Attendance is up at Anthrocon, a conference boasting the world's largest convergence of human-like animal characters, now celebrating its 20th year.
Only about 15 percent of so-called “furries” dress up in full animal suits, although they’re the easiest to spot. Every year, thousands of members of the furry fandom convene in Pittsburgh attracting people who draw or dress as anthropomorphized animals.
With black fur and blue and purple accents, Saddle Cat has been coming from Chicago to Anthrocon for four years, and said he’s excited about the new blood. According to organizers, participation has grown from 2,400 to 6,300 people in the last 10 years.
“It almost seems more mainstream now that more women are getting into it," said Saddle Cat, who preferred not to give his real name. "Kids even, families are coming out, especially now that Anthrocon has its public parade. We see a lot of people and a lot more support for the community.”
For many years, the parade of fur suits was private. Yappy Fox, whose actual name is Randy Fox, created the event. At the first Anthrocon 20 years ago, he said vendors were stuck at their tables all day and couldn’t see the suits.
“There were only about 30 of us that year," he said. "I had a symbol, and we just marched through the dealers’ room.”
That tradition evolved until last year’s decision to take it to the streets.
“I wasn’t scared about it,” Fox said. “It was a questionable thing for the convention, because it was like, 'Do we want to venture into this?' We didn’t know if people could handle the outdoor heat. We didn’t know if the security would be a problem, so it was a scary adventure for logistics reasons."
Fox said there was also concern about how they’d be received by the public, but it couldn’t have gone better.
“Here were 5,000 people who have never seen us, and they were just in awe and fascinated and cheering us on," Fox said.
But there’s disagreement in the furry community about just how much the group should share about themselves with the public.
“There’s the idea that we have a nice thing going, and any attempt to go out and show ourselves in the media is only going to be bad for us," Rodriguez said. "But I’m more optimistic about that. And I think that the world is changing and different lifestyles are becoming more accepted."
At the local premier of his film in March, he said Fursonas holds up a mirror to the community and shows some other sides of furries – the stuff a lot of them don’t want to talk about, like how sex is a part of the fandom for some furries.
Perception is something the community takes seriously. Anthrocon even holds sessions about how to deal with the media.
“It’s been extraordinarily controversial,” said Rodriguez. “Furries are just really scared, scared they’re going to get a black eye from this movie. Time will tell. I just wanted it to be real.”
Rodriguez said he’s been banned from Anthrocon. Officials said last year he was caught filming without permission, which is against their strict code of conduct.
Furry Twidget said he’s not too curious about the film, which is screening down the street from the convention at the Harris Theater on Liberty Avenue the week of Anthrocon.
“There’s a lot of opinions about it," he said. "Some people really like it, some say it’s detrimental. I don’t know. I haven’t watched it, but I have heard about it.”
John Cole hasn’t seen it either and said he won’t. He’s the programming and events director for Anthrocon.
“We take the privacy and security of our attendees very seriously,” Cole said. “And we have had instances in the past where individuals have tried to come in and take advantage of the fact that many of our attendees are very open, and they’ve twisted their words around, and it’s hurt them.”
Cole said Anthrocon is a safe space for attendees to express themselves. While some furries, like Rodriguez, think the group needs to grapple with its evolving identity, Cole said changes are happening for the better.
“The imagination has gone up, because there are more tools that people can use to make costumes and be creative,” he said.
Skills like dance, which is a big part of the culture, are advancing, and there are more unique subgenres of furries evolving, like specialized artists, writers or even car enthusiasts.
“Every event is possible because the donated time or talent of the people hosting the event," Cole said. "Nobody’s being paid for this."
This weekend is Tennessean Tara Scott’s first time at Anthrocon, and her first time "suiting.” She said there are lots of aspects of the convention that she adores, like, "How welcoming it is, no one judges you, you walk around in a fur suit, walk around like, ‘Hi, hi,' and they’re really, very welcoming.”
Scott said she’s just attending to have fun and meet fellow hobbyists. She said she hopes to continue to be able to publicly share her love of being a furry, for a long time.