Utah furries set the record straight on misconceptions about their fandom

After tensions with parents and students in Nebo School District, furries here in Utah talk about misconceptions people have about their hobby of dressing up in cartoonish animal costumes.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ven Ferlin and JoJo Larrabee, co-chairs of an annual furry convention in Utah, jump in the street in Vineyard on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

It took 50 hours, four yards of colorful faux fur fabric, two pounds of Poly-fill stuffing and enough upholstery foam to rival a mattress store for Ven Ferlin to create their first animal costume.

“Seriously,” Ferlin said with a laugh, “there was so much foam.”

If it were an option, Ferlin would’ve opened a tab at the nearest craft store.

Ferlin, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, lovingly crafted their original sky blue fox suit in 2015 when they first joined Utah’s furry community — a sort of cosplay group for people who share a passion for dressing up in handmade, cartoonish animal costumes.

Now Ferlin, 33, is a leader in the furry fandom here and runs the state’s only annual furry convention: Think Comic-Con, but with big stuffed animals come to life instead of Marvel characters.

“It’s really as G-rated as that,” Ferlin said.

So it surprises Ferlin that the costumes and the community make some people so angry. The way Ferlin sees it, it’s kind of like hating a Disneyland staffer dressed as Baloo from “The Jungle Book” or getting upset with the Utah Jazz bear mascot.

The vitriol has come, though, as the political right has framed furries as a threat. Some conservatives fear the community may influence kids into identifying as an animal (even though furries don’t actually think they are animals) or be harmed by a classmate who is a furry (even though most school districts will say that they haven’t heard students actually refer to themselves as furries and haven’t had reports of children who wear animal accessories hurting others).

It’s a cultural crusade playing out in Utah and across the country. And Ferlin feels it’s being fanned by misconceptions — some deliberate — that unfairly stigmatize furries.

In the latest confrontation here, videos quickly spread in conservative social media circles in late April of students walking out of Mt. Nebo Middle School in Utah County to protest classmates who had supposedly been dressing as animals and biting and scratching other kids.

Staff at Nebo School District have said the claims of furries there are false. They’ve said no students at the school are wearing full-body animal costumes or using the term “furries” to describe themselves. They’ve said the protest came out of a misunderstanding from a message sent out by the school calling for kindness after a group of students, some wearing animal headbands, was made fun of by peers.

Some parents felt that the school was picking a side, and the situation has continued to unravel. In the weeks since the original April 17 walkout drew attention, there have been at least three hoax bomb threats at Mt. Nebo Middle School that officials believe were tied to “outrage” over furries.

With the uproar directed at them, Ferlin said many in the furry community here now feel they have to defend their hobby — or hide it.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rome Warner, 2, waves to JoJo Larrabee and Ven Ferlin outside on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Larrabee and Ferlin are the co-chairs of Anthro Weekend Utah, an annual furry convention in Utah.

“More than anything, people should be allowed to find happiness where that is for them,” Ferlin said.

Ferlin said the first time they felt happy in a long time was when they first put on the suit they crafted and joined a group of others who accepted them and found it just as fun and silly and benign.

What’s true about furries — and what’s not

The Salt Lake Tribune spoke to the three leaders of the United Utah Furry Fandom via email and agreed to identity them by their furry names, as they fear violence or threats for speaking about the hobby that’s been demonized. They are: Pom, a 32-year-old man in Sandy; Kayo, a 32-year-old woman in Bountiful; and Jaye, a 26-year-old man in Draper. The Tribune has verified their identities.

Having heard the claims all many times, the three leaders have rebuttals ready for every misunderstanding or stereotype associated with the furry community.

No, members don’t think they are animals, the leaders say. That’s a different thing called therians.

No, being a furry is not a sexual thing. Maybe some consenting adults wear their fursuits in bed. But they’re extremely warm inside and, honestly, they’re really expensive — so getting sweaty in them isn’t ideal.

And no, members of the community don’t regularly wear their fursuits to the grocery store or the post office, instead donning them mostly only for conventions and events with other furries. They also don’t bark or meow at passersby in public. They don’t bite people. And they don’t use litter boxes (no, schools are not putting those in restrooms for students, either, a claim raised by critics across the country and since debunked by The Associated Press).

(United Utah Furry Fandom) The three leaders of the United Utah Furry Fandom are pictured here in their fursuits. From left — and identified by their Furry names — is Jaye (a 26-year-old man in Draper), Kayo (a 32-year-old Bountiful resident) and Pom (a 32-year-old Sandy resident). The leaders say there are a lot of misconceptions about their community of creatives that enjoy dressing up as "big, silly, fluffy animals."

