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Hidden tails

By Alene Tchekmedyian

Nov. 26, 2007 9:06 p.m.

Ian Martyn spends a typical day attending lecture, practicing with his musical band and chatting online. But as a furry, he often performs these activities while wearing a tail and a collar.

A subculture that arose in the early 1980s, the furry fandom is characterized by an individual’s fascination with anthropomorphic characters. Though the furry movement is not as prevalent at UCLA as other colleges, devoted furries on campus such as Martyn express this movement through art, music, wearing fursuits and attending furry conventions.

Furries often adopt an animal name for their interactions with friends and other furries. Martyn, a fourth-year anthropology and linguistics student, identifies himself as Bucker the Fox.

“I like role playing and thought animals were cool, so I gathered information and talked to other furries. Then I got fully into it,” said Martyn.

Furries also engage in a unique form of communication with other group members.

“When I talk to furries online, instead of saying “˜hey’, I say “˜arf’ or “˜woof.’ Instead of sending a happy face, I’ll say, “˜wags tail.’ There is a different dialogue online,” he said.

Brett Mommaerts, a second-year electrical engineering student, goes by the persona (known in the furry world as a “˜fursona’), Bacon the Margay.

“A couple (of) my friends introduced me to it in high school, and I liked it, so I started meeting other furries in the area, and we all kind of jumped in,” he said.

Fursuits ““ full body costumes that resemble UCLA’s Joe Bruin ““ are also worn during furry parades, conventions, dances or fundraising events. Neither Mommaerts nor Martyn own fur suits, mostly because of the dent it would create in their wallets: Fursuits often cost over $1,000.

“I will invest in one eventually, when I have enough money and am willing to spend it,” said Mommaerts.

Robert Lemelson, assistant researcher of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, said that the furry subculture has become increasingly popular due to industrialization and the rise of freedom of expression.

“Historically and culturally, humans have had very complex relations with animals. Humans have lived intimately with animals since the rise of Homo sapiens. Now, in modern industrialized culture, we have less opportunity to interact with animals, so that kind of impulse is translated in different ways,” he said.

It also provides a network of support and friendships.

“It’s a way for them to socialize,” Lemelson said.

Through this social phenomenon, individuals with common interests can convene. During furry conventions, individuals attend informational panels, with topics ranging from instructions on how to make a fursuit to writing furry music. Organizers also put on art exhibits of anthropomorphic drawings and host furry dances. Martyn and Mommaerts both annually attend Further Confusion, the second largest annual furry convention in the United States, which is held in San Jose.

Martyn has taught a panel at a furry convention on how to write furry music.

“You can sing about how you are stuck in the city and how you just want to go out to the forest and be free. I encourage furries not to hide behind the stereotypes that everyone feels required to conform to do certain things. Some of my lyrics are, “˜Don’t hide your tail in your pants,'” he said.

As a musician, Martyn feels that his furriness has helped him write music for his band, Illegal Operation, for which he plays the guitar and sings.

“I have broadened my musical horizons through it. I am in a furry band and we perform at conventions. It’s an opportunity for me to express creativity in a setting where people are not out there to judge you,” he said.

“I also think having a tail is cool.”

Furry paintings and drawings are often auctioned off at conventions. Fred Patten, who has been a furry fan since the early 1980s, said of furry art: “The main component of furry art seems to be depicting animals displaying human intelligence, or animals that are humanized in some obvious aspect. Many of the best furry artists draw or paint both anthropomorphized animal art and realistic wildlife art.”

Furry conventions have a charitable aspect as well.

“A lot of conventions support animal rescue charities and try to have them bring some exotic animals to the conventions, if their hotels will permit it,” Patten said.

The UCLA furry population is small compared to other college campuses’.

“There are about seven furries on campus. There might be more that we have not found,” Martyn said. “UC Santa Cruz has over 20 furries, and arts schools also have a lot.”

But as the culture expands, Martyn and Mommaerts find that furries are often misrepresented as sexual creatures; they assert that only a small percentage of furries consider it a fetish.

The Internet, however, has served as an effective mechanism to popularize the subculture and introduce UCLA furries to other fans across the nation.

“The Internet gives people who may have some sort of subconscious interest in this (a way) to find interest groups, share thoughts, find companionship and share experiences. Without the Internet, there would be no community or social interest. With the rise of the Internet, people all over the world can find something that fits. We are free to explore different interests,” Lemelson said.

Patten also notes the importance of the Internet because it allows furries to meet one another more easily and freely in a comfortable space.

“The Internet has been a great catalyst for furry fandom. After the Internet, new fans turned up whom nobody knew personally, who identified themselves only by their animal names. The Internet has particularly enabled the “˜furry lifestylers’ to form their own subculture,” Patten said.

Lemelson emphasized that the furry subculture is no different from other hobbies, such as sports, theater or gardening.

“It’s odd, but in some ways it’s just an alternative cultural practice,” he said. “It should not be viewed as something deviant, but as something different.”

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