Steven Fredrickson gazes at the head longingly, absently tickling his chin with his fingers. He hails from Kansas City, and friends here know him as Nikon, the raccoon. "I want to try and get a fur suit," Nikon says to the man holding the head. "But mine is going to be rubber or prosthetic. I just overheat too easy."
Because of this overheating problem, he plans to get a "partial" -- fuzzy arm, leg and head coverings that tuck into shirts and pants to make a grown man look like an upright-walking animal in human clothes. Nikon hopes the suit will bring him a step closer to his dream. "People say it's the closest thing to transformation," he explains. Deep down, this 24-year-old man longs to be a talking raccoon.
It's the first night of the Howl, Growl and Purr, an annual camp out in Stanton, Missouri, for Midwestern members of the "Furry Fandom," an international consortium of people with a unique fondness for animals. The sky shows signs of rain. Nikon is dressed frumpily in shorts, sandals and a San Diego Padres hat. His T-shirt displays a buxom female raccoon with long, flowing hair -- the logo of a larger furry gathering: Chicago's Midwest FurFest. This small Missouri gathering has drawn furries, which members of the Fandom call themselves, from as far away as Memphis and Oklahoma City. Nikon's been planning this trip since February, when he put in for time off from the photo counter at an Eckerd drug store in Johnson County.
He's lingering at the edge of a crowd that's gathered on the porch of a KOA Kozy Kabin, looking for an opening in the free-roaming conversation. Dusk turns deep blue. A fellow near Nikon sports a pair of puppy ears jutting from a ball cap and a bushy tail that dangles over the porch rail he's leaning against. The deck's white Christmas lights are a decorative touch, courtesy of Tyger Cowboy, the organizer of this event. His real name is Christopher Roth, and he's a travel agent from St. Louis. Among furs worldwide, Tyger is an institution. He recently formed UniFURsal, an international fellowship built on the principal of unity in the Furry Fandom.
Tyger holds court from the center of the porch, tagging a punch line to each tidbit of conversation and flashing a human smile so solid it seems that it too is carved from Styrofoam. Nikon watches Tyger from the fringe, rubbing his hands together. His admiration is obvious. He seems deep in thought, searching for something witty to say, something that will make Tyger laugh.
"The BBC was going to come, but they couldn't make it," Tyger announces grandly. "But they want to pay for us to have another camp out this summer so they can cover it."
"Are you sure we want to do that?" a fur asks warily. Vanity Fair recently published a long article about the Fandom that zeroed in on Fox Wolfie Galen, a 39-year-old man who lives among thousands of stuffed animals in Pennsylvania. The reporter gained access to Galen's lair and discovered fuzzy toys with small slits between their little legs. "I look at his eyes, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, it's alive,'" Galen said of a stuffed raccoon he often has intercourse with. The article horrified Midwestern furs who'd granted interviews during the Chicago FurFest. They felt it did little to distinguish them from Galen, who represents a very small percentage of the Fandom. Nikon felt particularly burned; photographs he took ran with the article that hurt so many of his friends.
It's a sometimes contentious consortium, the Fandom, what with the devotees' divergent interests. Some are "fur-suiters," people who dress as mascots for public and private activities. Other furries, like Nikon, long to be transformed into humanized animals. Some in the Fandom explore more deviant interests: "Plushophiles" have sex with stuffed animals, and the "zoophiles" have sex with live animals. Most simply have sex with one another or with themselves, or they are merely nerds who love role-playing games, spend hours chatting on the Internet and occasionally download dirty pictures, albeit ones featuring human-animal hybrids. Skinny or fat, introverted or oddly melodramatic, they were the kids everyone picked on, the ones who found solace in fantasy books. The Fandom may be the first place they've felt welcome, yet they still fight: One group launched the scathing Web site burnedfur.com, calling for excommunication of the fetishists. Tyger's UniFURsal provides an oasis. Its motto is compassionate: "Offering our paws, hooves and claws in friendship."
Nikon doesn't visit Tyger as often as he'd like, certainly not as often as his other furry friends in Kansas City do. Only a dozen or so furs live in the metro area, and their efforts to meet regularly are hampered by pitiful consensus-building skills. So St. Louis is the place to go. On any given weekend, Tyger will open his home to furs from all around the Midwest. On a typical Saturday they'll follow him to the zoo to see his "furry community outreach" efforts (he dresses as a silly-faced tiger and hugs kids), then to Chris' Pancake and Dining for a formal dinner in tails and ears, then to a late night of full-fur-suit bowling. And there's always space to crash on the couch.
