"I made it for you," Relee Baysklef tells me, giggling. "I know you're interested in us furries, and I thought you might like to look the part when you report on us." The veteran squirrel has invited me into her Aerodrome lab (the palm-locks on her sliding doors are paw-shaped), and given me a mysterious envelope to drag over my avatar.
And when I do, my human head goes bulbous, my body goes round, my torso shrivels.
"Ahh there you go," Relee says, watching approvingly. "Shrink shrink shrink. Since your name is Hamlet, I thought you might like being a hamster."
In seconds the transformation is complete. As is my urge to pun.
"It's got a little hamster tail," Ms. Baysklef points out, "and the head, but otherwise normal."
"FUR GOD'S SAKE!"
Relee just giggles more.
Then I notice the hirsute nub growing out of my backside.
"What's this thing sticking out my back? Looks like an extra vertebrae!"
"That's your tail! Hamsters have really little tails. Some folks have argued with me that Teddy Bear hamsters, which look like you do now, have pointy tails. I'm used to golden hamsters, which have rounded tails." She takes a photograph of me in full fur. "You look good with your suit on."
I stand there for awhile, trying to find the words to describe the experience of looking at this new avatar of mine.
"This feels totally bizarre, I have to say." And it is. "I don't, well, I don't feel like me." And I don't. I do feel like myself, so to speak, when I'm in my default Hamlet Linden avatar, who looks like me. (At game/high tech conventions, in fact, people often recognize me by my Second Life avatar.) I even feel like myself when I'm in my Hunter S. Thompson avatar. (Since that's someone I admire, and feel I understand.) But this, for me, well-- this feels like something else entirely.
"Yeah," Relee is saying, "most furries make their own avatars, it's a very personal experience."
I've known Relee as a Resident for well over a year now, and her scripting skills have been a subject for this space. But I've never asked her about the furry subculture, or the small but active sub-subculture of furry Residents in Second Life, that she belongs to. But now that I've temporarily taken on this form, she somehow feels more comfortable expressing who she is. So up there in the suborbital Aerodrome, far above Second Life's gravitational pull, in a room with an Internet radio channel streaming ambient downtempo breakbeats around them, a giant hamster and a giant squirrel hang out, and chat.
The reason most furry Residents make their own avatars, Relee tells me, it because there's "a spiritual connection to animals, or a specific animal. Sometimes it's just fascination. But usually it's confined to a few animals rather than just animals in general. For example, I'm a squirrel. Tiger Crossing is a Tiger. Some furries are more fluid though, like Arito Cotton who has been a dragon, a fox, and a bat."
"Do you feel a spiritual connection to squirrels, if I may ask?"
"Yes, in a fashion. For me, it's just the way I feel inside, something I'd like to be. But not necessarily a real squirrel. A popular definition of a furry is someone who has a special connection with an animal, real or imaginary... I'd really like to be a cartoon squirrel. Some furries would hate to be a cartoon, though."
I ask her when she began to feel that desire.
"Hmm..." She stands there awhile, thinking. "It's hard to describe. It's been years now, but I've been a furry longer than that. It takes a lot of time to really find yourself, and I'm always learning new things about myself. 'Why a Squirrel?' is a big mystery. I've always felt a sort of affection for them, and when I started looking like one in my fantasies, it just sort of clicked...
"I'm a furry in real life, though we have some limits as to what we can do in real life... I'm rather tall and overweight in real life. I like to be small and cute, when I can be. My real body feels awkward and strange compared to the body of my fantasy... Like most furries, I can't remember ever being different. I've always had a sort of connection with animals, since I was a kid playing animals with my friends. And 'anthropomorphic animals', as furries are sometimes called. Human-like animals."
"Cartoon animals, in other words," I suggest.
"Yeah, but not neccesarily cartoons. There are werewolves in the furry community. Otherkin..." A quick glance of publicly registered Second Life groups suggests that the in-world subculture is at least several hundred Residents strong. But as Relee tells it, this is not surprising. "[Real world] furry conventions often have over a thousand people visiting, and furries tend to be computer nerds... Well," she adds, "except for the Indian shaman types..."
"There are a lot of Indian shamans who are furries?"
"I don't know about a 'lot', but anyone who has a connection to animals can find themselves furry. Totemists included. They might not think of themselves as animals, or want to be like animals, but they respect and revere totem spirits."
