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Animal Instincts: Fans of Furry Critters Convene to Help Mankind

Lee Strom identifies with raccoons.

His license plate reads "RAQOON." Outside his front door a little welcome sign is held up by a knee-high wooden raccoon. A mat reminds you to "Wipe your paws."

Inside Strom's San Leandro home, on the dining room table, is a big grinning raccoon head, like you'd see on a football team's mascot or atop a friendly character hugging children at an amusement park. He sits in a line of other mascot-sized heads - a wolf, a bunny rabbit and a coyote.

"The bodies are in the wash," says Strom, diligently arranging an auburn, pageboy-style wig atop a fox's head. It's the costume that Strom, a systems administrator, plans to wear to Further Confusion, the Northern California convention of furries opening today in San Jose. Furries?

Furries are fans and artists of anthropomorphic art, or art with part human, part animal subjects. Furries like Strom, called "fur suiters," like making and wearing animal costumes. Furries called "gamers" like on-line role playing games. And some furries, called "furverts," like sexually-charged art and activity, and they naturally get the most press.

But in spite of the salacious publicity surrounding the furverts, furry conventions have grown in the past decade from one to a dozen nationwide, proving that furry fans are in no danger of going extinct.

Charity and education

"There will be some adult artwork, but that's definitely not what (Further Confusion) is about," says Strom, 33, who identifies with raccoons because they "are mischievous, intelligent and sly."

"We want to help dying children be happy and help zoos and make families happy in parades," he explains, referring to the various charities for which the costumed furries have entertained.

The purpose of Further Confusion, which drew 1,100 furries last year, is charity and education, he says. Funds from the convention sponsor, Anthropomorphic Arts & Education, and from an art auction at the convention will go to Pets Are Wonderful Support, a nonprofit that provides assistance with pets for people with AIDS and other disabling illnesses, and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz.

As for education, depending on your furry bent there are eight "tracks" offered at Further Confusion.

On the fur suiting track, Strom will lead a "Fur suiting Roundtable," described on the convention Web site as an "opportunity to meet some of the faces behind those fursuits." Other workshops address the specifics of costume making, such as "Animatronics" and "Head Carving."

"Sewing" will be led by Dawn Davina Brown, who was commissioned to make several costumes for Further Confusion attendees. The convention's theme is "Furries in Wonderland," so several fur suiters requested costumes to wear over their costumes.

"It's complicated," says Brown, who lives in San Jose. "Most of the fur suiters have a persona. They'll give their fur suit a name. They want costumes for events - red, white and blue for Fourth of July, green and red for Christmas. And for this convention I've made several 'Alice in Wonderland' outfits."

Brown will also help judge the Masquerade, the convention's most popular event. Costumed contestants have three minutes to strut on stage in this fashion-show style competition. The judging is serious business, though. Contestants must follow rules established by the International Costumers Guild and will be evaluated on construction, technique, originality, complexity of style and presentation.

Other popular events at the fifth annual convention are CritterOlympics, the Furry Variety Show and the Costume Ball. Revelers can take time out in the lounge, which the Web site promises is "spacious, with plenty of tailroom."

Furries interested in more serious activities will likely be found on the scientific track, taking "Biotech," which asks "How close are we to creating a real furry?" or "Mustalid Panel" about the weasel family, one of several panels devoted to a specific species. Both are led by Eric Schwartz, a post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford University.

In years past he's led "Furgonomics" (how to adapt normal life to animal-like bodies), a class on careers that allow people to work with animals and sessions where people can see live animals up close.

"I take such a broad view of what furry fandom is," says Schwartz, a San Mateo resident. "It's fandom of everything related to animals." A volunteer at both Coyote Point Museum in San Mateo and Oakland Zoo, Schwartz, 31, came across furry fandom through a "Tiny Toons Adventures" message board.

Many furries say they always loved cartoons, but their appreciation for Bugs and Wile E. Coyote didn't fade with childhood.

Artists and Authors

The contingent of furries interested in visual anthropomorphic arts is evident in the number of workshops offered in the art track and the importance of the Dealer's Room, which Brown describes as the event's "hub."

Art fan Greg Johns from San Jose says he sticks to the Dealer's Room for the most part, although he likes to see what everyone's wearing.

"I like more realistic and photorealistic art," says Johns, 28, a computer technician. "Paintings of wolves or cats in the wilderness, that's what I like."

Jeremy Doran likes use his artistic talents for puppet making and puppet shows, although like Strom, his initial draw to the fandom was a chance to get creative with costumes.

"Since I've been involved in this fandom it's really brought out my creativity," says Doran, a Cupertino resident. "It gives you a goal to build things and be seen by people. You bring ideas you may have and share them with people."

Doran, 29, first made a fox costume and recently made a magpie, complete with wings that fan out when he raises his arms. He'll join in the "Open Pawpet Show" at the convention.

Guests of honor this year are Tony Bluth, art director for Disney's "The Tigger Movie" (2000) and Karen Anderson, co-author of many books with anthropomorphic themes.

Bluth will discuss watercolor techniques while Anderson's sessions include "Furries in Fiction" and "Plot & Short Story Basics" about "writing with an emphasis on the furry." The writing track also includes a discussion of nominees for the Ursa Major Awards - the Pulitzer of furry fiction.

There's something for every subset. On the spiritual track, you can take "Totems and Power Animals" or "Fursuiting Spirituality." And for the "gamers" there are a slew of workshops dedicated to furry fantasy games.

"We get all ages," says Strom, the Further Confusion chairman. "It seems to draw a younger male crowd, mostly males in their 20s and 30s, but we've got a good number of female illustrators. We've had entire families come, doctors, rocket scientists. It's just people interested in art."