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Furry Friends bond over bowling

Christopher Borrelli

4:41 PM CST, December 10, 2013

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The Lake Area Furry Friends bowl twice a month. They have bowled together almost 10 years. By this point, their routine is established: They meet for dinner at the Patio restaurant in Lombard; then they head over to the Tivoli Bowl in Downers Grove; and finally, around midnight, they drive a few miles away to Steak N' Shake, out by the Hidden Lake County Forest Preserve, where the teenage waitresses greet them with smirks of bemusement and wariness.

The Lake Area Furry Friends know this reaction well and take measures to act accordingly, to put their best faces forward. Listed within the group's code of conduct is the following: Members can wear their furry ears and furry tails to dinner but not their full furry costumes (too unnerving to non-members). Members must wear bowling shoes while bowling; if members insist on wearing furry feet, those furry feet must be slip-resistant. Members are not to allowed to wear their furry feet on a wet sidewalk then clomp all over the bowling lanes ("leave the space tidier than when you arrived"). And under no circumstances is fetish gear acceptable: "If you must wear a leash, you are required at all times to be holding it yourself."

Also, sorry, dear reader: You are not invited to the Lake Area Furry Friends bowling night.

Members only, please.

For a while, I was not invited — until, like a zoologist creeping closer to a skittish wolf pack or band of skeptical primates, trust was established, and the Lake Area Furry Friends, or LAFF, grew more comfortable, allowing me to observe. See, LAFF is composed of furries, and if you don't know anything about furry subculture, understand: That metaphor — comparing members to wolves and monkeys — is not condescending.

These people are animals.

On a cold Saturday in late November, at the most recent LAFF bowling night that I attended, a pizza delivery guy stood on the sidewalk outside the Tivoli, mesmerized as LAFF members filed past him and into the bowling alley. A twentysomething wearing no shirt, just pants, a cape, animal ears and a raccoon tail, sauntered by. The delivery guy said: "I don't get it." A 6-feet-tall, neon-blue dog followed the raccoon. "I am so confused," the guy reiterated. "But then, I wore baggy jeans in high school, so everyone has their thing."

Yes, everyone does. And if you are a self-described furry — and you would have to be self-described, as there is no national regulatory organization, no membership card to present or written test to take — your thing is this: You identify very strongly with anthropomorphized animals. The furtive, intelligent creatures from "Watership Down," the beasts of anime, even Snoopy. You love animals so much you adopt a fursona, an alternate, animal self. Which sometimes means dressing as a cartoon animal, looking like the mascot for a college that doesn't exist. As a member of LAFF, this also means parading your fursona around the Tivoli twice a month.

I followed the blue dog inside and down the steep staircase to the basement bowling alley. I heard the furries before I could see them, and when I saw them it was a virtual Serengeti: dogs, cats, wolves, foxes, donkeys, otters, squirrels, dragons.

This was my third LAFF bowling night, and, as outsiders go, I was now a regular. So much so that I began to recognize furries by their distinctive markings and large cartoon eyes: Barky! GreyWolf! MC Bark! Oh, look: Woofie! And hey, there's that quiet wolf, the one with the red and black fur who looks as if he's wearing fetish gear but, when asked, patiently explains that he's a wolf puppy, wearing a puppy harness.

The leaders of LAFF had told me they weren't expecting a huge turnout; Midwest FurFest in Rosemont was later that week, and furries might have wanted to take it easy before attending the largest furry convention in the Midwest. But by 9 p.m. the Tivoli was fursona heaven: A collie in a sweater vest mingled with a fox in a Hawaiian shirt.

I spotted Chaz, a horse. He was out of costume. Chaz, with the slight build and pensiveness of a graduate student, is actually Chuck Whitten, 26. He's LAFF's bowling-night ringleader. In his other life, he is an industrial mechanic from the western suburbs. As we watched fellow furries register and split into teams, he told me that he's a transplant, having moved to Illinois from a conservative New Hampshire town. "My father is fine with my being furry. But my mom thinks I'm in a cult," he said. "I can't talk to her about this. But it's not like I drink the Kool-Aid. There is no Kool-Aid to drink."