Tyger's St. Louis home boasts the best of furry art. In the living room hangs a painting of a mannish tiger with a massive, veiny hard-on exploding semen into the mouth of a kneeling lion. The home is also filled with stuffed animals, mostly white and orange tigers and brown rottweilers -- the breed of his mate, Robert Norton, better known as Spike. Above their bed droops a net with perhaps forty pounds of these toys, which furries refer to as "plush." The couple have brought several crates of plush with them to this KOA near the famous Meramac caverns of eastern Missouri. Fuzzy tigers and dogs adorn their deluxe Kozy Kabin. They're lined along the window sills, the dining room table and the mantel of the fireplace, where a larger rottweiler mounts the tail of an equally large white cat. On the bed are several fur suits: a lion, a snow leopard, a jaguar and a fang-bearing white tiger equipped with authentic taxidermy claws. The last is Tyger's best and it's just for furry events. He doesn't use it for his charity work, when he visits the zoo or sick little kids in the hospital. Such occasions are smiley face only. The total wardrobe cost several thousand dollars to amass and is nowhere near its completion. Spike is working on a muscular rottweiler outfit that, when it's done, will have cost at least $600. The furry tan fabric alone ran $65 per yard. He had hoped to have it done in time for the Howl, Growl and Purr, but the articulating jaw and battery-operated amplified speaking system are taking longer than expected.
Come tomorrow night, Tyger and Spike and a handful of others will don the costumes for a stroll through the KOA. "That's pretty much going to be the highlight of the weekend," Nikon says.
The first drops of rain wet a few fuzzy, pointy ears. The crew, some two dozen strong, parades to the KOA's Klubhouse. It's little more than an aluminum shed with a slab floor and a few plastic patio tables and chairs scattered around. Most everyone is giddy about their togetherness. A handful of the revelers shout inanities into walkie-talkies: "This is the emergency broadcast system," yells one, with a giggle; "Evil! Evil!" cries another; "Hi ho, Kermit the frog here!"
Nikon sits alone in a corner. He couldn't break into the conversation on Tyger's porch, and he now appears to be slipping into his "nobody likes me" mode. He pouts and nurses a quart bottle of IBC root beer. He bought four of them before he left Johnson County -- just 50 cents apiece at Eckerd. Rain rattles the metal roof. "I think our camping trip is cursed," he says, frowning to the person nearest him. "It rained last year too."
The furry at the next table nods and moves to livelier spot.
Nikon doesn't have a ride home from the Howl, Growl and Purr. Though several Kansas Citians are here with cars, he'll have to take the train. Keith Dickinson, a polar bear known as Hikaru Katayamma, had room in his cluttered SUV for just two Kansas City passengers. One was Pete Sylvester, a German shepherd who goes by the name Halex. The other is a "mundane" -- the furry term for someone not in the Fandom.
Nikon was lucky enough to score a ride down with R.C. Rabbit (a.k.a. Ian Johnson), a Liberty fur who plans to hang out for just a few hours and then move on to another engagement. On the highway, Nikon tried to keep contact with Hikaru and Halex via walkie-talkie, though the conversation was thin. On a few occasions Nikon attempted to punch things up.
"Quick!" he said at one point. "Shoot the tires out of that Walgreen's truck!"
Halex scrunched up his nose and turned to Hikaru: "What is he talking about?"
Hikaru rolled his eyes. "He works at Eckerd," he replied flatly.
"Oh, okay," Halex droned into the walkie-talkie. "Shoot at the Walgreen's truck. I get it. No Walgreen's. Walgreen's bad."
Silence from Nikon's end.
Later, when they reached a crossroads and a choice to turn east or west, Nikon tried a hand at sarcasm, suggesting they turn right and head for Springfield. "You go ahead and do that, Nikon," Halex said.
From the corner of the KOA Klubhouse, Nikon watches Halex. Sitting at a table full of furs, the twenty-year-old seems confident, in his element. He leans back and lights a Marlboro. In a cloud of smoke he barks a few words that can't be heard from Nikon's perch, but judging from the laughs at the table, they are on the mark. Young as he is, Halex has been in the Fandom for about as long as anyone here.
