Editor's note: This article was originally published April 2, 2014, but was lost when the Central Florida Future switched websites. We've revived it in honor of Oblivion Taproom, which will close its doors Jan. 31.
A dog, a bear and a fox walk into a bar, but that isn’t the beginning of a joke.
It is, however, a little slice of what one might expect to see at the Oblivion Taproom on Tuesday evenings, when an average of 30 to 60 members of Orlando’s “furry” community meet at the bar for their weekly gatherings.
But what, pray tell, is a furry?
“A furry is anyone with an open mind,” said Diedrich Wolff, the unofficial leader of the Oblivion Taproom gatherings and a student at Valencia College. “It’s a very diverse community. A lot of people are attracted, initially, to the art, but people come for all sorts of reasons.”
Wolff is known as a “popufur,” an informal title given to members of the furry community who are well-liked or renowned. He noted how the community has blossomed over the years, going from small get-togethers featuring around 10 of his friends to the large gatherings at Oblivion today. He estimated that Orlando alone boasts a community of more than 100 furs, with dozens more scattered throughout groups in Tampa, Miami and elsewhere.
“It used to be just a few of us,” Wolff said. “We’d get together at Steak ’n Shake and catch a movie at the dollar theater. Last year, the community exploded. One time, we had almost 90 people here at once.
Indeed, on Tuesday nights the bar is replete with cat ears and bushy tails. And sometimes, a pair of furries in full-body costumes — known as “fursuits” — can be seen hugging and prancing about.
The fursuit is perhaps the most recognizable icon of the furry fandom. The suits, which each take about a week to make, can cost close to $1,000. Some have modifications that allow their jaws to articulate, their eyes to light up and even integrated speaker systems to project the wearer’s voice into the outside world.
“You know how brides go crazy over their wedding dress?” said Jonathan Ray, a costume design assistant. “The same thing goes for a suit. People want measurements, they want cloth choices, fiber choices, the works.”
Ray said that donning a fursuit comes with its own unique set of challenges. The headpieces restrict the wearer’s peripheral vision, and the fur on the suit’s outer layer causes its interior to become hot. Suiters often travel with a spotter who helps guide them through crowds and watches for signs of heatstroke or exhaustion.
“We always emphasize that fursuiters should have a spotter, especially if there are kids around,” Ray said. “No one is going to be happy if a suiter knocks over a little kid that they couldn’t see. Spotters are the ones who drag you away if you need to cool down and take a break.”
But furry art comes in many forms, and websites such as Fur Affinity, Inkbunny and DeviantArt provide portals for members of the community to connect and share their passion. In fact, the art provides the one common substrate among this community composed of performers, engineers and people from virtually all walks of life. All furry art features, in some form or another, the image of an anthropomorphized animal.
This animal character, personified with human characteristics, serves as the alias through which people operate in the fandom. And when furries aren’t donning their fur suits, they can often be spotted with their furry badges, emblazoned with the names and images of their animal aliases or "fursonas."
For Austin Beard, a health sciences sophomore, his fursona, Isaac, is a character whose extensive background he developed through online roleplaying. Before he moved to Orlando, there just weren’t any real-world outlets for him to participate in the community, he said.
“Most of the people I’ve met, I’ve met on Twitter or online,” Beard said. “Getting to meet them in real life is great — you get to see them in person, and it’s like [your relationship] doesn’t even skip a beat.”
Still, he admits that he was hesitant to become a more active participant because of the historical stigma surrounding the furry fandom. Television shows such as Dr. Phil, The Tyra Banks Show and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation portray furries as mentally unstable or sexually deviant people who wear costumes as a means to fulfill their perverse fantasies. Beard, in his six years participating in the community, has yet to see a single act of “yiffing” — costumed sexual intercourse — that the fandom was made notorious for.
“Everyone thinks we’re weird; they think we do weird stuff,” Beard said. “That’s not what it’s about. Furries are just different people with a different sort of hobby — it’s no different than collecting stamps or RC cars.”
So what is it that has people participating in the furry fandom?
Without exception, the word on everyone’s lips was friendship.
“This is such an open and loving community,” said Tyler Smith, a sophomore marketing major who goes by the fursona Dante. “No matter what race, religion, sexual orientation or political views you have, no matter who you are, you’re going to find friends.
“If you have a fur suit, you’re loved.”
Bernard Wilchusky is the Editor-in-Chief of the Central Florida Future. You can reach him by email at BernardW@centralfloridafuture.com or on Twitter @cameradudeman. When this article was originally published, Wilchusky worked as a senior staff photographerfor the Future.