusive convention — 65 people attended. Events included "A Furry Starter Kit," "Furry Costuming," and "Story Workshop." The convention ended up raising more than $1,100.
Since those early days, the furry fandom has become more sophisticated. Over 5,000 people attended the most recent AnthroCon, held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it raised over $32,000, which was donated to the National Aviary Society.
It's tough to tell exactly how many people actively identify as furries. If you were to go by self-reported convention attendance numbers, it would appear that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 furries in the U.S.
The community organizes its own internal surveys, though. In 2012, they took an anonymous census of 3,000 furries. According to the survey, the typical furry is between the ages of 15 and 19. The community is also overwhelmingly male, with only about 25% of furries surveyed identifying as female. And according to an earlier survey in 2008, most furries have participated in the community for about five to 10 years.
But what does it actually mean to participate in a community like furry fandom?
Many furries say they experienced a "coming out" process. It begins as a childhood love of cartoons, especially ones that feature talking animals. After some googling, many young furries describe an "a ha! moment" after stumbling across a piece of furry fan art or a furry message board.
Then they develop a fursona. This involves picking a character name, a species, and personality traits. If they can draw out how they want to look, furries will typically make an avatar. If they can't draw their own fursona, they can commission artwork. (Kita makes her living drawing commissioned artwork for other furries.) The final step is getting a fur suit.
Kita only wears a partial suit — fuzzy white armlets, big paws, and a head. She said that the Florida heat is not kind to furries. A few furries she knows from the Orlando area have almost gotten heatstroke while suiting up in public. Tristan and Kita said they receive a decent mix of harassment and confusion when they're out and about, even though most furry meet-ups are pretty normal.
"Board games, card games, random jokes, coffee, food," Kita said.
"If you've ever been to any convention, furries do the same exact thing," Tristan said. "Cards Against Humanity is now a big one that a lot of furs play."
Tristan and Kita acknowledge that there's a dark side to the furry community. It doesn't take too much digging before you come across some fairly graphic fan art that borders on zoophilia.
"The media just seems to always put a negative spin on the furries," Tristan said.
Tristan and Kita both cringed at the mention of 4chan, which does its fair share of both harassing the furry community and posting cartoonishly disgusting furry fan art.
Tristan said that being a furry gives people some emotional distance and a small — though alarming — minority uses that distance to explore taboo sexual experiences.
"It's not an escape from reality; it's an escape from the emotions that cause pain," Tristan said. "I've known a couple psychiatrists who have said, 'Oh, furries, you're just escaping reality, you need to come back to reality,' and it's like, 'No, we understand it, there's a difference.'"
"Believe it or not, being overweight, I'm extremely shy and very self-conscious," Kita said. "When I get into my fur suit, I'm wild and I'm crazy and I just have so much fun."
Winterfoxy, a 21-year-old who also requested to have her real name withheld, lives near Portland, Oregon. She's currently finishing up her last semester in college. She's working on becoming a teacher and runs a furry chatroom. Her boyfriend goes by Malicai as a fursona; he works at Walmart. They're expecting their first child this summer.
Winterfoxy understands the need to escape into something other than herself. She said she was drawn to the furry community due to her love of roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, but she also found it as a therapeutic way to deal with a traumatic childhood.
She said that when she was younger, she was regularly sexually assaulted by a close family member. She said she was also physically abused by her ex-stepfather. When she was just beginning to explore the world of furries she chose a fox because foxes can escape quickly.
"They're clever and they can get out of most situations," she said. "If you have an animal that can escape, you don't have to be there."
She said that her history of physical and sexual abuse isn't uncommon in the furry community, which makes the misconception that furries are a fetish group especially painful.
"[Rape] is a touchy subject and it's banned in chat," she said. "A lot of furs end up committing suicide when they're younger. We've lost quite a few friends to that that were in the fur community."
She also pointed out that the furry sex-party myth also ignores the fact that trying to have sex in a fur suit would be incredibly difficult. "If you try to have sex in those you're going to overheat very quickly," she said.
Winterfoxy said that roleplaying a fursona also acts as a buffer when opening up about personal trauma with others.
"A lot of times it's hard to go out and say, 'Hey, I know you've been my friend for five years, but I had this horrible thing happen to me,'" she said. "So in the fur community it's just kind of accepted that a lot of people have a damaged background."