It all started when he was in his early teens, surfing the Net night and day. He was seeking a cheat code for the video game Sonic the Hedgehog when he stumbled into a chat room. "What species are you?" asked the faceless people in cyberspace.
"That's weird," he thought to himself.
But he decided to play along, hastily typing "wolf." Before long he was living a double life: teenage boy in suburban Detroit; libidinous wolf online. He played interactive games, chatted for hours and threw himself into virtual orgies full of part-human beasts. He started amassing an art collection -- drawings of anthropomorphic animals with exaggerated sexual parts. Gradually he noticed that most of the images he downloaded were male, so he deduced that he was gay.
By the time he was sixteen, the isolation got to him, and he decided to go forth and meet his furry friends face to face. Telling his parents he'd be staying with a friend, he lit out for a fur convention in Albany, New York, where he met his online boyfriend. It was a harrowing adventure, mostly because he'd left his Ritalin at home, and his sense of reality was bent. Plus, his boyfriend turned out to be insatiably horny -- a "yiff cat," as they say in the Furry Fandom. To "yiff" is to have sex, and a yiff cat likes to do it every chance he can.
Halex made it through, though, and eventually found himself at another furry event -- Feral, a camp out in the woods of north Ontario, Canada -- and there he felt at home. Since then, the Fandom has been his life. And aside from his wolf-to-dog transformation, he's just an average guy. Sure, he tells friends he's a German shepherd, but he doesn't actually want to be one someday. Stuffed animals don't arouse him, nor do living ones. He likes some of the sexy, furry art that's out there, but what keeps him coming back is the companionship. His network of friends stretches across the globe. This summer he plans to take a three-week road trip without a single motel stay: Furs will give him places to flop all along the way.
By contrast, Nikon is mired in insecurities. Isolation dogs him even in this room full of people who purport to be like him. He gives the party one last try, moving near a table where Tyger and Spike sit. He leans forward and presses a finger to his lower lip, listening to Spike talk of travels to New York and Chicago. Nikon scoots his chair closer to the table. He casually rubs his face. A laugh erupts across the room. A fur is tickling a fur.
March Hare, now without his raccoon head, waltzes in, his mullet waving in his wake. He sits between Tyger and Spike and presents a cute little stuffed raccoon. Nikon's eyes brighten: "Where did you get that raccoon? I've been having a hard time finding a good one."
March Hare shrugs. "In Arkansas."
Tyger leans toward Nikon and offers that there's a good selection of plush at the gift shop for the Meramac caverns, which they'll visit tomorrow. One of the camp out's two women sidles up to Tyger and gives him a "skritch" -- the furry term for a splayed-claw back scratch. Tyger lifts her shirt and blows a raspberry on her belly. By Sunday, she and a handful of other furs will earn a famed "Tyger Slurp": an unannounced wet lick from chin to forehead.
"So what is the plan for tomorrow?" Nikon asks Tyger.
"We'll go to the caves at about 10," Tyger replies, smiling his perma-smile.
"Fur suits at 5, I imagine."
"Yeah. That sounds about right."
"When do we have to be out of here?"
Tyger shrugs. Having just gotten here, he doesn't seem eager to contemplate the departure.
The conversation folds over Nikon. He looks down at his lap and his fidgety hands. Laughter erupts and he suddenly says: "If I'm in the way, I'll move."
"Why would you be in the way?" a mundane asks.
He pauses for a second, looking thoughtfully at the cement floor. "It happens," he says and moves back to his chair in the far corner.
Spike shakes his head and shrugs.
Nikon tilts back the last warm drops of root beer. A mundane takes a seat beside him and asks, "Are you having fun?"
"Gobs," he says flatly, pushing his crooked glasses a half inch up his nose. Then he gets up to leave, pausing for a second at the front door to look around the room. Everyone is chatting or laughing or singing or joking with someone else. They're all too busy to look up and bid Nikon good night.
The rain is gone, and the morning is green, bright with singing birds. Nikon ambles up to Tyger's cabin with a camera bag slung over each shoulder. Pinned to one is a name tag that says "Nikon" and shows a cartoon of a comely female raccoon with shoulder-length wavy hair. Nikon slept in a tent last night -- a mere seven bucks.
