Shannon Burgess’s alter ego is a velociraptor named Ralph. Discussing her involvement in furry fandom, she explains how art, community and dressing up have shaped her life.
I remember Shannon the way she looked in high school, the type of Goth girl who seemed too real for movies like “The Craft.” She wasn’t interested in short schoolgirl skirts or low-cut shirts. Instead she wore a gray trench coat and heavy eyeliner, the long hair flowing down her back a sharp contrast to the closely-cropped hair at her temples. Before that she was the girl who befriended me when I was the new kid in junior high, the one whose dad would give me a ride to school when I occasionally missed the bus. We drifted apart soon after, finding our niche in different groups of friends and rarely interacting during our subsequent years of school together.
More than 15 years later, she walks into a Starbucks on Long Island, her warmth as apparent now as it was when we were 11. We’ve seen each other only once since high school, but we’ve kept in touch through social media, developing a tentative but sincere friendship. She’s still a visual artist, just as she was when we were teenagers, and her art has led her to become part of a community at once vibrant and marginalized.
What Exactly Is a Furry?
I’m talking about the group known as “furries,” a term that has made its way into the pop-culture lexicon but often serves more as a punch line. It refers to a subculture of people who dress up as anthropomorphic animals, using the costumes as a way of reinventing themselves by adopting “fursonas,” personality traits linked to the species they embody. Although the animals represented in the fandom are as varied as the members themselves, wolves, cats and foxes seem to be especially popular.
Furry fandom is a subject that I find both fascinating and woefully misrepresented by most media portrayals. Coverage is usually salacious and intended to scandalize. But that’s not the image painted by Shannon, whose Facebook posts about being a furry are light-hearted, funny and affectionate. She takes a lot of pride in representing the community, often posting links to dinosaur-themed stories as a tribute to her adopted dinosaur fursona, a velociraptor named Ralph.
“Every fandom has its group that takes it to a sexual level, but that’s not the main reason that people get involved,” Shannon explains. “That’s why furries are so afraid of the media, because that’s just how it’s been portrayed.”
Realizing there is a lot more to the furry community than the mainstream news lets on, I asked Shannon if she would talk to me about her involvement in the fandom. It started about ten years ago on a social network devoted to art and art enthusiasts. “I was on DeviantArt and came across a couple of artists who were drawing anthropomorphics and furry characters,” she explains. “I was like, ‘This is really cool, how do I get into this?’ I ended up drawing my own little characters.” Her drawings quickly found an audience on DeviantArt, and that audience turned into a community.
After chatting with a member of the fandom online, Shannon attended a local meetup where she was introduced to other furries. An afternoon spent eating barbecue, socializing and watching cartoons turned out to be a great way of dipping her toes in the water, and she felt an immediate connection to the group. That feeling was mirrored by subsequent furry meetups, her positive experience reinforced through increased exposure to their culture. “I didn’t know the whole fandom was like that—it’s just a huge group of really friendly, welcoming people who all share an interest in cartoon animals, basically.”
If that’s the true nature of furry fandom, why isn’t that the side we usually see? When furries are represented in the media, in stories such as the 2003 Vanity Fair piece “Pleasures of the Fur” or the now infamous episode of CSI where a murder investigation uncovers a series of furry orgies, the focus is almost exclusively on sex, and the costuming aspect is played up as a fetish. Is there any accuracy to that portrayal?
“The minute they put on a mask they don’t have to worry anymore because nobody can see them, and they can act up and they can do whatever they want, because nobody can see who they really are.
“Every fandom has its group that takes it to a sexual level, but that’s not the main reason that people get involved,” Shannon explains. “That’s why furries are so afraid of the media, because that’s just how it’s been portrayed.” According to her, if fetishes are a part of furry life, they are so minor as to be inconsequential. “That’s such a small segment of the population that it’s a non-issue. If that is happening, I haven’t seen it and I’ve been going to cons for years.”
Far more important to Shannon and her friends is the artistry involved in furry fandom. Many furries design fursuits for themselves and others, while some take commissions for anthropomorphic art pieces. In both cases, there is a high level of creativity and skill required. Fursuits are crafted to reflect not only the animals they represent, but also the individual personalities of those who wear them. Accordingly they are often detailed and elaborate. As an artist, this aspect is especially important for Shannon.
Coming Up With a Furry Fursona
Developing friendships and finding acceptance within the furry community are also key parts of the fandom’s culture. “The majority of us, we’re just there to have a good time, party, hang out, dress up as animals and be silly,” she explains. That silliness fosters strong bonds, especially among those who have felt like outsiders at some point in their lives. According to Shannon, that accounts for the vast majority of furries.
“The fandom being as it is, very open, very welcoming, we have a large population of people who are very shy. They want to make friends, but they’re very guarded,” Shannon says. “The minute they put on a mask they don’t have to worry anymore because nobody can see them, and they can act up and they can do whatever they want, because nobody can see who they really are. And it’s great to see some people come out of their shells like that.”
I need to be me. Even if me has a giant dinosaur head. Especially if I have a giant dinosaur head.”
The appeal of being a furry, then, is somewhat paradoxical. The anonymity of the costume frees people to be more outgoing, but the fact that they are wearing a fursuit makes them more visible, drawing the attention of those outside the fandom. For many furries, the former outweighs the latter and anonymity provides a way of becoming comfortable with parts of themselves that they may have suppressed.
“I’m a lot more outgoing and silly when I put on the giant dinosaur head—I can act like a little kid in a Halloween costume again and nobody’s going to judge me,” Shannon says. “And even if they do, they don’t know who I am.”
While friends and family often misunderstand the furry community, Shannon’s been lucky in that respect. “My parents thought it was hilarious,” she says, remembering the first time they saw her in a fursuit. “They were like: ‘We don’t care.’” In fact, she occasionally wears her fursuit to events she attends with her family, especially music concerts with a laid-back atmosphere. The costume has become a source of fun and amusement for all of them.
The Connection Between Furry Fandom and Community
For other new furries, revealing interest in the fandom can be more fraught. I ask if there are any parallels between coming out as a furry and coming out about one’s sexuality. This turns out to be a disputed subject within the community.
“There’s a divide about the idea of coming out as a furry,” Shannon explains. “There are some people who are just like, ‘This is just a hobby, this isn’t a lifestyle. You don’t need to come out of the closet about it like you’re gay.’ And then there are other people who are like, ‘No, this totally is a thing that you should be coming out of the closet about, that you should worry about telling people.’”
Although reactions vary according to the individual circumstances of each furry, Shannon emphasizes that geography also has a lot to do with it. In New York, fursuits are less likely to raise eyebrows, and her experiences interacting with people while in costume have been predominantly positive. For those furries who don’t experience the same level of acceptance, the fandom is there to offer support and, perhaps even more importantly, community.
That sense of support reminds Shannon to continue living life boldly. “I’m just going to do what makes me happy. I need to be comfortable in my own skin and if I’m doing what other people want me to do, or looking how other people want me to look, I’m not happy. I need to be me. Even if me has a giant dinosaur head. Especially if I have a giant dinosaur head.” That’s the Shannon I remember—and I’m profoundly glad that she’s still here.