Furries stress friendliness at Downtown convention

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Furries are generally an accepting bunch.

The folks arriving in town yesterday for the annual Anthrocon at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, many clad in animal costumes, were upbeat and warm as they welcomed old friends and new to this weekend's celebration of furry art and culture.

But there was a collective sense of disgust and condemnation at the allegations, revealed in May, against Alan Berlin, 40, an aide to state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, who was arrested for soliciting furry sex with a 15-year-old online.

The furries were forced into damage control.

Ryone Caru, 19, of Jacksonville, Fla., shook his head when the topic was raised. His long blond hair, black jacket and black-painted fingernails scream "goth" until you notice the red fox tail hanging from his backside.

Mr. Caru said he was once fired from a McDonald's restaurant because management found out he was a furry and misinterpreted it as a sexual fetish. Mr. Caru and others prowling the Westin Convention Center hotel yesterday stressed that the fandom isn't about sex -- it's just about people who are devoted to animals with human characteristics, in a cartoonish way.

And it's people like Mr. Berlin, he said, who give furries a bad name.

Mr. Caru said he had chatted a few times online with Mr. Berlin, but now, "He's pretty much been shunned by the entire furry community."

Dr. Samuel Conway, the chair of the convention, said when he saw news reports of Mr. Berlin's arrest, "That worried the hell out of me."

But Dr. Conway checked the records and found that Mr. Berlin never attended Anthrocon or even sought membership with the organization.

"Even he -- if he's guilty -- had to be smart enough to know he would not be welcome here," Dr. Conway said.

Otherwise, it's a welcoming group.

Anthrocon, the world's largest furry convention, is in its 13th year, fourth in Pittsburgh after moving here from Philadelphia. After drawing close to 3,400 attendees last year, organizers hoped to reach around 3,800, though there was concern that the sluggish economy could dampen growth.

Still, the furries crammed the Westin, forcing many to seek lodging at other Downtown hotels.

Dr. Conway said he would like to see the Westin add another tower to accommodate the swelling crowds that last year contributed an estimated $3 million to the local economy.

"Build me my new tower and I will bring you more furries," Dr. Conway said.

Even though festivities don't officially start until today, conventioneers started arriving Wednesday night, and by late yesterday morning the Westin lobby resembled a zoo. The folks wearing the suits -- ranging from wolves to dragons to a fox clad in chainmail armor -- draw the attention, but the fully fur-suited only comprise about 12 to 15 percent of attendees, said program director John Cole.

For some, not fully dressing up is a matter of comfort.

"It's like wearing a sauna," said Mr. Caru, who sticks with just a tail.

Every furry has a different story of how they got into it, but it's mostly born out of affinity for cartoons. Convention organizers note anthropomorphism -- giving animals human characteristics -- is as old as the gods of ancient Egypt and as mainstream as Bugs Bunny. The modern furry movement, meanwhile, has been nurtured on Internet communities like LiveJournal.com.

Jerimy Bass estimates that he is the only furry in Durant, Okla., but he's been able to connect with others online and at the conventions; this is his fourth Anthrocon.

"It's become something that's actually a part of me," said Mr. Bass, 29.

He said Mr. Berlin's arrest shocked the furry community and prompted further concerns about the group being falsely portrayed as full of sexual deviants.

"We do not condone that," Mr. Bass said. "Mainly we are artists, dealers, writers, puppeteers."

He paused, surveying the jovial scene around him on the third floor of the Westin, as convention-goers greeted each other like the first day of a furry summer camp.

"We're friends, too."

Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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