A few weeks back we joined several friends and participated in the ALS Walk to raise funds for research into the crippling fatal disease (one of our friends is currently battling the illness.) Thousands of people showed up in support of friends and loved ones whose lives had been impacted by the condition. As we gathered with our friends in preparation for the walk, garbed in our matching blue T-shirts, we noticed another group gathering in completely different attire, a group of Furries.
There were about 50 of them, and their costumes were extravagant. Most wore full body outfits, coming as dogs, cats, birds, and cartoon dragons. (I would say it looked like a convention of college mascots except for the fact that college mascots don’t tend to be anime in appearance.)
When the walk began they were at the front, selfie sticks in hand, paw, or claw, and they all walked together. I assumed that were walking in remembrance of a Furry friend who had died from the disease. After the completion of the walk they again huddled together, arms around each other, in a large circle, hugging and consoling one another.
When we completed the walk my wife and I went over to a nearby food truck to get a drink and some breakfast. While we were in a line one of the Furries got in line behind us. He/she/it had apparently broken off from the herd in search of sustenance. We did a very poor job of trying not to stare at the Furry as we bought our food, after receiving it we stood to the side as the Furry approached the counter. Its full body costume was adorned in white fur, topped with the head of a bird. Its beak was yellow-gold, with black fur around the eyes. On its back were two small wings. A tail went out from behind, arching back and up into the air. I think it was supposed to be a cartoon dragon.
“May I take your order?” said the man in the food truck. “Caw, Caw,” the Furry replied. The obviously confused food truck man repeated his question, and the furry cawed back the same reply. It then turned and walked away. Lisa and I looked at each other, and said in unison, “What the heck?” It was an unforgettable encounter with weirdness.
I went home that night and did what any red-blooded internet connected American would do. I googled “Furries.” In the Wikipedia entry on the subject I found a lot of information including this remarkable sentence-
Some furries identify as partly non-human: 35% say they do not feel 100% human (compared with 7% of non-furries), and 39% say they would be 0% human if they could (compared with 10% of non-furries).
What struck me was the word identify. The word has come to be very important in our culture, and has had a profound impact on our politics and our social interactions. We live in a world where increasing emphasis is being placed on how people see themselves, with less emphasis on what they actually are.
The Furry phenomenon allows us to step back and consider the ramifications of this societal change. As is often the case, taking a thought or process to its extreme can provide important context. Furry identification as part-animal represents such an extreme of self-identification. One can rightly ask, “How much deference and respect am I required to give to someone who identifies as a dog?”
I have first-hand experience with this scenario. When my son was two he went through a dog stage. He was obsessed with the movie 101 Dalmatians. My wife made him a spotted costume for Halloween and he wore it all of the time. When he wore it he went into full dog mode he would often answer our questions with “woof.” It was cute, but after a while it became annoying.
While we tolerated the behavior in our cute little son, I don’t think anyone would expect us to tolerate the same behavior in an adult. It would be rather difficult to care for a patient who responded to my interview questions with barks or chirps!
As absurd as this extreme is, it is informative. It raises the question, “How far must we go to accommodate identity?” A question I will answer in an upcoming post.