Researcher says furries, people who dress like animals, offer important support system
Furry researchers launch 'Just Like You' campaign
If your depressed teenage son came home and announced he had found a group where he felt like he belonged and it made him happy, you'd likely be very supportive.
But what if, as part of this group, your son dressed up like a raccoon and met with other people who dressed up as animals they connected with on some level?
Still feeling supportive?
Identity researcher Sharon Roberts says you should.
The associate professor at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo is an expert in the furry subculture and has seen first hand the benefits the community has on its members.
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Furries are people who create an identity as an animal – called a fursona – and connect with other people who do the same.
"The fursona component of the furry was very interesting to me," Roberts said about why she first began researching it.
Just Like You campaign
The connection people who are part of the furry subculture feel towards each other is the reason Roberts wants people to better understand furries.
She and other researchers who are part of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project launched Furscience in April – a website to help people learn more about furries.
This month, they've started the "Just Like You" campaign.
The first video asks the question: How do furries go wine tasting?
This week's video asks: How do furries do yoga?
The answer to both questions, perhaps unsurprisingly given the name of the campaign, is that their experience is no different than that of anyone else.
"I see what the fandom means to people and I think, well, why should other people treat these people horribly when they're just minding their own business … [and] this is actually really beneficial to the participants of the fandom," she said.
Furries in pop culture
A blue cat who says its friends call them "Sexy" is lead into a police station to be asked by a team of crime scene investigators what he knows about the death of a man in a raccoon costume.
It's a scene from the 2003 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Fur and Loathing, that focused on furries. In this episode, they are all particularly interested in having sex with one another.
If we found something that keeps young people safe, to me, we should learn as much about it and try to apply it, because something's working in this group that is defeating youth suicide.- Dr. Sharon Roberts, identity researcher
But the episode is everything that is wrong with what people know about the furry subculture, Roberts said.
Being a furry isn't about having a fetish of some kind – it's about connecting with other people and forming friendships, she said.
"Most people don't know what a furry is," she said, adding it can be difficult to get the word out about the benefits of the subculture when screenwriters want to exploit it for jokes or a far-fetched storyline.
'Something's working' in this group
Roberts has done studies on bullying and people who turn to furry fandom often have disproportionately high rates of bullying in their past.
But they feel differently when around other furries.
"They become so protective of the inclusive nature of the fandom, it becomes central to the definition of the fandom for them, in that this is a safe place where they can be who they want to be," she said.
She said data shows about 70 per cent of furries are part of the LGBTQ community. Considering that is a community where there is an elevated rate of people who die by suicide, she said it's interesting to see those who become furries feel accepted. In the research done by the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, youth have also said furry fandom has helped them cope with problems in their lives.
"If we found something that keeps young people safe, to me, we should learn as much about it and try to apply it, because something's working in this group that is defeating youth suicide," she said. "To me, I'll get on top of my house and scream about that if anybody will listen."
And if you're a parent whose son or daughter says they've found acceptance in the furry fandom, but you're not sure what that means, Roberts said just ask. Ask your child to see pictures of their fursona, show interest, maybe even attend a furry convention where there are often parent panels by experts.
"I'm child free, but if I had a child, and the worst thing they said was that they were a furry, I would consider myself home free," she said.