After 10 years of working on her fursona, Winterfoxy's character has changed drastically. Many furries, through the course of roleplaying, start to expand their character's backstory characteristics. Currently, her fursona has parts of a wolf, fox, dragon, fairy, and witch.
So the modern furry community is essentially a supportive healing community with nerdy roleplaying components. The question still remains, why animal costumes?
Winterfoxy said everyone outside of the community overlooks the simplest answer.
"Animals are not complicated," she said with a laugh. "Let's say you want to be a cat, when you're a cat, you don't have to worry about school, you don't have to worry about your family fights, you don't have to worry about whether you're gay, or lesbian, or straight, you don't have to worry about politics — none of that matters because you're a cat."
There's also the sense of loyalty that comes with emulating an animal. Furries use terms like "mate" and "pack"; they playfully refer to other furry friends as members of a large extended family. Older furs will "adopt" and mentor younger furries when they first join the community. Through the furry community, Winterfoxy was able to build her own family.
"A lot of people will contact us in private and say, 'I'm a rape victim,' or 'I do drugs,' or 'I'm an alcoholic, am I still allowed?'" Winterfoxy said. "And we're like, 'Of course you're allowed, come join us, we will help you, we will make you feel like you belong because you do.'"
At this point, most of the the teenage furries of the '80s and '90s have settled down. They're in the workforce and they're pushing for legitimacy.
The most famous and outspoken furry in the country is a pharmaceutical researcher named Samuel Conway, Ph.D. Conway works in the biomedical field and holds two patents. He goes by "Uncle Kage" as his fursona. He's been involved with furry conventions since 1989.
Conway is the de facto leader of the furry community. For the last decade he's been advising furries to stop dealing with media outlets following a 2001 Vanity Fair piece on the Midwest FurFest, which many furries felt painted the community in a completely false light.
A 2003 episode of CSI titled "Fur and Loathing" that followed the murder of a raccoon furry at a convention also didn't help the community's relationship with the media.
Conway told BuzzFeed News that he believes the possible chemical attack at Midwest FurFest was likely targeting furries, though he doesn't believe the point was to hurt anyone.
"It's happened in the past; some idiot decides he's going to pull the fire alarm or do something just to disrupt the convention," Conway said. "People have been doing that for generations, just for laughs, 'for the 'lulz,' as the kids say today."
Conway said that fundamental misunderstanding between furries and outsiders is the fact that furries don't believe that a love of cartoons is something that needs to disappear in adulthood. But Conway said he sees more and more people realizing there's a word for how they feel and a community that will accept them.
"Every single human being out there daydreams of being something they're not," he said. "People look at furries and say, 'There's some sort of psychological thing, they think they're animals, they're retreating into this.' No more so than a fellow who goes to a football game and wears the jersey of his favorite player believes he's that player."
A group of people who need fuzzy animal suits to socialize might seem weird to outsiders, but most furries maintain they are just regular people who understand they have a bizarre hobby.
There are online groups for furries who work in law enforcement, the medical field, as firefighters, or in the military.
A 22-year-old furry police officer from Tuscon, Arizona, who goes by Maximillian Constable, told BuzzFeed News that putting on his fur suit helps him relieve stress after work.
Maximillian said he's been active in the furry community for about seven years now. He was always a big fan of talking animal characters growing up and he came across a forum post about furries and it sucked him in.
He's also open with co-workers about his furry alter ego. "Many of them are like family to me, and honestly we are all a bunch of nerds who enjoy stuff like fandom. Though some of them give me a lot of crap about it sometimes, it's all good," Maximillian said.
Another furry police officer from Los Angeles who goes by Orion McKrackin told BuzzFeed News that he doesn't talk about his furry interests with his co-workers and he was a furry before he decided to become a police officer.
"I came out to my friends and realized one of them was also a furry," he said. "That definitely helped me come out of my shell and actually become more involved in the community and meet other people."
Orion is 27 and has only been active in the furry community for the last two years. He's attended some of the larger conventions, and he agrees that there is a feeling that the community is maturing.
"Most of the members are starting to get older, get normal jobs, and have kids," Orion said.
"Yeah, we're still kind of strange but to be honest when you start talking to the people in the community, the more you realize that they're pretty normal people that just have this one side of them that they want to express."