Anthrocons convention turns city into 'real zoo'

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Rebecca Droke, Post-GazetteFrom left Jeremiah Ferris (Walter Faddoul) of Kansas City, Kansas, Jennifer Yohanas (DJ Jetta Bentham) of Baltimore, Md., Alan Kennedy (TriGem) of Nelsonville, Ohio and Briody Wineland (Arcturis McLoud) of Longmont, Colo., take a break from the annual Anthrocon convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Downtown yesterday. Anthrocon is the world's largest convention for people interested anthropomorphics, humanlike animal characters.
Click photo for larger image.

The red fox was bounding down the corridor at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, when, suddenly he spied John Cole.

"Griefer!" Mr. Cole cried out in greeting.

"John!" Responded the red fox. "See you at the opening ceremonies!"

It was that kind of day yesterday at the convention center, where some 2,500 "furry" fans of anthropomorphism -- the idea that animals can have human characteristics, or vice versa -- were gathering for the 11th annual Anthrocon convention.

In fact, Anthrocon is "the world's largest furry convention, taking place in Pittsburgh, Pa., each July," according to the latest entry in Wikipedia, a fact confirmed by its organizers. Pittsburghers have been so welcoming compared to other places that the convention plans to return to the city every year "for the foreseeable future," said Mr. Cole, the event's friendly and voluble press spokesman.

While some media reports -- and an episode of "CSI" -- have characterized "furries" as devotees of kinky sex practices, furry fandom is actually a lot tamer than that, Mr. Cole and other organizers say. Its members would much rather watch Bugs Bunny and Garfield cartoons, as well as more exotic creatures from Japanese anime, allegorical novels, video games, science fiction and fantasy.

From its beginnings in 1997 in Albany, N.Y., where 150 people showed up to share their mutual interest in human and nonhuman animals, Anthrocon has grown exponentially, spending several years in Philadelphia before coming west, said Dr. Samuel Conway, the convention's chair.

Known to furry fans as "Kagemushi Goro" or "Unkle Kage," after a martial-arts cockroach cartoon character he created, Dr. Conway is also a dead-ringer for Pittsburgh native Jeff Goldblum, except younger and shorter and in coke-bottle glasses and a white lab coat with "Mad Scientist Union Local 3.14" emblazoned on the back.

And these days, he loves Mr. Goldblum's hometown.

"Actually, Philadelphia's convention center was way too big," he said, "and they wanted to charge us $300 a night for hotel rooms. When we asked if they could lower the price, they said, 'Tough.' Pittsburgh is a better fit for us."

It wasn't all a lovefest -- a handful of "anti-furries" stood outside in the rain Thursday picketing the convention. But the nearby Steel City Diner printed T-shirts with Anthrocon's slogan on them and another local restaurant printed blue paw prints on the sidewalk outside leading to its door.

Still, it was a bit mind-bending to see so many people in fur suits, or variations thereof, on the Westin Convention Center Hotel's third floor, from Griefer the red fox to the guy in the orange mohawk with a wolf's tale hanging down behind his leather vest to the three fellows -- uh, foxes -- from Germany who don't speak English but who nonetheless communicated with lots of big gestures and motorized ear twitching.

There was plenty of diversion for those into prancing around in hot "full body" costumes, some quite pricey, featuring all sorts of high-tech cooling and vision devices.

Yesterday, there was "Fursuit Dance 101 -- Do you want to know how to look your best while dancing in fursuit?" -- and today, two rounds of "Fursuit Dodgeball'' are on the schedule. A "Headless Lounge" was open only to "fursuiters'' wishing to take their "heads" off and take a break in private before getting into full costume again.

In fact, some workshops will be going on until 2 a.m., Mr. Cole predicted. "These are people who never lost their inner child," he said.

Still, this particular group of enthusiasts comprise only about 10 percent of the attendees.

Most furries roaming the hallways yesterday seemed to be people with a talent for drawing and a love of cartoon and science fiction characters, and the convention's guests of honor included Carolyn Kelly, who draws her late father Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comic book character, and Mark Evanier, who has written for just about every comic book and cartoon show in the past 20 years, from Bugs Bunny to Scooby Doo to Garfield.

Call it an updated Star Trek convention, if you will, for mostly 20-something males, pale of face, black of T-shirt, sporting pony tails, paunches and sketchbooks full of drawings, but also sporting the occasional dog's tail or rabbit ears.

Not a tanned, blonde jock or preppie with artificially whitened teeth in sight.

Of course, there were women, too, including Stephanie Hughes, 22, of Chicago, whose day job is as a receptionist at an insurance company. She discovered her inner furry at age 14 -- Marie from Disney's "Aristocats" movie is a favorite.

She has since found soulmates on the Internet, where she serves as the administrator of an online furry forum, and is also in the process of designing her own fur suit, a "kitten type character of my own creation."

But Ms. Hughes didn't tell her coworkers at the office the truth about where she was going this week.

"Most people just don't understand when you try to explain it to them," she said, noting that her friends in fur suits have been teased and yanked at when they've walked the streets at other conventions. "But I'm perfectly normal. I eat dinner and take showers every night just like everyone else.

"I told them I was going to a family reunion," she added, " and in a way it's the truth. I feel closer to these people than I do to some members of my family."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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