I tell her that I'm having a hard time picturing, say, an actual American Indian shaman dressed up as a pink rabbit or whatever in the hotel lobby hosting a furry convention.
"Oh, some do," Relee insists. "Like my friend John-Racoon. [Not his real name. - HL] Of course, there are some stereotypes that you get when you think of American Indians. I know quite a few and they're mostly down-to-earth folks."
"Of course," I say.
Earlier I told her that I've been wanting to write about Second Life's furry Residents, and she has some advice if I were to go forward.
"Now that I think of it," she says, "there is one thing you'll want to avoid when talking with furries in general. A lot of furries consider themselves apart from the human race, and when someone says something like 'We're all human behind the keyboards' they take serious offense... Not many, but the ones who are offended at that will take it very serious. Particularly otherkin, who are also furries. Dragons especially."
"'Otherkin' are non-furry animals?"
"Otherkin are people who are not human, or have a non-human soul. Elves, Changelings, Dragons, that sort of thing. Not all furries are otherkin, and not all otherkin are furries."
"And dress up as such in real life?"
"Well they don't really need to dress up," Relee answers. "They really are those things. While it's debatable, most of them do have mutations or chemical allergies that match the myths and legends of their mythical connections."
"Like Dragons have scaly skin from eczema, for example?"
"Yeah." Relee Baysklef nods. "Things like that. It's a spiritual and religious thing for some people, and they aren't happy when it's questioned. Other people are happy to talk about it. If you go up to a bunch of different furries, you'll find they have a lot of differences. Like all people have differences."
I've been steering around a potentially sore subject, but build up the gumption to approach it square.
"You know," I begin, "one reason I haven't written about furries is because any article will inevitably open up the community for public ridicule." In fact, members of another Internet-based community recently came into Second Life en masse, and many of them declared open season on Second Life's furries.
"Well, it wasn't THAT bad really," Relee amends, "but a lot of furries are shy and can't handle the pressure of people teasing them. Most members of that goon squad were reported for abuse and banned from Second Life, of course." For my own part-- and I owe Reuben Linden for inspiring this point-- if it's a little odd that some people go in-world so they can be anthromorphic personae, it's even stranger when another group of people go in-world to make fun of them, for doing so. Since to do that, after all, they also have to go online and take on an alternate form, themselves. (Stranger still when the ridiculer's chosen avatar is much more physically attractive and far less imperfect than they really are, offline.)
"I doubt anything you write could be worse off than some of the publicity the furry community has gotten," Relee assures me. "Furries groan as they mention "CSI", Vanity Fair, and MTV's furry documentary."
"Can you understand why some people find it something mock-able?"
"Oh, of course. What we do is pretty silly, and different from the norm. It's natural for people to shy away from change. Us furries tend to be strange or exceptional people. In many ways not normal, for good or ill." Then again, she adds, "Not all furries find it silly, or understand how anyone could say that it is, even though it is. Most think it's just rude."
Relee had actually created my own personar hamster avatar for me a few weeks before she could pin me down online to try it on.
"Are you excited?" she asks.
I laugh a little awkwardly. "Well, it's different, that's for sure."
"Don't be too surprised if a lot of people start hugging you," Relee Baysklef warns me. "A lot of furries love to hug!"
No doubt they do, and more power, as they say, to them. But it's plausible that I'll politely refrain from any furry-based embracing, in the future.
Because if you want to know who you really are, one way to find out is to try on a role that is decidedly not you. Relee Baysklef takes on the form of a squirrel, and feels a connection to a form she's always wanted to be. Hamlet Linden takes on the form of a hamster, by contrast, and feels, for example, like he's walking around in public wearing a scuba diving suit made out of lime green sandpaper. And while there's really nothing wrong with publicly wearing a lime green sandpaper scuba suit, nothing wrong at all, I still wouldn't quite feel like myself inside it. I'd also worry that people would form their impression of me just from the scuba suit, and not on who I really am. I want Hamlet Linden, I decide right there and then, to keep on being a slightly idealized version of who I am in real life; I want people to see a version of how I see really myself, or want myself to be seen.
Valuable things to learn, if you can stand to have the nubbin of a tail sticking out your backside for a time.