This year’s World Cup has left us with plenty of memories, but a subculture known as furries have found a whole new icon. Benjamin Cook investigates
“For a lot of furries I think it really starts with Disney,” Thomas* tells me, “I watched the Lion King so many times as a kid I wore the tape out. For a friend of mine it was Sonic, but I’ve never really seen the appeal there.”
Thomas can pinpoint the exact moment his affection for Simba turned from childhood obsession into something more erotic. As a teenager bored on a family holiday, he picked up a pen and paper and decided to draw the most shocking thing he could think of. Simba – the Disney lion he’d shared so many precious moments with – ejaculating.
“That’s where it started.”
Thomas has been proud to call himself a furry for almost a decade now. A furry is someone who is interested in anthropomorphic animal characters – animals who speak, walk, and act like humans. Some furries role-play as animals (their “fursonas”) which might involve using the animal as an avatar online or dressing up in a costume.
“When I was young I believed that furries were bad,” Thomas says now. “I really internalised that. I wouldn’t have wanted my friends to make fun of me.”
Furries are a group that is often met with anything from derision to outright hostility by the wider public, but Thomas has found the community to be diverse and accepting.
“There is no right way or wrong way to be a furry,” he says. Like Thomas, many furries talk about the influence that seeing anthropomorphic characters in films, cartoons, and video games had on them during their childhood and teenage years.
“Growing up I used to play Spyro the Dragon for hours. I used to go to sleep dreaming about it,” another furry, Chris, tells me, “I used to come up with all these characters and that’s what I’m still doing.”
The community’s become notorious across social media in recent years because some in the furry fandom venture into the erotic. A number of furries who maintain a presence online create explicit furry artwork – which is called “yiff”.
“It’s not that I think Spyro is particularly attractive,” Chris explains, “It’s just the rush of breaking a taboo like that. I came across some artists online who had put him in some ‘compromising’ positions, and it just did something for me.”
“I’m bisexual but at the time I wasn’t ready to face that. Having Spyro in positions, exploring that, helped me coming to terms with my sexuality.”
It isn’t necessary to be sexually drawn to anthropomorphic characters to be considered a furry – but it’s not an uncommon trait. Surveys have found “sexual attraction to a furry character” is crucial to anywhere between thirty and seventy percent of furries’ experiences.
Thomas creates yiff, and he is used to being approached by strangers over the internet. Via Patreon, fellow furries who enjoy his work pay to support him. Recently, he has come to my attention because he is one of thousands of furries who have “yiffed” Zabivaka the Wolf, the mascot for this year’s FIFA World Cup.
You’ve likely seen Zabivaka dozens of times by now and immediately forgotten. Plastered on mugs, hovering in the background of all those pre-match handshakes, or posing for photos with one giant arm around Ronaldo.
Like Fuelco the Armadillo (Brazil, 2014) and Zakumi (South Africa, 2010) before him, for most people Russia’s wolf mascot Zabivaka is almost instantly forgettable, a small speck of an even larger spectacle. You see through him, focusing on everything else.
Not Thomas though.
“When they released the news that Zabi was going to be the mascot there was a wave of excitement,” Thomas says, “Whenever there’s an anthro character in the mainstream furries get excited because they’re one of us.”
In comparison to much of the yiff you will find on the internet, Thomas’ own artistic offering is relatively tame. An incredibly muscular Zabivaka reclines, sheepishly avoiding looking at his own erect penis. Others have placed Zabi in far more explicit situations, performing any number of sexual acts or engaging with multiple other participants.
When I first ask Thomas what it was about Zabivaka that caught his eye he seems sheepish too.
“Having fun is a huge factor in what I decide to draw,” he explains, “Zabi is fun because he’s popular. He’s popular in NSFW and SFW circles, not all the interest is sexual.”
