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  • Writer's pictureMadeleine West

‘Sometimes I like to dress my avatar in a furry costume…other players tell me I should kill myself'

‘Sometimes I like to dress my avatar in a furry costume…but other players tell me I should kill myself.’

The 12-year-old before me sees my jaw drop.

‘But it’s ok! When you get told you’re a ‘sicko’ and ‘deserve to die’ enough times, it doesn’t hurt anymore’, she reassures me.

I speak in schools, I teach in schools, I’m a mum. I talk to kids constantly, and as a novice gamer, I speak their language. As an in-school educator on online trust and safety for Safe on Social, disclosures like this are coming thick and fast, and more and more shocking.

Debate over the ‘Furry’ community is at fever pitch right now thanks to reports of kitty litter requests in classrooms for children identifying as pets, and widespread claims of students ‘barking’ to intimidate others. But the issue is nowhere more present than online.

I’ve observed furry fandom from the sidelines for decades. Defined as a subculture interested in anthropomorphic animal characters exhibiting human intelligence and facial expressions, speaking, walking on two legs, and wearing clothes, the term furry fandom is also used to refer to the community of people who gather on the internet and at furry conventions.

Contrary to popular belief, furry fandom isn’t just a ‘now’ culture, it actually laid roots in the 1970s, picking up steam with the increasing popularity of human/animal hybrids in manga and anime, and even later on in popular films such as Space Jam. During the ‘80s, furry fans began to publish fanzines and by 1989, the first furry convention, Confurence, was held with great interest. It’s no surprise that the next decade brought furry fans to the internet to socialise.

Broadly speaking, the furry community is divided into three distinct but not exclusive categories:

Furries: folk who have an interest in anthropomorphic animals.

Therians: someone who believes from a young age that they are an animal trapped inside a human body.

Otherkin: those who believe they are not entirely human.

Furries are often maligned as practicing zoophiliacs however many furries emphatically dispute any connection, citing their adoration of animals as evidence that they would never seek to harm them.

Early features on furries such as in Vanity Fair, and even on the Simpsons, focused mainly on the sexual aspect of furry fandom. Indeed, there is a portion within the culture who wear specially constructed murrsuit furry costumes to engage in sexual trysts with other suited up consenting adults however, the majority of furry fans claim that most media portrayals are inflated misconceptions.

Reporters attending Anthrocon 2006 noted furry conventions are mostly about people talking and drawing animals and comic-book characters however, that does little to mitigate the fact that furries are quite possibly the most misunderstood and vilified archetype online and IRL. Like anything different, it’s attracting haters by the thousands, mostly online. And those who demonstrate solidarity with the culture, particularly teens, are squarely caught in the crosshairs.

‘Yeah, there’s a boy in year 6 who calls himself a Furry Hunter’, miss 12 shared. ‘There’s lots of them online. Anyway, he told a girl in my class he wanted to murder her and rape her dead body’.

Furry Hunters count themselves amongst the ranks of any furry hunting/killing regiment or group or have an extreme hate for furries. They boast their own flag, and their online voice is increasingly loud with their war thus far being restricted to keyboards and TikTok videos.

‘I know people get annoyed with kids barking in class or at each other, but that’s not a good reason to threaten to kill them’ bemoans my new friend.

When suited up online, her avatar is immediately assailed with threats and actual physical assault. Visiting Brookhaven, the role-playing world wildly popular with the primary school crowd, she receives requests to style for furry skin in certain ways She attracts invitations into chat rooms to be other characters’ pets and lay with them, be laid on, and engage in sexual acts. Incensed, I logged onto the Roblox game ‘Rate my avatar’ and invested some serious Robux in a wolf suit. And before I could count ‘3…2….’ the insults began:

‘ I hate you’

‘You are the reason I’m scared of animals’

‘Aren’t you embarrassed? Your parents must be so ashamed’

‘Sicko. You like f&@$ing animals do you?’(I immediately reported that one).

‘Just kill yourself…hey let me help you do that’’

This is not unique to Roblox. Characters presenting as animals in RPG games attract heinous derision, and in Murder Mystery games, furries are sought-after targets. So, what does this say about us as a society? It suggests that we have a growing problem on our hands, exacerbated by media stereotypes and propaganda, the hysteria noise silencing the online predatory behaviours.

For children, their online persona is like an extension of themselves. When that character is admonished, belittled, threatened, or physically assaulted, they feel it and the lines between the real world and the online world are increasingly blurry. Just last year, a US gamer was killed IRL after he tea-bagged a dead opponent’s body during a game of Call of Duty.

In 2021 and 2022, media coverage in Canada and the United States spun fake news about litter boxes being provided for furries in classrooms, which now appears to be part of a cultural backlash against efforts to accommodate trans and binary-gendered students in schools. Like most reports giving rise to the hysteria, when the US sneezed, Australia caught cold. A much salivated-over case reported in Victoria of a group of furries being granted kitty litter has since been clarified. It was in fact a young girl who requires a kitty litter tray for her support pet who helps her combat serious trauma-related anxiety.

There is definitely some weight to concerns that online requests for kids to send photos of themselves in homemade animal costumes has the potential to add to the already rising child exploitation material trade. This very real threat cannot be dismissed, but awareness, education, and a preparedness to have uncomfortable conversations and keep up with our kid’s online engagement is key.

Our habit of pointing the finger at others seems to be part of a greater social issue we are quick to cast rash judgments on. So, what is the solution?

You can start with the three C’s:

Communication. First and foremost, talk to your kids

Consent. Teach them to never be pushed into doing something they don’t feel comfortable doing.

Comprehension. Helping them understand that everything they do online makes up part of their digital footprint. This will exist online FOREVER.

This is not me having a fangirl moment for the furry cause, it’s simply saying 'Different strokes for different folks'.

Diversity is key to culture and the cornerstone of evolution. It’s time to take Grandma’s advice and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. That is never truer than online. We’ve an obligation to role model healthy online engagement, and that means if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it with your phone.


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