Furry fandom: Westman Furries break barriers and create smiles 1 sparkly dragon at a time
More than 2 dozen now belong to the group Onix Collette started in Brandon, Man.
It's Saturday night and lane after lane at T-Birds bowling alley in Brandon is full with birthday parties, celebrations — and a bunch of cartoon-like life-sized cats, dragons and snow leopards.
They call themselves the Westman Furries — a group of more than two dozen people of varying backgrounds, all enthused by furry fandom.
They dress up as animals (or other make-believe characters) that possess human personalities, like the ability to walk on two legs — or, for that matter, go bowling.
"It's kind of like an adrenaline rush, in a way. You're, like, happy," said Onix Collette, also known as Diana, a sparkly, pink dragon.
Collette first stumbled across the furry community when she was 13. Living with generalized anxiety disorder, she often feels on edge, scared or like she's constantly being judged. She found wearing a mask or covering her face helped.
"I don't like to talk to people," she said. "I find it very hard to make eye contact."
When she transforms into Diana, on the other hand, she's a different person (or dragon).
"I am hyper and happy and bouncy and lovey," she said. "I like giving hugs and cuddles and I like to just be cute and kind and silly and goofy all that sort of stuff."
Diana, Collette's most recent creation, made her public debut last summer.
Get an inside look at the Westman Furries and their night on the town:
The name Diana comes from Princess Diana, Collette said.
"She's a really big inspiration to me," she said.
"I read a lot of … books [and] watch a lot of videos on her and I was like, 'Wow, I'm really inspired by this person. I want to be this person.'"
When Collette first became interested in furries, she couldn't find anyone else with the same interest in the southwestern Manitoba city.
Now, however, she's got plenty of company in the Westman Furries.
There are dozens of members, some even travelling from Winnipeg to take part in bowling outings and other events the group organizes.
Justin Zinger spends his days as a computer tech at nearby Canadian Forces Base Shilo.
By night, he's Toasty the Avocado, a snow leopard.
"To be able to do things on a military base, of all places … it just makes me happy," he said.
"A lot of kids on base, their parents are deployed.… To make them happy, to make them smile, even for five minutes, makes me happy."
Zinger also has anxiety.
"When I hang out with these guys in a suit, I forget about that. I forget about life," he said."It's such a great group of people."
While dressing up may be innocent, Collette said some accuse furries of having a dark side. Members of the group are constantly asked about a decades-old episode of the television drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation that portrayed furries as sexual deviants, she said.
"It's not just CSI. Like, tons of other shows have picked up on that, and started doing that same thing," Collette said. "It actually damaged our community quite a bit, because that's all people think of when they see us."
"I like to laugh at them because … I'm here dressed [as] a big pink sparkly dragon out in the public, throwing a bowling ball down an alley," she said. "What about this seems sexual to you?"
Collette acknowledges, however, that there are some — a small percentage, she says — who are drawn to that side of the fandom.
"Like yeah, that side of the fandom does exist," she said. "I'm not going to deny that."
But to be clear, for her, the payoff is psychological, not sexual.
"You know, I started off as some shy, recluse, 13-year-old who couldn't handle their anxiety and other mental illnesses, and now I'm handling it much better."
That's why Collette's glad the Brandon community is growing, with more people just like her, embracing the joy of their furry alter egos and the confidence that comes with them.
"I'm an adult now. I'm grown up and it's so nice to see the group grow," Collette said.
Onix Collette wants to spread the word about a community she's part of, so when CBC Manitoba created a form for our audience to "Pitch a Story," she welcomed the chance to tell hers.
Do you have a story idea for CBC Manitoba? Fill out our Pitch a Story form.