Most members of Utah’s furry community are adults, though there are some younger kids and teens who go to the state convention, usually accompanied by parents, the leaders said (and there is background screening for all attendees to keep the event safe). But the fandom doesn’t want anyone to act out or violate rules. Students biting or scratching peers, whether they are furries or not, should be disciplined, some members said.

“If you did that at convention, you would be kicked out immediately,” said one furry who spoke to The Tribune.

The stigmas, the three leaders wrote, “come from a lack of understanding. People are afraid of what they do not understand, and the furry fandom is undoubtedly weird enough to be subjected to this judgment.”

So then, what is true about furries and the community?

The United Utah Furry Fandom has roughly 600 active members — though leaders estimate there are thousands of furries in the state overall.

Nearly 2,000 attended last year’s annual convention, led by Ferlin and friend JoJo Larrabee. It’s known as Anthro Weekend Utah, shortened more often to AWU — which is meant to sound like an animal howl. It’s considered the eighth-largest furry convention in the country.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) JoJo Larrabee, left, and Ven Ferlin, co-chairs of Anthro Weekend Utah, hold up four heads to fursuits created by Ferlin on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Anthro Weekend Utah is an annual furry convention in Utah.

There’s been an organized group on and off in Utah since about 2005, though the fandom, as a whole, started in the 1980s.

“The best part about the fandom is the sense of community and meeting other amazingly creative individuals,” the three fandom leaders said. “We’ve seen folks who could barely muster the courage to talk to others at their first meet make new friends and gain the confidence to participate more actively.”

Some people who are shy will create a “fursona” — what the community refers to as the personality of the character — that’s outgoing. Someone with a disability might create a character where that turns into a superpower. A large number of members are also LGBTQ+ or neurodivergent and have found a safe haven in their fursuits, leaders say.

“The fandom is a vehicle and platform for judgment-free expression where these traits are not considered negatively or punished,” they said. “… Many people who are judged or pushed out of other communities will often gravitate to the furry fandom.”

While the furry costumes are a way of masking, members of fandom also say they’re a way to unmask and be embraced with open, albeit hairy arms. “Those really are the best warm hugs,” Ferlin said with a laugh.

Costumes as a way of healing

Les and Zena’s second-floor Salt Lake City apartment is a testament to their love of animals: It houses more pets than people. The couple has an attention-loving rescue dog, a quiet furball bunny and two snakes. “That one is really good at hiding,” Zena said, tapping softly on a glass enclosure. One of the snakes was curled up in a little hut inside, barely visible.

Zena, 24, can relate. Since she was a kid, she’s battled depression and social anxiety.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zena, a member of the Utah furry community, on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

On the hardest days, she would stay home, curled up in bed, scrolling through YouTube videos. That’s where she stumbled on furries. She loved seeing how happy the people were dressed in their fursuits, how comfortable they seemed to be. And it inspired her to start making her own.

“It became sort of therapy for me in a lot of ways,” she said. The Tribune agreed to identify both Zena and her partner Les by their furry names to protect their privacy. Both were verified by The Tribune.

Her original fursuit started as a wolf, but as Zena has grown into the community, she said she started shifting the design into a dog — a more approachable animal. She describes the fursona as being like the golden retriever Dug from the animated film “Up”: hyper and friendly.

The character doesn’t have her anxiety. Putting on the fur helped her shed anything that was holding her back.

Zena started making the fursuit when she was 14 years old, buying up all the red, gray and white faux fur she could afford with what she saved up from allowances and birthday gifts. It took five years to complete. She wore the costume for the first time after moving to Utah in 2019, when she went to the AWU convention.

She had searched for the furry community here when she got settled, hoping to find friends who shared her interest. Zena joined an online chat group, which are popular in the fandom. She met Les through one that he managed (it has anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 participants at a time).

At first, Les and Zena didn’t like each other. They were like cats and dogs. Well, sort of. Maybe more like dogs and dragons, which is the creature Les chose for his fursuit.

Les, now 22, first saw furries while attending Comic-Con when he was 13 years old. He said with a laugh, “I thought they were weirdos. I was really judgmental.”

He started talking to someone at the convention who had a booth selling furry costumes — tails, ears, paws, full suits. Les said he found the seller to be one of the nicest people he’s ever met. And that got him hooked. He went home to learn more about the community and started attending furry conventions the next year.

In his costume, Les said: “I got to be myself without the baggage.”

Then it pushed him to try to resolve that in his everyday life. He filed a police report, talking about his allegations of child abuse for the first time, crediting coming forward to the confidence he got from the fandom.

As the couple talked about how the hobby had supported them, they sat together in their little apartment while their dog begged for scratches. On the walls around them hung posters from each of the AWU conventions they’ve attended — with themes like “Furlock Holmes” and “Bark from the Future” — next to Zena’s designs for fursuits that she now makes for others.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zena's sewing room on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

Zena put on pieces of her fursuit to show how much goes into one. It requires about 30 minutes of tugging, tying and twisting for someone to put on a full furry costume.