He says hello to Hikaru the polar bear, who is sitting on the porch steps with a tiger puppet on his right hand. A red T-shirt stretches across Hikaru's frame, and his blue jeans are held up with suspenders. Clumps of straight hair fan out from under his yellow ball cap, and his long beard is thin enough to offer a few glimpses of skin. Though he didn't sleep well -- "A futon is not a mattress" -- he's in a light mood, laughing with the first real friends he's had in years.
More than a decade ago, Hikaru transferred to Kansas City for his job, only to be mercilessly fired. Abandoned in a cow town he didn't much care for, he withdrew further and further from society -- working on his computer all day with the shades drawn in his Overland Park apartment, visiting movie theaters midday, midweek so as to avoid people.
He'd always had few friends. He grew up the son of an IBM worker, moving as often as a military brat. And he'd always been overweight, so when he showed up as the new kid time and time again, he faced endless taunting. Come moving time, his soul ached at the departure from the few friends he made, so he learned to keep to himself. It was easier just to play alone with his computer and listen to tapes of the Dr. Demento Show.
But after ten years of isolation in Kansas City, Hikaru was near a breaking point. A series of deaths -- first Madeline Kahn, then Charles Schulz, then Walter Matthau, then Alec Guinness, then, worst of all, his dad -- threw him into a deep depression. He got a therapist and started writing. Out poured a novel. It begins with a human character much like himself who has a car accident and awakens as a polar bear in a world populated by animals who walk on their hind feet and speak English. There, he befriends a skunk and a vixen, both of whom work in the porn industry. Hikaru continues to write it, having posted 111 chapters on www.ic-stories.com.
Soon his writing drew fans, one of whom was R.C. Rabbit, the Liberty fur. R.C. clued him in on the Furry Fandom and offered to accompany him to his first convention. Ever since, Hikaru has had an expanding universe of friends. In fact, furs revere him, not only in Kansas City, where he's one of the few straight furs, but Fandomwide. Tyger Cowboy embraces him as a confidant. People feel comfortable confiding in a polar bear, Hikaru says: "The bear is a healing spirit."
Judging from the sour look on his face, Nikon could stand to confide in Hikaru. His sense of isolation seems to have clung to him even in sleep because he stands alone again now, squinting into the morning sun. The other furries scamper about with morning energy. Nikon watches.
He hikes his camera bags up on his shoulders and stomps away. "Where are you going?" asks Halex, who is choking down his first smoke of the day. Though he ostracized Nikon yesterday on the highway, Halex genuinely cares about his little raccoon friend. They often play pool together in Kansas City. Nikon mumbles unintelligibly, and Halex shakes his head as he watches him go.
It looks at first like a run- of-the-mill roadside-attraction trinket shop -- fluorescent lights illuminating row after row of flotsam Americana: fake arrowheads, snow globes, corny bumper stickers, dream-catcher key chains. Several dozen yards back, the smooth walls and ceiling give way to rocky ones as the tile floor extends into the "famous" Meramac caverns. Red, yellow and green neon lights the entry, and a mirrored ball dangles high above. Nikon doesn't seem impressed. "Cave and neon?" he says.
But the climate suits him. "It's nice in here," he says, idly twisting the focus on his 35mm camera. Raccoons like cool, shady places, he explains. Most of the other furries in the tour group are cave and hole dwellers too -- tigers, bears, a rat -- so the mood is light. And randy. When the tour guide asks, "Are there any questions?" a yiff cat asks, "What's your phone number?" Nikon winces. Some of the banter bothers him. "Beavis and Butthead humor," he calls it. He's cautious of what he says because sometimes the others will twist it.
The group pushes deeper into the cave, pausing now and then for a lecture and joke by the tour guide. A camera flash blinds Nikon momentarily. "Ahh!" he screams, forgetting to be cautious. "You got a picture of me! Evil, evil you!"
Tyger snaps off another shot. Nikon screeches: "Tiggie, I want you to burn those pictures!"
They pass an underground stream, rippling calmly in orange artificial light. Nikon points his camera at it. "I wish I had brought my tripod," he says. "You could get some cool natural-light pictures in here." The sag is lifting from his walk.
The tour guide stops at a spot where an episode of Lassie was filmed. "Welcome to Hollywood," she says. "Is it everything you expected?"
