Weird Al’s version of “Born This Way” plays from an iPod attached to his chest—right next to a fish-shaped necktie—as Royce Cobblepot shuffles and flaps around the lobby of the Westin Hotel. It’s probably as close to dancing as one can achieve while having their hands and feet covered with plush flippers. “I just love Weird Al!” he shouts through a prosthetic snout.
Royce is the popular walrus attendee of Anthrocon, a furry convention held annually in Pittsburgh. In case you recently moved back to civilization from a secluded mountain cult, “furry” is, in the simplest sense, the pet name for a person who has an interest in anthropomorphic animals, which may also culminate in dressing up as a mascot-type animal.
Furries are also sometimes misunderstood, and, being a devoted fan of the (upcoming pun in 3…2…1) underdog, I wanted to spend some time getting to know one, and Royce was kind enough to oblige.
I didn’t register for the convention, so I couldn’t get all of the way inside to check out the panels and members-only events, but Royce was given the go-ahead to answer some of my questions in an effort to shed some positive light on this social subset that most people seem to think is synonymous with sex, like furrydom is the seedy underbelly of the cartoon porn industry; this is all thanks to media outlets like Vanity Fair portraying them on the whole as sex-obsessed. To be quite honest, I had never heard of the furry phenomenon until one fateful day in 2004 when I posted a picture of the Froggy radio station mascot and myself on my LiveJournal and jokingly wondered if there was such a thing as “mascot porn.” Someone commented and said, “Yeah, it’s called ‘being a furry.'” So this tête-à-tête with Royce Cobblepot was just as much to enlighten myself.
The fact is, there are always going to be people who can sexualize anything. It even happens with Harry Potter fandoms, yet people don’t automatically assume that someone who enjoys reading the Potter series must also be into writing fan fiction about Harry and Draco riding each other’s broomsticks during Nude Quidditch matches. And it’s OK to dress up as your favorite superhero and attend Comicon, but as soon as someone suits up as a purple fox and isn’t getting a paycheck for it from an amusement park or ballfield? Alert the sex police.
According to Wikipedia, the subculture is said to have originated at a science fiction convention, not the basement studio of some bored and desperate 1970s porn director looking for a new kink to sell some films. Growing up with a sci-fi novel obsession and love for cartoons with anthropomorphic characters are generally what seem to lure people into furry role-playing as adults. Royce himself credits cartoons and his love of stuffed animals as sparking his interest in anthropomorphism, but it wasn’t until he watched a documentary in 2004 on the The Learning Channel about the subject of animal impersonators that he decided to take his love of animals to the next level, thus seeking out a community where he could talk to other people who shared these interests.
In a scene ranging from half-suits (people who choose to wear only ears and tails) to full-blown animal fursuits (foxes, cats, and bears being the most ubiquitous as far as I can tell), it’s rare to see something as unique as a walrus, which was one of the reasons Royce chose this animal as his animal persona, (or ‘fursona’, as they call it)”, after originally joining the furry community as a were-bear named Furio.
“Walruses are such wonderful creatures,” Royce explains proudly as we sit together on a bench in the lobby. “When we see them in movies, they’re always personified as older, dignified gentlemen.” In fact, he was inspired by Karl Malden’s portrayal of the Walrus in the 1985 version of “Alice in Wonderland,” which is my favorite Alice film, so my interest is really piqued at this point. Royce tells me that there is enough furry inspiration culled from Alice in Wonderland that at another furry convention, he headed an entire panel on the subject: Furries in Wonderland.
Another inspiration was Royce’s very own grandma, who has showered him with support. He was even given his grandfather’s cane to accessorize his costume. My grandma only ever supported my body image issues and wavering self-worth, so I’m impressed!
Royce’s walrus get-up was a labor of love, from the donation of the cane to his friends and neighbors assisting with fashioning flippers out of regular old bedroom slippers and oven mitts. Royce worked with a Canadian prosthetic company to create the mask, which fits the contour of his face and moves along with his jaw when he speaks. He only gets the opportunity to don it about four times a year, at various conventions and showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in his hometown in Virginia. Royce typically only attends Anthrocon every other year in order to keep his character fresh and novel.
Our conversation is interrupted frequently as interested and curious people (even other furries who are presently disrobed of their fursuits) stop to compliment Royce on his get-up and ask for a picture, but I don’t mind because I enjoy watching Royce in his element. I’m also not surprised at the attention he garners, because of the furries I’ve seen around town, Royce is the most unique and eye-catching.
“Thank you so much!” he gushes when I tell him this. “But at the same time, that actually makes me sad.” He explains that while the attention is nice, he doesn’t want anyone to think that he’s better than anyone else out there, because they all work so hard on their personas, even if they only have ears and a tail to show for it. Royce stresses the fact that every furry has something unique about them, and that there is certainly no hierarchy in their community. “We all know that there is still a person under there,” Royce explains, and I find it kind of alluring how much love and respect flows freely within this community. “Everyone here has something to offer: one person is an amazing puppeteer, another person is a veteran. Many people here are involved with wonderful charities. One guy can play the most beautiful music spontaneously, without knowing how to read music, it’s the most incredible thing!” he gushes. So it’s a good thing that Anthrocon has a talent show, in which Royce and some of his friends participate.
Moments later, Royce blurts out, “Oh, wait until you see who’s coming—it’s my nemesis!” and together we watch the revolving door of the hotel as a slender fox in a tophat emerges. “Oh, he’s so dapper!” Royce gushes, and it’s clear that they’re not actually nemeses and that Royce has genuine admiration for the fox’s slick attire. It’s a shame that some people are too busy fixating on the negative aspects of furries instead of enjoying the artistry and ingenuity behind some of these costumes.
We’re walking down Liberty Avenue to visit Fernando’s Café, the first furry-friendly establishment in Pittsburgh. Four days a year, you’ll find chalk paw prints leading up to the front door, furry-centric items on the menu, and food served in dog bowls. Their name even temporarily changes to Furnando’s. But that’s not what makes the owner a legend in the Book of Furry: During Anthrocon 2007, Fernando himself stepped up and defended Anthrocon attendees in his restaurant from getting harassed by a local Pittsburgh meathead and wound up taking a brick to the head for it. The furries thanked Fernando later by raising over $20,000 to help him keep his restaurant when he was in danger of losing it. It’s a pretty sweet love story, if you ask me, and Royce wants to stop in to thank them again for their hospitality and support.
En route, we pass a bar on the corner of Liberty Avenue called Tonic, which offers outside seating in the warmer months. “Oh, these people just love us!” Royce says, brandishing a flippered hand toward the presently-empty line of tables. “People sit out there with their drinks and cheer at us and just have so much fun!” I’ve seen it too during the times I’ve hung out in front of the hotel to engage in one of the newer Pittsburgh sports called “Furry-Spotting.” It’s almost become somewhat of a game for downtown professionals to collect photos of themselves engulfed in furry embraces, which inevitably wind up on Facebook. But this is a good thing! Because if my city can (mostly) ignore the naysayers and have fun with it, then that has got to give the furries hope that they can win over others, slowly but surely.
Just outside of the cafe, we run into one of Royce’s best friends, Comus, who has experience in the animation industry. He is on his way to one of the many Anthrocon events taking place in the Convention Center, but is kind enough to stop and briefly chat with us. When I tell Comus that I’m not a furry, he hands me the schedule of activities to peruse, and I’m surprised at how much they jam into these four-day conventions—it’s almost like flipping through a small college course guide. There’s everything from financing (have you seen some of these furry get-ups? they’re not cheap) to Native American totems to puppetry skills. And yes, there is even a panel for all you bronies out there—adult men and women who love and relate to the cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic—which excites me because this is a whole other subculture that I find completely fascinating; I’m not shocked that there is a crossover between this phenomenon and furries.