Chances are, you've heard freaky things about furries. Let me puncture a couple of myths:

No. 1: Furries are not always in costume. Only about 30 percent of LAFF members (and about 20 percent of furries nationally, according to cultural studies and furry-convention organizers) wear full animal costumes to furry events. The rest merely accessorize. They add furry ears, tails, noses, feet or paws to their street clothing. Many furries just wear a badge that announces their fursona. (Several asked that I not use their real name and only identify them by their furry name.) I met a 32-year-old named Ray who wore a goat costume and said: "When I wear my (furry) suit, I lose definition." I met a 20-year-old custodian from Libertyville who was dressed as a fox and said: "There is the professional me, and there is the animal I can't show many people." But more common was 26-year-old tech-support worker David Rosario, who just wore a name tag. He said his name was Cavix and he was part tiger, part fox. He said he didn't have thousands of dollars for a costume (the often-cited reason for going fur-free), but, spiritually, he was Cavix. (And frankly, as gutsy as it might be to wear a $4,000 fox costume in public, it takes another kind of guts to just claim you're a fox.)

No. 2: Being a furry is not a sex thing. Furry get-togethers are not orgies. At least not on bowling night. Like many non-furries, most of what I knew about furries (before I attended the bowling nights, anyway) involved sex. But I witnessed no sex acts. When I jokingly said this to a guy in a wolf costume, he said calmly, seriously, through his animal head: "Do furries have sex together? Some probably do. But are there journalists who have sex together? I bet probably. Furries are no different than any other group of people who spend a lot of time together."

I saw a lot of hugging (furries are huggers). And I met furries who didn't know the real names of furries they've been around for years (so submerged are some in their fursonas). But nothing kinky.

Still, sex is a touchy subject with furries. They know that, to non-furries, "furry" and "fetish" are synonymous. The stigma is too strong. Said Lawrence Parry, Texas-based editor of the WikiFur website: "Some furries have fur fetishes, sure. But for the majority that I know, the attraction is nerdy, more like: 'Wouldn't it be cool if animals were like people?'"

OK, one thing I did witness:

Furries are lousy bowlers.

When matches got going, Yawni, a 24-year old from Saskatchewan who said he was in town visiting friends, seemed to have trouble gripping the ball. He was a husky, with a plush white mane and bright blue back. "I mean, look, I have four fingers here and I don't want to rip my claws off," he said, frustrated and groaning through his snout. Yawni cradled the ball in his arms, rocked it back and forth, then inelegantly hurled it.

The ball sailed quickly for the gutter. One lane over, same story: Kyne the Dog waited at the ball return, gathered a ball into his paw, shouldered it and then just, well, dropped it. He watched the ball crawl away and softly kiss a few pins. He sat down cross-legged at the baseline: "I'm not so good out of costume, either."

I looked up at the score. Kyne, and the two furries he was playing against, had not broken 80. Collectively.

At the other end of the bowling alley, a group of middle-aged men from a longtime (non-furry) bowling league watched the furries. They chuckled. Tim Hopkins leaned in and shouted above the music: "They can't bowl! I like them! I see them all the time! They're nice! But they can't bowl! What I want to know is: How can they stand the heat in those costumes?" Good question. By 10 p.m., there was so much fur and sweat in the Tivoli that it smelled like a rumpus room after a basement flood. Nearby, from a table overlooking the lanes, Susan Hopkins, Tim's wife, watched a Dalmatian hug a bear. She said: "I asked a furry about himself. He said they never feel accepted, but here they have found each other — how can you not love that, you know?"

"Yeah," her friend Edee replied, laughing, "it is genuinely heartwarming — in a (expletive) up kind of way."