"Yeah," Nikon quips. "It's dark. It's cold. And it's uninteresting." A laugh from the group! At last! He squints into his camera and clicks a few shots, his flash popping like fireworks. He giggles as a fellow fur reaches out to skritch his back.
They pause at a big cardboard photo of Lassie. The cavern tour formerly boasted a wax sculpture of the dog, but it dissolved in the high humidity.
"Are there any questions at this point?" asks the guide, who is in her teens.
"Are we allowed to yiff in this cave?"
There's a mix of laughs and groans. There's only one female fur in the tour party, which is thirty-strong today. She laughs at the remark. She seems thrilled to be surrounded by so many males. Every so often she throws herself on a random fur, hugging him and sliding down his torso as her shirt pulls up to expose the top of a leopard-print thong.
Nikon, suddenly bold, shouts, "Is there anything shiny down here?"
"Why do you want to know?" the guide asks, cringing.
"He's a raccoon," the group says in unison. Nikon beams. The furries have affirmed him.
"Oh," she says slowly, raising her eyebrows. "So, are you all, like, animals or something?"
The tour arrives at the treasure of the Meramac caverns: a deep nook bejeweled with stalactites and stalagmites. They're all afire with rock-and-roll lighting, dramatic reds and fiery gold.
"Ooh!" Nikon coos. "Shiny!"
He leaps forward and frames the scene in his viewfinder. Photography is his favorite hobby. "It's like a drug," he says. "I get an adrenaline rush when I do it, like when a runner talks about getting high. I get a runner's high. There's something about catching a specific moment in time. Photos are like little moments of life captured. Only a small percentage are excellent."
He aims at another stalagmite, a fat white one, and pops the flash. Lowering the camera, he pauses to admire the glistening surface. For a split second, his eyeglass lenses reflect the bright whiteness, wide as cartoon eyes.
As the group moves back toward the exit and the gift shop, another tour group passes by. A few of the mundanes spot makeshift tails dangling from the seats of some of the furs' pants and wonder aloud at the odd fashion trend. At the end of the tour, Tyger stops the group with a raised hand: "We've got fifteen minutes to go shopping, go to the litter box or a tree or whatever. Then we'll get together for lunch."
Nikon follows the rush to the shelf of stuffed animals. He spots a little raccoon. It fits in the palm of his hand, sitting up on hind legs as if begging for food. "It's cute," he says, turning it over to eye the orange price tag: $4.99. "That's not bad. I'll take it." He grins widely as the clerk puts the charge on his card.
On the ride back to camp, Nikon stares out the window at the eastern Missouri hills and reflects on life in the Fandom. Growing up a military brat, he moved a lot and never made many friends. "I was very much a loner," he says. Companionship's still not easy for him, but at least here in the Fandom he sometimes feels a sense of belonging: "This is one of the only places where I can relax."
Like Halex, he discovered furries during an online quest for a Sonic the Hedgehog cheat code. The Fandom sites he happened upon appealed to something deep within him. As a kid, he always had a fondness for anthropomorphic animals, the kind featured in cartoons. A favorite was Walt Disney's Robin Hood, in which woodland creatures were the stars.
He started out as a fox, calling himself Cannon. But he quickly abandoned that orientation. "Foxes are sly and crafty and oversexed," he explains. "And I'm none of the above."
The raccoon seemed a better fit. Like him, they're mostly nocturnal. They're into shiny things -- which for him carries a wide definition, including computer games and electronic gadgetry. "They like to manipulate things with their hands," Nikon says. "When I'm nervous, I sort of knead my paws like raccoons do.
"Raccoons have a curiosity about them. It's like everything is a plaything to them. I wish I could be like that. I'm too human. I just can't let myself go."
Some furs criticize Nikon because his character is a female. "They think I'm deceptive," he says. He has a hard time explaining why he is a girl.
"It's just another thing that feels right," he says. "To tell you the truth, I would rather be a woman in real life, but that's not going to happen. It's too money-intensive."
Besides, he says, he'd just as soon wait for the technology to come along to allow him to change species at the same time. If the technology and money were available, Nikon would make himself into a female raccoon. "I would do it right away," he says.
"I'd do it so I'm the size of a human," he adds in a small but short-lived concession to reality. He paws his chin and smiles at a better idea: "But I would prefer to be six inches tall."
