Photo by Karolina Spolniewski
For Berlin’s community of furries, animal roleplay isn’t about sex – or even about costumes.
A parade of fur-covered, masked characters stroll across the greens of Gärten der Welt in Marzahn. The sky is grey and threatening to rain, but dispositions among the group are sunny. How could they not be? Whether a fox, a ferret, a neon bunny, a cat or a dragon, their head pieces can’t convey more than one emotion – joy. On this chilly October morning, they make the park’s other visitors happy too. Some spin on the playground carousel to the delight of little kids; others dance with elderly ladies on a dancefloor set up for a garden fest later that day. Only one or two Berliners cast a suspicious eye at the “suitwalk” participants. Who are these costumed vagrants? Isn’t this some kind of sex thing?
Well... not really. These are furries, members of an anthropomorphic clan that live out animal identities through real-life (or online) avatars, or “fursonas”. Berlin happens to be a hub for the niche community. Aside from the 70 or so furries registered in the city according to the database furrymap.net, since 2014, the city has hosted Eurofurence, Europe’s biggest annual furry gathering and the longest-running one in the world (some of the profits go to animal charities). Last year’s “Back to the ‘80s”-themed gathering drew in approximately 2500 furries of all species to Neukölln’s Estrel Hotel for socialising, dancing and “suitwalks” aplenty.
There’s a lot of hugging going on in the fandom,” admits Tierce Wanderfalke, a 24-year-old peregrine falcon.
One participant was born Berliner Tzyko Fox (born Lars), aka Fuxi. As you might guess, he’s a fox – he came to identify with the animal at age 18, a few years after coming out as gay. “I simply felt like I had the characteristics of a fox,” the 24-year-old S-Bahn worker says by way of explanation. A tattoo on his (human) skin reads “5% Mensch, 95% Fuchs”. It wasn’t until age 20 that he came across the term “furry” on the internet, and 22 until he joined the pack. He now owns two full fox suits, both custom-made for him in the US for over €2000 each.
During a brisk walk through Volkspark Schönholzer Heide near his home in Pankow, he passes enthusiastic children pointing out the giant fox, smiling morning walkers and owners with their dogs, most of whom are absolutely befuddled by the two-metre canine-like creature, barking and running circles around him. Fuxi is unfazed. Some people laugh, and that’s also just fine for him. “They laugh when they see me, but whether they laugh at me, or they laugh with me, it doesn’t matter. They are laughing.” Fuxi remains humble about the attention – it’s just part of the package.
As we’re surprised to learn at a Friday night furry Stammtisch in October, owning a suit actually makes Fuxi a minority among Berlin furries. Among the 60 or so people gathered at P Two in Hellersdorf, no one’s wearing a suit. The crowd ranges from early-20s to late-40s and is mixed-gender, although there does seem to be quite a few gay men. Aside from lots of cutesy squeaking noises, it’s pretty much a gathering of tight-knit, obsessive hobbyists. And an open one at that. A young, unassuming German goes around introducing himself to strangers as “Puschel”, explaining he’s halfway through making his own fox suit.
'It was love at first sight, twice,' Fuxi says through his mask in less-muffled-than-expected German. But no, he says, the two of them don’t wear their suits during sex.
“They’re really expensive,” says Felix G., whose fursona is a skunk named Pepe. Neither he nor his boyfriend, a cat called Tsuki, have suits but both are active in the community, using online cartoon avatars to interact on the 140-member “Berlin furry news” chat group and the web forum Furbase. In total Berlin furries claim anywhere from only 10 to 40 percent of furries actually own suits, and the ongoing, self-selecting worldwide survey at furrypoll.com clocks in just 20 percent of furries being “fursuiters”.
Riccardo Kolb has identified as a furry for two years now and still doesn’t own a suit. Nor does he think he will be able to afford one in the near future. But it’s nonetheless a part of the 18-year-old’s identity. “It’s almost all pure fantasy,” he says, brushing his emo bangs out of his eyes. The young pup stumbled upon a strange wolf cartoon when he was 16 and spent the whole evening opening up the fandom for himself, the way other teens discover heavy metal. Over time he started chatting with community members, mostly on Facebook, and began developing his own fursona, incorporating the idealised qualities of what his life should be like.
“What’s great about it is that even though you’re behind a ‘mask’, you can somehow be more open. The mask protects you, so you can be what you want.” After networking long enough, someone graciously offered to illustrate his fursona, a grey, chiseled and very well endowed wolf with turquoise stripes in cut-off jeans. “Sliver” looks like a variation on a cuddly, sexy superhero.
So what about sex? The term “yiffing” is the most commonly recognised word for it, taken from the sound a fox makes (and by the way, furries are really sick of references to that Ylvis song). “There’s a lot of hugging going on in the fandom,” admits Tierce Wanderfalke, a 24-year-old peregrine falcon. But most were quick to point out that the scene’s sexual aspects have been highly overemphasised by the media.
“Let’s put it this way,” Fuxi says. “If you put any large group of people together, some of them will start having sex with one another. It’s just what people naturally do. But it’s not really essential to the fandom.” He himself is currently in a long-distance relationship with a Dutch husky named Hunter, whom he met at this year’s Euroference. The two first encountered each other in-suit. “It was love at first sight, twice,” he says through his mask in less-muffled-than-expected German. But no, he says, the two of them don’t wear their suits during sex.
With its emphasis on multiple identities, furrydom clearly has a queer element to it, something Fuxi acknowledges. “Yeah, there are a lot of bisexual and gay male furries, as well as bisexual and lesbian women. But I always just took that as the way it is, and never really asked why.”
As he leaves the woods of the park, he waves at a passing honking auto on the way back to his van. A sticker on the back reads “Fuxi”, and he proudly tells us his fursona is no secret. “In Berlin, there are a lot of quote-unquote ‘strange’ groups running around,” Fuxi says. “Berliners are used to it.”