The Lake Area Furry Friends, the largest furry organization in the Chicago area, began in the mid '90s. Its members are mostly in their 20s, though some are younger and some are older. Most come from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. There is no official roster. Though the group's website counts about 10 species and 180 furries in its member directory — MewMew, Socks, Fang, Furp, Mistletoe, DiscoPanda, and so on — bowling night attracts about 100 members. LAFF bowling night began in 2004 in Wheaton, moved briefly to Glendale Heights and has been at the Tivoli Bowl since 2008. (Tivoli manager John Munro said: "They're good steady business, they never cause any problems and anyone who would knock them has just not met them.")

Asked why they bowl, LAFF members say they're not sure. Even Whitten could not explain why they bowl. But watching one of their bowling nights unfold is such a melding of the mundane and surreal it's not hard to grasp the appeal.

My first bowling night, last summer, however, began more uneasily. I watched LAFF pile into the Tivoli, wheeling their costumes behind them in suitcases and bins, and they watched me, eyeing my notebook warily. At first I didn't know how to speak to them. They hug so often (because they're like stuffed animals, they say) and speak so emphatically (think Teletubbies), it's hard to tell where characterization ends and irony begins. Timothy A. Rat, for instance, explained in a squeaky cartoon rodent voice that his name is Greg Trail, he's from St. Charles and he studies music composition at Northern Illinois University.

"Is that your real voice?" I asked.

"It's how Timothy talks," he said.

I asked if he would take the rat head off. He apologized and walked away. Many spoke softly, even timidly, as though they assumed that because I was media I was there to make fun of them. A 20-year-old who calls herself Veneer said she was "rediscovering" herself as a snow leopard but barely looked up as she spoke. The first furry I met, though, was Gina Marcucci. She's 26, dresses as a wolf and was funny, outgoing. She explained she was LAFF's public-relations contact, even though LAFF has little contact with the public.

Later Marcucci, who grew up in Burr Ridge, told me: "I have always been into anime and dressing up. I think I became a furry at 10. When the Internet got big, I found an online group of people who role-played as werewolves, which led to being a furry. I liked wolves, so I just started wearing furry ears and tails. Like, everywhere. Which is socially acceptable when you're a kid. But I wore them to high school. I was popular among nerds and geeks. I was not a sports person but I had friends. When I hit 21, I wore my ears to bars, too. People made fun, but it's who I am. I liked how it looked. It made me comfortable, and it was warm, too.

"My grandmother? Loves the furry thing. But my mother? She asked me: 'I know you have the full furry costume. But do you, uh, do anything in it?' It's a weird conversation to have with your mother. So I was like, 'Mom, this suit cost me $2,000. Why would I put it into any situation where it would get messed up?'"

Ask a furry how they got into furdom and many speak of the lifestyle as a kind of intense social cosplay — that popular comic-con practice of dressing like a pop-culture figure: Darth Vader, Batman, etc. David Arnett, the wolf puppy, 30, told me: "It's exactly like cosplay to me, except because you created the character, it's much closer to you. See, outside of this fursuit, I am not an outgoing guy. I don't go out much, and to be honest, I'm antisocial. I've always been the odd man out. I had four friends in high school and no friends in grade school. My life would have been so much better had I discovered (furries) years ago."

So why the unsavory reputation?

Samuel Conway, a self-described "pudgy guy in his late 40s," is the founder of Pittsburgh's Anthrocon (which bills itself as the largest furry convention in the world) and about as close as furdom gets to a national spokesman. He said: "I think the problem is rooted in the early days of the fandom, the conventions in the '80s, where, for whatever reason, certain elements turned convention hotels into slums. Because furry fandom was young in the late '80s, that was the first public view of it. And groups like LAFF have been trying to shake that impression ever since."

Conway, a chemist with a private laboratory in North Carolina, first got into furdom himself as a post-doctoral student in Hyde Park, at the University of Chicago. "When you're a fan of cartoon animals and you're an adult, you can't help feeling a pang of guilty pleasure," he said, "but the way furries were creating their own original characters, then turning them into fursuits, I just fell in love. It felt like something I had always dreamed of." He became a samurai cockroach. But less than a decade later, he said — because of an unflattering 2001 piece in Vanity Fair (partly based on Midwest FurFest), then a 2003 episode of "CSI" (titled "Fur and Loathing") centered around the death of a man dressed as a raccoon — "furry fandom began reeling from this stigma."

