Anthrocon event brings out the animal in enthusiasts
Judi McNeil of Ross admires Lindsay Hoer, 12, of Yonkers, N.Y., who is attending the Anthrocon convention Downtown this weekend dressed as a doe. Also dining along Penn Avenue on Friday is Ron Green, right, of Wilkinsburg.
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Maybe it's a childhood attachment to Bugs Bunny. Or a passion for sketching animal fur. It could be a sheer love of animals -- or, even, a yearning to become one.
There may not be a single explanation for peoples' attachment to "anthropomorphism," the attribution of human characteristics to animals.
But, no matter the breed of fandom, "Furries" have one thing in common -- they're all enthusiasts, said John Cole, programming director for the world's largest Furry convention, Anthrocon, which is in Pittsburgh for the fifth straight year.
Thousands of writers, puppeteers, costume builders, cartoonists and comic book fans, among others, have gathered this weekend at David L. Lawrence Convention Center for the event, which started on Thursday and ends Sunday.
While Furries hail from different places and carry different interests, many of them have a longing to connect to animals, said Sam Conway, Anthrocon chairman, who also holds a doctorate in chemistry.
"There's something about animals -- we yearn to deal with them on a higher level," he said, adding that animals can serve as confidants no matter the country or culture.
Kathy Gerbasi, a social psychologist and "furry researcher," has collected surveys at the event for a few years. While some Furries say they're fans "just 'cause," they've indicated a connection to animals in past surveys, with 25 percent saying they want to be "something else" other than human, Dr. Gerbasi said.
"What if there were a cat that could walk and talk?" posed Dr. Conway, who said his Furry fandom started in 1989. "That's the germ of this idea."
Furries may be best known for -- or most easily seen -- wearing intricate animal costumes. These "fur suits" include anything from gray huskies sporting Hawaiian shirts to white tigers wearing pink and green leg warmers. Others don thick, striped tails or fox-inspired ears.
A first-time Anthrocon attendee, who went by his character name, Victor Redtail, was dressed in a full red-tailed hawk costume Friday.
"There's very few birds [at the convention]," he noted through his mask, which had wide eyes and a plush beak. He said he has dressed as a bird for a long time, even before he heard about Furry fandom three years ago.
As Anthrocon organizers note, however, those who don costumes comprise only 10 percent of the attendees. There is, as Mr. Cole pointed out, a Dealers' Room, where attendees can purchase comic books, artwork and other pre-manufactured materials; an Artist Alley, where Furries can get a free spot to do creative work; and an Art Show, which displays artists' work.
Dr. Conway called the convention a place for "unbridled" imagination and, even, acceptance.
"It's where we have our friends. It's that break from the rest of the world," Anthrocon volunteer Elizabeth Wood, 22, of Atlanta said. Anthrocon is, in fact, a romantic spot for Ms. Wood, who got engaged to her boyfriend, another Furry, at the convention last year. "It was really sweet because [the fandom] is important to us," she said.
Dr. Conway said that, despite some cultural portrayals of Furries, the fandom does not revolve around kinky sexual practices.
Attendance has steadily climbed since the convention started 14 years ago, growing from some 300 furries in 1997 to the expected high of 4,300 this year. Following the tradition of raising money for animal-related causes, this year's convention aims to bring in as much as $10,000 for Fayette Friends of Animals, a local animal shelter, Mr. Cole said.
And the convention has even brought in money for the city, with an estimate last year of as much as $3 million, Mr. Cole said.
Fernando Decarvalho, who owns Furnando's Cafe on Liberty Avenue, said his restaurant had benefited greatly from the convention. With a U purposefully substituted in its name two years ago in the convention's honor, Furnando's Cafe did more business Friday than during the past two weeks, he said.
Mr. Decarvalho added that years ago he welcomed Furries to his restaurant by spraying paws on the sidewalk from the convention center to his restaurant. He's also open longer hours this weekend to accommodate the convention.
"They are, out of all the conventions we have, the nicest crowd there is," he said. "They feel valued and welcomed into the city."
First Published June 26, 2010 12:00 am