“It happens in waves, someone in the community will draw a character and then everyone else wants to join in too. A chain reaction starts, sometimes big, sometimes not. Zabivaka wasn’t anything special in that sense.” In the past, Frosties have had to take to Twitter to beg furries to stop producing so much porn featuring their mascot, Tony the Tiger.
“That was more of a joke,” one furry Reddit user tells me, “It was a Rule 34 thing.”
“No it was real. He’s got a real daddy vibe to him,” another responds. “Tony is like a bear or a daddy and Zabi is like a twink.”
“Zabi is popular because he’s a wolf and wolves are popular,” a third adds – research does show that wolves are the most popular fursona – “He’s also got a cute butt.”
Thomas is less interested in Zabi’s “cute butt”.
“For me it’s about being part of a community,” he says, “it’s about breaking norms together”.
Saint is a furry who runs a furry news site, but doesn’t actually care for Zabikava’s design. Nonetheless, he explains to me why he believes Zabi and characters like him are so often yiffed.
“When people are uncertain, or shy, or just unsure of their sexualities, fursonas and yiffing is a way of expressing yourself and showing how you really feel.”
“Maybe you’re trans and you feel it’s a way of displaying what you think is the real version of you. Maybe you want to be a 6’3” wolf with a ten-pack. It’s a way for people to explore their sexuality or gender with characters that make them feel comfortable.”
Research carried out by the International Anthropomorphic Research Project - a group established by furry academics - found that only 20 per cent of furries would describe themselves as “exclusively heterosexual”.
The majority of yiff you will find on the internet (if you go looking for it) is homoerotic in nature, which helps to explain the enduring appeal of Zabivaka.
A few months after the Zabivaka craze begun, at the end of 2016, YouTube user Zennie uploaded “Zabivaka™”, an edit of Zabivaka’s announcement trailer interspersed with some of their favourite explicit Zabivaka art.
Through mock tears Zennie condemns their fellow furries for destroying Zabivaka’s innocence, and begs Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, not to look at how the poster boy for his country’s World Cup has been made into a queer furry icon.
When I contact Zennie they tell me: “My main motivation was I enjoy making stupid, fun stuff. I was aware of the trouble LGBT communities face in Russia but I didn’t know exactly how bad it was.”
While homosexuality in Russia is not outlawed, a nationwide ban is in place against the promotion of what the state considers “non-traditional sexual relationships”. This is why you will never see this year’s FIFA mascot, usually an organisation willing to at least play lip service to minority rights, flying a pride flag or protesting homophobia in the game.
Reports have even emerged that in Chechnya, in Russia’s south, anti-gay purges have seen gay men rounded up and detained in camps.
“I feel like the furry community has adopted my video as a sort of protest of Russia’s anti-LGBT policies,” Zennie says.
Zennie’s video has now been viewed over a million times, it’s even contributed to the urban legend amongst furry communities that the Russian government has explicitly called on furries to stop including Zabivaka in their artwork, which in turn has only made the community more prolific in protest.
“When people heard that they tried to make him as gay as possible because of Russia’s laws,” Apes, a friend of Saint, tells me. “A lot of people drew it because it was just funny, but a lot of people did it as a form of protest too.” One reddit user describes it to me as “fighting hate with love and humour.”
“Subversion is something the fandom is huge on.” Saint points out to me, “Taking something you shouldn’t do and try and get away with it. Especially if you’re told not to. It’s a very punk rock type of creativity.”
Nobody I speak to is sure how the next wave of furry art will kick off – or if it will be as political as this last.
“These things tend to be real hot button issues,” Saint says, “When things tap into the zeitgeist we’ll really flood the internet with it, but people get bored just as easily.”
“I’ve just seen they’ve announced the mascot for the women’s World Cup in 2019,” Apes chimes in, “That’s already getting a lot of attention, so maybe expect another wave then.”
“Whatever it is you can expect to hear about it. People underestimate how many furries there are. With six degrees of separation you’re probably never far from a furry.”
*Names have been changed at the request of interviewees