Not that every furry helps the cause.

That first bowling night I attended, on my way back to the car I stopped at the Tivoli Theater, the single-screen, 85-year-old movie house that shares its block with the Tivoli Bowl. A handful of ushers were cleaning the concessions counter and closing for the night. I asked what they thought of the furries bowling league, and quickly they grinned at each other. One of the employees said: "They like to just kind of stare at you." And he was right. As if on cue, a moment later, a large dog with a backpack pressed its face against the theater doors. That late at night, on that quiet of a street, those eyes, large and unblinking, were unnerving.

"We get that a lot," the young employee sighed. "But whatever. They're weird."

During one of the bowling nights I attended in early September, it was a lighter crowd than usual. Ashley Nebow, 20, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, wore ears and a tail, hit a 6-10 split, spun on her heels and stepped aside to let her friend, a dog, take his turn. "I need more fingers," he said, attempting to lift the ball, struggling and then broadly shrugging, as a cartoon dog might.

I sat and watched.

Several furries sat alongside me, watching but not really interested in who was winning. "There's a lot of wild meat out there," Maurice Washington, who had come up from Muncie, Ind., was saying. He wore no costume but explained that he was thinking of joining LAFF: "I'm 60 percent 'yes.'" He said he doesn't always like the furries he meets. Beside him was a LAFF member, a large friendly oval of a man, nursing student Fabian Melendez, who listened and replied: "There'll always be a small percent that ruins things for the rest. Still, I think a lot of us support each other — maybe we didn't get as much love as others did? I don't know."

Washington nodded.

The largest, most respected academically published study of who furries are began at Anthrocon in 2006. Kathleen Gerbasi, a social psychologist at Niagara County Community College, conducted it. She said that, after more than 1,000 interviews, the basic conclusion is that, well, furries are not easily explained.

"They're very sensitive, but about half see this as a hobby, as simply fun," she said. "About a quarter say they felt like they were meant to be a different species, and they like animals, but I wouldn't necessarily say that means real animals." Also, they're more introverted than the average person; about a third of male furries are gay; and, professionally, many come from tech, science or art backgrounds. "There's this feeling you get from some that, until they stumbled on furry subculture, they always knew they weren't like everyone else," Gerbasi said.

And yet, as I interviewed furries myself, one of the recurring themes was the inevitable mainstreaming of furdom. Furries are full of contradictions: They're tired of being seen as weirdos, but the surreal nature of what they do is part of the appeal. "Eventually this will be mundane," said Toby Murono, chairman of Midwest FurFest. "I mean, I'm learning to play hockey with furries. Some of us go skiing together." Anthrocon 2012 drew more than 5,000 attendees to Pittsburgh, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; it brought in an estimated $6.2 million in tourism dollars. Even Marcucci, asked about the future of LAFF bowling, wondered if it's all gotten too big.

It's a conundrum: Can a somewhat cloistered and shy fandom let the world in and still maintain the intimacy that drew them to that fandom in the first place? Parry, the editor of WikiFur, told me that there are members of the furry fandom who want to put on PR-savvy, furry-centric charity events, but "the truth is a lot of furries are not putting on costumes because they want to pose with children. They do it for themselves."

One night at bowling, the room felt so overheated and crowded I had to step outside. I followed a wolf up the stairs. Halfway up, he seemed to waver and topple backward. His costume was heavy, and the Tivoli was full of fur. I pressed at his back. He righted himself. At the top of the stairs, he tugged off his head. He was young, chubby and panting. His face was pink and flush and sweaty.

On the sidewalk was a man wearing a mouse costume, staring at the sky, also getting fresh air. He turned and said: "I'm squeaking at the moon!" The wolf, regaining his composure, plopped his head back on and replied, "You know the moon is made of cheese?" The mouse said, "Of course. And it's delicious, right?"

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli