How Furries became a fandom

Contributed by
Jul 19, 2017

Long before the Internet itself was invented, Walt Disney and Warner Brothers invented furries.

Assuming that the Internet bred furry fandom is an easy assumption to make. It’s certainly the assumption I made, despite running with a crowd of scene kids and furries in Bush-era suburban Georgia. But furries—fans of anthropomorphic animals—go back both further and not as far as you might think.

In mainstream culture, furry fandom is largely known by a reputation best codified by the 2003 CSI episode “Fur and Loathing,” which depicted all furries as sex-crazed fetishists utterly heedless of prosaic concerns like dry cleaning bills. Even in geek culture at large, furries remain a niche among niches—and often a convenient punching bag for geeks of all other stripes to say, “Well, at least I’m not like those weirdos.”

Which is why I find furry fandom so interesting as someone outside of it. Fandoms that develop in isolation or otherwise non-traditional ways fascinate me, and furry fandom operates on a wavelength that owes more to old-school science fiction fandom than contemporary media fandom. It’s a creator-centric fandom that places more value on generating original material than fanworks, and it can extend into a lifestyle in a way that media fandom can’t.

While anthropomorphic animals have existed in folklore for nearly all of human history, furry illustrator Taral Wayne posits that furries actively resist association with their ancient counterparts. In the program book for 1992’s ConFurence 4, they explain: “Furries draw their imagery from a common background of Saturday morning cartoons and comic books, and have imbued these images with meanings that could only arise from growing up in the boomer years.” While every furry, of course, is different, one only has to look at the cheerful cartoon aesthetic of most fursuits to realize that furries are more Bugs Bunny than Bast.

Which takes us neatly to the origins of furries—the dawn of American animation.

Before we begin, I want to make two things clear. Firstly, I’m using the term furry a bit anachronistically at points here—it came into common usage in 1986, at the first official Furry Party at WesterCon 39. Before that, ‘morph, funny animal and furry appear to have all been used interchangeably.

Secondly, I want to give credit to furry fandom elder Fred Patten’s illustrated timeline, which was hugely helpful in wrapping my head around the history of furry fandom. It’s an interesting read all on its own, so I highly recommend it.

Now, were where we? Oh, right, the invention of furries.

Walt Disney v. Warner Brothers (1930 to 1969)

Before there were furries, there were funny animals. Felix the Cat, Oswald the Rabbit and, of course, Mickey Mouse were among the first animated funny animal characters in the 1920s. When Mickey went supernova in his eponymous short film series, Warner Brothers decided to compete with Looney Tunes, a riff on Disney’s also-popular Silly Symphonies. When the original two animators walked on the series in 1933, taking all their intellectual property with them, Warner Brothers hired new personnel like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, who were the creative forces behind iconic shorts like Duck Amuck! and What’s Opera, Doc? and what we now recognize as the core cast of the Looney Tunes.

What set the Looney Tunes apart from the House of Mouse was their petty, contemporary swagger, purposely meant as a riposte to Disney’s squeaky-clean critters. The world of Walt Disney featured funny animals on slapstick adventures meant to be enjoyed by the whole family wholesomely. The Looney Tunes, on the other hand, were well aware of the fourth wall, riffed on pop culture and behaved as badly as they liked. In the hands of Jones, Avery and the murderer’s row of talent at Warner Brothers, Disney’s funny animals were no longer just animals.

Or, to put in another way, they were now animals of a different type altogether.

Robin Hood (1973)

Looney Tunes proved that funny animals didn’t have to be animals; Disney’s Robin Hood proved that funny animals didn’t have to always be funny. It also proved and continues to prove the one thing the entire Internet can agree on: that fox is a fox.

The reason why that fox is such a fox is two-fold. Firstly, theatrical actor Brian Bedford voices Robin Hood as straight as possible. Bedford’s Robin is a dashing, romantic hero, equally at home pulling cons in the name of justice as he is romancing Maid Marian by a waterfall to the sound of Nancy Adams’ crooning as they look longingly into each other’s eyes. 

Secondly, the film doesn’t dwell on the fact that it’s about anthropomorphic animals. While there are plenty of jokes that play on the characters’ species—elephants using their trunks instead of trumpets, for instance—not all of them are based on the idea that talking animals are inherently funny. There are honestly thrilling and poignant moments in the film. They just happen to be played out by a cast of anthropomorphic animals.

Adult-oriented work featuring funny animals in dramatic settings certainly existed prior to Robin Hood, such as Fritz the Cat and the work of Dan O’Neill, but it was largely limited to underground comix utilizing the idea for the shock value. Robin Hood’s great contribution to furry fandom—besides generating, by my rough guesstimate, all the furries—was that it was the first mainstream film to present funny animals as a genre-agnostic stylistic choice.

Animalympics (1980)

In 1980, furry fandom was just starting to coalesce out of science fiction fandom. At NorEasCon II in 1980, furry artist Steve Gallacci submitted a work of art featuring his feline soldier character Erma Felna to the art show. Interested attendees congregated around the piece and Gallacci, resulting in the first groups of furries regularly meeting at conventions through the early '80s to discuss works featuring anthropomorphic animals and trade art.

This “Gallacci group” eventually gained enough critical mass that it spun off into Rowrbrazzle, the first furry-focused amateur press association (think a fanzine, but more exclusive), in 1984. Sacramento’s WesterCon played host to the first unofficial and official furry parties in 1985 and 1986, hosted by fans Mark Merlino and Rod O’Riley, of the furry commune The Prancing Skiltaire. Slowly but surely, furries already in fandom for other reasons were discovering that they weren’t the only ones.

