© August 23, 2008
By Greg Gaudio
The man once known as Charles William Farmer said he doesn’t feel completely at home among people. Since childhood, he’s believed he shares a stronger bond with lions.
He says the contours of his face and his shaggy mane of brown hair make him look like one. And that he identifies with values he associates with the animal: “solitude, trying to stay in control of things, always trying to do right.”
So much that there are times when you can find him grunting, growling and prowling through his Chesapeake home in a custom-made lion suit.
Three years ago, the 43-year-old auto body repairman had his first name legally changed to Simba, after the lion cub character in the 1994 Disney movie “The Lion King.” He changed his last name to Lyons.
Later, while surfing the Internet, he learned he wasn’t the only one who’d created a second identity based on a favorite animal. “I found my family,” Lyons said.
It’s known as the Furry Fandom, an international subculture bound by an obsession for walking, talking animal characters. Followers create “fursonas” for themselves and are called furries or, simply, furs.
“That’s how they’re able to become what they feel inside,” explained Lynne Hanlon, 54, Lyons’ nonfurry fiancee . “That’s who Simba is. So I encourage him, if that’s what he wants to do, to act out his lion persona.”
The furries assemble – often in costume – at conventions across the country. The largest gathering, Anthrocon, lured about 3,400 furries to Pittsburgh this summer, according to its Web site.
By comparison, Hampton Roads meets are low key. The 20 or so active members of 757-Furries of Virginia, a group Lyons helped organize last year, get together once a month at Zino’s Cafe in Chesapeake. They have a few beers and talk video games, art and cartoons.
“Most of us, we think they’re totally awesome,” waitress Carolyn Thompson said, “but some of the guests do kind of look at them like: What in the world?” She said the restaurant’s never had complaints.
Eight of the 757-Furries agreed to meet at Zino’s for a group interview – and explain the hobby that so often earns quizzical looks and raised eyebrows from a not-so-furry public.
“Compare us to the Trekkies,” says Talyn, a 28-year-old “wolf” who is really engineer Scott Williams.
“But with 'Star Trek,’ there’s one thing to relate it to,” puts in Totem, a fennec fox, birth name Joey Lawrence. “If you’re a fur, there’s no one thing to relate it to. People can’t make sense of it.”
The 27-year-old security guard says “a lot of the misunderstanding comes from career-minded adults asking: Why are people this age doing this?”
The reasons range from lonely childhoods to traumatic events.
“These are the only friends we had when we were growing up,” Talyn says of the cartoon characters he watched as a child.
“Some people crack open a beer, some people sit in front of the TV. We’re like, Let’s go watch 'Kung Fu Panda.’ ”
“My other half happens to be a furry, and our outlook on it is pretty much the same,” explains Yami, another “wolf,” better known as 23-year-old truck driver Adam Barefoot. “You can call it a lifestyle. It’s part of who we are. It gives us an escape from the daily BS and rigmarole.”
For Lyons, it was an escape from painful memories: not knowing his biological father as a child and being held at gunpoint when he was 29.
“Coming up, I had a hard life . Lions were always strong and dominant. They helped me get through a lot of troubles, just kept me strong.”
Lyons wears one of the most elaborate costume of the bunch. He has paws on his hands and feet, a lion T-shirt and a lifelike headpiece with a moving jaw.
“It’s a pretty good partial,” Talyn tells him.
A full fursuit – essentially a customized mascot outfit – usually runs about $2,000, so most in the group opt for something simpler, such as a fluffy tail fastened to the seat of the pants.
Dress like that in public?
“The more sensible ones don’t,” Talyn says. “It’s basically: How much flak are you willing to take?”
When the local furries do go out in character, for the occasional amusement park or bowling outing, people tend to shoot them disgusted looks and hurry small children away, they say.
“They think there’s a very large sex thing going on, and there’s not,” Talyn says.
The seamier side of the Furry Fandom – sexual behavior involving animal costumes and stuffed animals – has grabbed media attention in recent years, most notably as the subject of a 2003 episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” The episode showed attendees at a furry convention engaging in a costume-clad orgy.
“It would be a lie to say there’s not an adult aspect to it,” Talyn says.
But, he stresses, that only involves a tiny percentage of furries and is not something that’s part of the local scene. Furries also have faced resistance on religious grounds.
“People think it’s paganistic,” Totem says. “But it’s not a religion or an occult group. There’s no idols to worship. We leave religion out of it completely.”
Totem practices Wicca, a modern interpretation of Northern European pagan beliefs. That doesn’t bother Osee DeSantis, a Christian “dalmatian” whose cross pendant dangles beneath his electric blue dog collar.
“How do I reconcile being a furry and a Christian? It’s pretty difficult,” says Osee, who is otherwise known as 23-year-old Christopher Mays, an employee at a pet supplies store.
“I don’t hide it that I’m a furry within my church, and I’m more involved with my ministry than I am as a furry.” His church, which he declines to name, has been accepting, he says.
Acceptance, the local furries say, is the main thing they seek when they gather with one another.
“It’s one of the few times you can say you have a family that’s 100 percent accepting of who you are,” Totem says. "You can feel free to be yourself without fear of being persecuted by other people,” Yami adds.
“It’s like: Let’s all be weird together,” Osee says.
Weird, yes. But not delusional.
Balancing their furry-ness with real lives and jobs isn’t a problem, they say.
“We’re not obsessed to the point where we don’t function outside of it,” Talyn says. “It just makes you feel like the animal for a short time.”