She slid on thick foam paws over her hands, saying “they’re basically pillows” crafted like gloves. She would normally add a pair on top of what she proudly calls her “excellent knock-off Doc Martens,” too. With a final little grunt, she pulled on the head of the costume over her head, with her hair tucked under a balaclava to make it easier to slide on.

In the suit, she looks like a character from “Bluey” or “My Little Pony.” And to Les and Zena, that’s part of the point. They get to goof off and act a little like kids and be free.

“These suits, as dumb as they are, they help people realize who they want to be,” Zena said.

Often, both said, kids will come up to them when they’re in their fursuits and want to take pictures with them like they’re at Disneyland. It makes Zena smile; she doesn’t hide it.

A place to fit in

Ferlin thinks a large reason for the fury aimed at furries is that many members of the fandom are LGBTQ+. That includes Ferlin and Zena, who is gender fluid and uses both she and they pronouns.

“Furry has become a dog whistle to target LGBTQ+ people,” Ferlin believes. The fandom is about “people being able to present themselves and experiment with their identity. They don’t like it, so they attack it.”

For Ferlin, the fandom has provided a community that accepted their identity as nonbinary when they say they didn’t feel accepted elsewhere.

Growing up, Ferlin was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The dominant Utah faith doesn’t ban LGBTQ+ members but instructs, in order to remain in good standing, they must not act on any feelings of same-sex attraction.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ven Ferlin, left, and JoJo Larrabee, co-chairs of Anthro Weekend Utah, rock out on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Anthro Weekend Utah is an annual furry convention in Utah.

Ferlin said they were pushed into doing conversion therapy around 2012, in a program run by the LDS Church. The therapy involves a counselor attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a client. The church has since taken steps away from those efforts. But Ferlin spent about a year and a half in the program, which they said left them depressed and anxious. They left therapy and the faith at 25 years old.

That same year, Ferlin made their first fursuit, the blue and white fox. It’s based on Ferlin’s love of video games, particularly Zelda, and includes a pixelated faux fur heart on the back. Ferlin named their fursona Giga, short for gigabyte.

They didn’t have a ticket to their first convention, held at a Salt Lake City hotel, but they went anyway. Ferlin said they sat down at the piano in the lobby, wearing their fox head and playing “All Star” by Smash Mouth — an image they laugh at now — as a crowd gathered around. They met a group of friends they’ve had since.

“I was wearing a mask, but it felt like the first time I wasn’t in a way,” they said.

When the convention fell into financial trouble, Ferlin and friend JoJo Larrabee put down their own money to save it, hosting their first one in 2017. They also give to charities at their conventions each year, collecting just shy of $27,000 last year for an animal sanctuary.

“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, ‘This community has saved me and kept me here,’” Ferlin said. “It moves me, but it also breaks my heart. There’s not that many places, especially in Utah, where people can feel welcome as they are.”

Ferlin knows firsthand because it saved them, too.

They have since created a new fursuit, an androgynous hyena with wings and mohawk named “Ven.” Ferlin felt like it captured their true self so much, they took on the name full time.

(Ven Ferlin) A fursuit, shown in the middle of the process to craft it.

(Ven Ferlin) Ven Ferlin in their newest fursuit, a hyena with articulated wings.

‘We don’t push it onto other people’

Ferlin said they understand and support Nebo School District enforcing the rules, particularly on a dress code. But they want the district to understand what it might mean to students wearing the headbands that have caused the stir — even though the kids are not likely members of the fandom, they said.

The way Ferlin sees it, the animal ears are a way for kids who are different or ostracized to cope. “When it’s too hard to be yourself, you try to be something else,” they said.

Ferlin compares it to goth or emo kids or horse girls. Ferlin said that kind of thing can be comforting to someone being bullied. It can also help those who feel left out see others who share their interests — like a signal, an owl’s hoot or a dolphin’s sonar

What the furry fandom previously enjoyed quietly sharing with others like them has been dragged into a public debate that they never asked to be a part of.

“We don’t push it onto other people,” said Les from Salt Lake City. “We’re just doing our own thing,” Zena added.

Those in the Utah fandom say they’re leaning on each other and the community they built to get through being targeted. And they want people to know they aren’t going anywhere — except maybe on another run to the craft store.

(Ven Ferlin) Pictured is attendees at the annual furry convention in Utah.

— If you have a student in a Utah K-12 school who is in the furry community and want to talk about it, reach out to reporters Courtney Tanner at ctanner@sltrib.com and Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@sltrib.com.

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