I excitedly mention this to my fur-company, which leads into a brief discussion about the show’s cultural irony and clever adult-relatable storylines, so now I feel like I need to revisit My Little Pony. Because to me, these aren’t much more than plastic ponies I used to get in my Easter basket.
Inside Fernando’s, the walrus-sighting draws out employees from the kitchen. Everyone wants to either talk to Royce or take his picture, further exemplifying the appeal—to be just a regular person, working a regular job, but then have these moments every year when you’re such a hot commodity? I kind of want that. Especially when it quickly dawns on me that I am the only non-furry in this joint. The Fernando’s staff is actually looking at me strangely for not even at least sporting a tail and I have to laugh at the absurdity of the situation—and also marvel at the progression that my city has made in these last eight years of being Furry Headquarters.
While furries are quick to dole out hugs, shrugs, and photo-ops, many choose not to interact verbally with their un-furred fans. Royce, however, gives his walrus a more approachable edge by speaking affably with anyone who stops him.
“I think it puts people at ease,” he explains, after thanking an admirer for his accolades. I think of horror movie icons like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, mute behind their masks and communicating only through head tilts, chainsaws and machetes, and I’m suddenly very thankful that my new walrus friend isn’t answering my questions with blank stares.
While Royce’s avuncular voice perfectly complements his tail and top hat, touching his whiskers gets you a boisterously anthropomorphic “aarf,” which is a real crowd-pleaser!
Outside of Fernando’s, we encounter a furry in her human form who, like everyone else, is anxious to get her minute with Royce. She is here from Canada, and the two of them seamlessly fall into a conversation entirely in French. Afterward, Royce says to me, “Yes, I speak French—a little, and not very well!” So humble and self-deprecating.
Another reason some people might be drawn to anthropomorphism is the power and confidence that comes from shielding your insecurities beneath a mask. “Sometimes,” Royce explains, “finding an animal persona can bring out things in a person that they didn’t know existed.” I mention Robert Smith, the singer of my favorite band The Cure, and how I once read that the reason he wears lipstick and eyeliner is because he’s so painfully shy, and makeup is enough of a mask for him to be able to walk out onto the stage and perform. Royce agrees that there’s a correlation there. “I’m definitely a shy person,” Royce says, and admits that becoming a walrus has had a positive impact on his human side.
Royce is eager to talk about the oft-overlooked aspects of the furry fandom, the most important point being how it’s all about making people happy. He tells me about how his favorite moment of this year’s convention happened just the night before, when he danced with a disabled woman in a wheelchair. Her husband was even inspired to join in.
“How many people get to say they danced with a walrus?” Royce laughs, and I can see just enough of his eyes beneath the mask to tell that he’s tearing up a little at the idea of being able to leave some sort of imprint on someone’s life. That’s a pretty cool thing. And I think for a lot of Pittsburgh adults, it’s a chance for them to act like a kid again, running around on their lunch breaks, high-fiving neon bears and bunnies in bustiers. “I like the idea that I might be a special thing in someone’s life that they may never see again,” Royce muses. “At the end of the day, I’m tired and sweaty and my back hurts, but I’m laughing—I just love making people happy.”
When you break it down (and, if you’re a prude, ignore the “darker” side of the movement), furrydom doesn’t seem so “weird” or “creepy” after all. People dress up as zombies and gather in hordes because they like zombies. People volunteer at haunted houses because they like horror movies and scaring people. And no one says anything about them. And to all of the people out there who say things like, “I don’t want one of them hugging my child, knowing that they’re going to be having furry-sex”? Think about this: that broad who gave your kid a lollipop at the doctor’s office may have went home and banged her girlfriend later. Your kid’s third grade art teacher? She might have a closetful of whips and toys. Maybe your mailman goes to Revolutionary War Sex Parties. PEOPLE HAVE SEX. All kinds of it! Stop letting it affect you and go hug a fucking furry.
[These views & opinions do not reflect the furry community as a whole and should be regarded only as one individual’s experience as a furry. Thank you, Royce Tuxford Cobblepot, for your graciousness and time!]