Animalympics was an important part of this stage in furry fandom. A parody of the Olympics featuring anthropomorphic animals commissioned by NBC for its 1980 summer Olympics coverage, it had a troubled release history. When President Carter boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics, the network only aired the Winter Olympics portion of the special. Both portions were turned into a theatrical release that debuted at the 1980 Miami Film Festival but was only released overseas that summer. The entire special finally came back Stateside in 1984, when it was aired on HBO and Showtime.

(Several members of the production team for Animalympics went on to bigger and brighter things: Lisberger co-wrote and directed Tron, art director and animator Roger Allers directed The Lion King, animator director Bill Kroyer wrote and directed FernGully, and animator Brad Bird became, well, Brad freaking Bird.)

This tortured release history meant that it dropped Stateside just as nascent furry fandom began to start meeting for room parties. Its all-ages humor meant for the Olympics audience appealed to furries fighting the assumption that anthropomorphic animals were “kid stuff.” It also boasted an incredibly diverse cast of animals, including many species that had not been anthropomorphized in animation before or since. It was definitely screened at the 1985 WesterCon party and went on to become a popular selection at furry parties through the decade, to the point that it’s nicknamed “The Rocky Horror of Furry Fandom,” as fans can recite dialogue from memory.

The Renaissance Age of Animation (The Mid-'80s to the Millennium)

The mid-'80s and '90s were considered a renaissance age for animation, especially television animation. Think about it: This spans the lifespan of the WB Television Network (rest in peace, Michigan J. Frog), the Disney Renaissance (The Little Mermaid to Tarzan) and the mainstream rise of anime in the United States. A little less than 50 years after they’d crafted the content that would snag the first furries, Warner Brothers and Disney were hard at work creating content that ended up delighting and inspiring a new generation of furries.

It all started with Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears in 1989, the first Walt Disney Animation Television production to develop real legs and net enough episodes for ruthless syndication. It was swiftly followed by the more popular Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, Duck Tales and TaleSpin, each more high-concept than the last. This all resulted in the Disney Afternoon, a two-hour syndication block that was nearly wall-to-wall anthropomorphic animals in any variety of genres: heartwarming family adventure, superhero riff, sitcom and whatever Timon and Pumbaa was supposed to be. Warner Brothers Animation, which had been limping along ever since it had been reopened in 1970, had a hit in 1990 with Tiny Toon Adventures, which was followed by Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. They even branched out into films like Space Jam and Cats Don’t Dance.

In short, this may be why millennial furries exist: sheer supply.

The Renaissance Age of Animation coincided with the dawn of furry conventions. In 1989, room party organizers Merlino and O’Riley helped organized ConFurence Zero in Costa Mesa, California. It was meant to be a test to see if an exclusively furry convention could work. Despite the slim attendance, the first official furry convention, ConFurence 1, was held the next year. When furries on the East Coast felt discriminated against by Philcon in 1994, they decided to hold their own convention, Furtasticon, which showed that there were enough furries on that side of the country to support a convention of their own. After fits and starts, Pittsburgh’s Anthrocon debuted in 1999, and went on to become the world’s biggest furry convention.

Becoming Their Own Demographic (2000 to Now)

The dawn of the millennium saw a steady increase in numbers in furry fandom, as those who discovered they were furries during the Renaissance Age of Animation found their kind online. These numbers led to the rise of both regional conventions such as Furry Weekend Atlanta and international conventions such as the UK’s RBW and Australia’s MiDFur. The rise of DeviantArt, SheezyArt and FurAffinity also provided ways for furry artists and writers to connect with each other and share their work in a space expressly designed for them. (FurAffinity is to furry fandom as Archive of Our Own is to media fandom.)

Of course, with increasing visibility in fandom came increasing visibility in mainstream media and in Internet culture that has ranged from disapproving to actively negative, to the point that even an xkcd comic pointing out the hypocrisy of geek culture treating furries like dirt nonetheless assumes all furries have a sexual fetish for fur. In my anecdotal experience, this seems to have calmed a bit in the teens. Not so much because people have calmed down about it, but more because Bronies are drawing the fire previously reserved to furries at large.

The aughts and the teens have continued to provide furries with more than enough material to keep them sated—Avatar, the world’s most forgettable $2.7 billion-grossing movie, was about sexy cat aliens, and Rocket Raccoon bears the furry standard in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the most important shift is that the companies that originally inspired the community all those decades ago are now courting their erstwhile children.

Disney’s Zootopia was destined to become a touchstone for the next generation of furries on release. It’s a cop story about a fox and a rabbit putting aside their prejudices to save the city of Zootopia, utilizing its anthropomorphic conceit to tackle issues of race and class in a massively accessible way. (Which makes it a lot easier to sell your non-furry friends and family on.) It’s family-friendly, but not expressly kids’ stuff, like DreamWorks’ Sing! And Nick Wilde sounds like Jason Bateman and looks like Robin Hood, creating consternation in non-furries who still nonetheless find themselves crushing on Nick. Essentially, it’s catnip for furries.

And Disney knew that because the original marketing push for the film had a firm reaching out directly to the furry meetup group Furlife to encourage them to share the movie on social media. Furries have gained such critical mass as a fandom that they’re being marketed directly to by the very things that they love, a far cry from the days of getting the side-eye from Philcon.

Over the course of the last 80 years, furries have gone from a niche among niches in science fiction fandom to a firmly entrenched fandom to their own marketing demographic. The future of furry fandom, like any fandom, is hard to predict, although their focus on original work does give them unusual legs (four of them? I’m sorry, I’ll stop) that media fandom lacks. So I can’t say for certain what’ll happen next.

But I can safely say one thing—whatever happens, this is all the work of Disney and Warner Brothers.