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Furries of the Valley

Wild animals in a high-tech wilderness

By Annalee Newitz

Like thousands of other tech industry workers, 19-year-old Ben Cottrell spends his days coding backend at an e-service company surrounded by the sounds, sights, and smells of a world only humans could love. He works for hours in a building saturated by electricity, climate-controlled, sealed up with glass and filled with plastic and silicon objects that sometimes occupy his attention more than the living beings around him. While many imaginative geeks long to fuse with their machinery, Ben does not entertain sci-fi fantasies of becoming a robot. He knows he is an animal.

"I'm a wolf, and that's who I am," Ben says with serene certainty. "There's a lot of integrity and balance that comes with living your life partially as an animal." In Silicon Valley, Ben is just one member of a growing pack of human animals who know that there's more to life than so-called civilization. They call themselves furries, and there are a lot more of them around than you probably realize. As Ben joked, "A lot of us secretly feel that if furries went on strike the whole valley would grind to a halt."

So many furries have migrated to the valley that there are even some spots which have become notorious dens of furriness. In Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, a few apartment complexes are known to insiders as The Furry Arms; and network administration consultancy Taos Mountain (www.taos.com) is considered by many to be a furry-friendly company.

But, you ask, who are these furries and what do they want? Mostly, like the animals they are, they want to be left alone. But if coaxed gently, furries reveal that there are as many ways to be furry as there are species of fauna. Growing out of sci-fi fandom in the mid-1980s, the furry community is composed of several overlapping groups: "anthropomorphics," people who enjoy comics about anthropomorphized animals (most famously, Omaha the Cat); "fursuiters" and "plushies," people who dress up in furry suits or collect stuffed animals; and "lifestylers," people who feel that they are more animal than human and prefer to lead lives which allow them to express the animal within.

Tom "Howling" Geller found himself attracted to furdom at the age of 30 because he wanted to rethink the way he related to his body. "Among furries, I heard the term 'misincarnated,' which refers to a feeling that you aren't in the right kind of body. And I realized that I had actually forgotten I was incarnated in the first place." He smiled, "I think it's a geek thing to forget about your body."

Although not all furries are geeks, there's a surprising overlap between the two subcultures. Furries across the world can meet and socialize in FurryMUCK, one of the longest-running and best-maintained social MUCKs online. Furries also communicate mostly through websites like Fur.com.

Perhaps because geeks are used to communicating via the non-human medium of machines, they long to connect with other people animalistically: without pretense, without judgment, and without all the relentless focus on surfaces and small talk that seems to characterize human relationships.

Ben believes that in the furry community, "there's a willingness to see people and things for what they are rather than what they appear to be. To be a furry, you have to react to the person inside rather than what they look like."

It's a collective dedication to open-mindedness that inspires furries to draw together in packs. Just as animals do not make moral judgments about sexual expression, body shape and physical touching, so also many furries cast aside judgment to welcome any fur into the group who wishes to join it.

The furry love of companionship, physical affection and sexual openness has sometimes led outsiders to mistake furriness for a sexual fetish. But to claim that furriness is only about sex is a misunderstanding.

As Tom said, "I'm a furry because I want to be fearless about having feelings. I look to animals for ways of expressing myself about how I feel."

In a valley full of walls, suburbs and expressionless machines, it should come as no surprise that some people have gone furry. As scientist Donna Haraway once wrote, the future of humanity lies with beings who recognize that they are part human, part machine and part animal. She called them cyborgs. In the valley, we call them furries.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who sometimes behaves like a bear. Growl at her electronically via [email protected].

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From the December 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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