He'd keep his human feet, his ability to walk upright. And, without a doubt, he'd keep his human intelligence. But he knows his new life wouldn't be as carefree as a cartoon's. "I've been thinking a lot lately of how impractical it would be," he concedes. "I could get stepped on. I might get attacked by others. But I think it would be fun and interesting."
He fears his new form would evoke deep prejudices, especially from fundamentalist Christians who might deem his actions satanic. "Christian groups would call me a demon," he says, "because man is created in God's image, so we have to stay that way. Personally, I don't care.
"To tell you the honest truth," he adds, after a moment of thought, "I would probably have to go on disability after I do this. I've been trying to think of things I could do for a living, but, frankly, there's just not a lot of jobs available for a small raccoon."
The only raccoon career that comes to Nikon's mind is in special military operations. Being so small and sneaky, he says, he could easily infiltrate enemy lines and save the day.
"The other major problem I'm trying to figure out is whether people will be able to hear me when I'm that small," he says earnestly. He's considering the possibility of implanting a small radio transmitter in his shrunken head. Barring that, he'd likely have to stand on people's shoulders to bend their ears.
But that's all years away. For now he makes do with his furry friends. "I wish I could have found them earlier," he says. "I had to wait until I got on the Internet to find the furries.
"I'm glad I have these guys around," he says, reaching out to skritch a pal.
Nikon lines them all up in his view-finder: a silly lion, a sleek black cat, a tall, grinning snow leopard, another leopard with yellow fur, a fuzzy bear, a sad-eyed hound dog, a fangy white tiger. Click! It's fur-suit time!
Tyger, in his longhaired, authentic-clawed white tiger suit, is parade marshal. "Let's go shopping!" he roars, muffled by his costume. The others form a line behind him, and they march off toward the KOA's dumpy little commissary. Running to catch up with them is a fox with his tongue dangling off the side of his snout and eyes as balloonish as a cartoon's. He wears a Hawaiian shirt. A train slides by in the distance, providing a click-a-clack beat for the procession.
A small family stands near the Kampground's bathrooms, staring. Mom hefts her child on a hip. "Ooh, looky there!" she says, gently grabbing her son's wrist and flapping his little hand. "Wave 'hello'!"
Dad stands at their side, long greasy hair poking from under his ball cap. He tries to stretch a smile across an expression that looks vaguely like fear.
Nikon runs a few paces ahead of the group, camera bag flopping at his side. He frames the oncoming migration and fires off a half dozen shots before he dashes ahead again. Tyger moves straight toward him, baring his claws at the lens. Nikon barely manages to snap the shot before he's skritched on the belly. He doubles over laughing, ticklish. "Eep! Eep!" he cries, reveling in the attention.
They burst into the KOA convenience store, tall in their head-to-toe fur. "Oh my goodness!" says the woman behind the counter. "We need a camera." She reaches out and snags a disposable unit from a display case.
It's dinner time, and a few adult couples are eating barbecued chicken. They look up, amused at first. Then, after a minute or so, they return to their food, warily eyeing the large animals milling between the shelves of toiletries and candy bars. The creatures' faces hold fixed, sculpted expressions -- Hanna-Barbera grins. Laughter dies down. Crowded with fur, the store is oddly quiet.
The KOA lady clicks a couple of pictures with her cardboard camera. "People won't believe this," she says, managing to keep her smile. "They're going to say, 'These people are eating in your establishment?'"
Nikon works fast, burning through several rolls of film in five minutes. And again he's ahead of them on the way out the door. There they meet a young woman in a bikini top, her eyes glassy and reddish. "Awright!" she says, nodding from her slouch. "I saw you guys walking up here. You look great!"
The black cat slides past her, his clean fur shiny under the late afternoon sun. "Oooh! I like the black panther!" she coos, not knowing the man underneath is wearing red lipstick and nail polish.
Outside Tyger's Kozy Kabin, Nikon bends over to grab another roll of film. His shirttail lifts up over the hem of his shorts, exposing a white blob of flesh. Tyger, mask off now, bends over and blows a raspberry on the flab. Nikon stomps and squeals: "I'm surrounded by mean furs!"
Already moving through the front door of his Kabin, Tyger calls over his shoulder, "Nikon, we wouldn't tease you if we didn't love you."