Wild Life

by Jezy J. Gray

09/16/2014

The rock formations that spill out from the wooded foothills of the Sans Bois Mountains in southeastern Oklahoma were once a draw for outlaws and outcasts. Legend has it that these rocky cliffs and canyons served as a refuge for a number of personae non gratae, from Civil War deserters to infamous outlaws like Jesse James, Belle Starr, and the Dalton Gang. The area was incorporated in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and four years later it was named Robbers Cave State Park—a nod to its history as a hideout.

Each spring for the past five years, though, Robbers Cave has been a sanctuary for outcasts of a different stripe.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday, and after navigating a winding dirt road marked “private,” I pull in to Group Camp #2. Parking is scarce at the top of the hill, but I find a spot next to a late-‘80s Buick LeSabre whose rear dash is stacked to the ceiling with plush foxes. Idling across the way is a muscular blue Dodge Ram pickup with shoe polish paw prints splashed across the back windows. Beneath that, in block letters: “Wild Nights 2014! Honk 4 Furries!

For the uninitiated, “furry” is shorthand for an enthusiast of the anthropomorphic arts. This is often—but not always—expressed by wearing a “fursuit” depicting a unique animal character, or “fursona,” dreamed up by the wearer. The Missouri Exotic Species Arts Association (MESA) held its first annual outdoor furry fandom convention at Robbers Cave in 2009.


Candie Foxalure poses at Wild Nights. Photo by Jezy J. Gray.

Candie Foxalure poses at Wild Nights. Photo by Jezy J. Gray.

For more photos from Wild Nights at Robbers Cave, follow @thislandpress on Instagram.


It’s day three of this year’s convention—“the day,” MESA President Joel Ricketts assured me—and the campsite feels lived in. Tents crouch haphazardly around the perimeter, surrounded by a fortress of slim, towering pine trees. A trailhead on the north end leads past the group cabins and up to Robbers Cave, where tonight’s hike will take place. The late-April sky is clear and brilliant, showing no evidence of the severe weather expected overnight.

Despite the relatively early hour, the southern end of the camp is buzzing with activity. I take notice of license plates as I walk toward the crowd. Some are from as far away as California and Maine, but most have come from Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas.

I stop to marvel at a massive and expensive-looking RV wrapped in elaborate wolf-themed artwork. A neon green fursuit hangs from the cab’s extended canopy, turning languidly in the morning breeze. Next is a red Ford Ranger with a matching red bumper sticker emphatically announcing that the driver is “NOT A LIBERAL.”

One camper nods as he jaunts past, blasting the Bloodhound Gang’s raunchy late-‘90s novelty hit, “The Bad Touch,” from a device attached to his belt loop. “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals / so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” I would hear the song at least three more times during the course of my stay.

Small groups socialize at the south-end picnic tables, swapping off-color jokes and chattering about Dr. Who. No one is wearing a fursuit, aside from the occasional pair of plush ears or bushy tail. I’ll learn later that it’s much more common to see people wearing these animal accents, or “partials,” rather than full-body suits, which can cost thousands of dollars.

A young man in his early 20s eyes the crowd from the pavilion, his thin frame lost in a homemade Robin Hood costume. His perky auburn fox tail swishes in the wind as he pulls a foam arrow from his quiver and launches it into the crowd. To everyone’s delight, a large, bearded man erupts from his folding chair and playfully chases Robin Hood around the camp latrine and down the trail into the woods.

As I’m taking in the scene, I nearly walk into a young couple attached at the throat by flimsy chain-link, making out enthusiastically in the grass. They don’t look up as I pass on my way to the mess hall. I approach the wooden double doors (“REGISTER HERE”) and pause for a beat, unsure of what’s on the other side.

I push them open and walk into the near-capacity mess hall. Here, artists display and sell sketches of anthropomorphic animal characters—some wearing diapers, some sporting ‘80s punk rock hairstyles—labeled with names like Dracian, davie_x, and Redwulf. Other vendors sell crafted materials and jewelry. There’s even a masseuse set up in the corner near the front door, working the shoulders of a partially suited camper whose fuzzy, chocolate brown ears peek out from the cream-colored linen face cradle.

I find Ricketts at the other end of the room next to the registration booth with his brow furrowed purposefully over a clipboard. He’s wearing fingerless black gloves, a black t-shirt, black slacks, black non-slip tennis shoes, and a brown leather shark’s tooth necklace. His hair is thinning up front but a long, ash-blond mane spills down the back. There’s an intense quality about him, which I imagine is amplified by the stress of running such a packed event.

I introduce myself. He suggests a walk-and-talk, saying he’s needed at the archery range. This is how most of our interactions would take place, striding purposefully in conversation across camp like two characters in an expository scene from a bizarre episode of The West Wing.

“Some furs just got back from horseback riding in the cave,” he tells me. “Archery is the next outdoor event, then thrown weapons. We’ll do a chili lunch at 11:00, with a couple hours to mingle before fursuit games. Dinner is at 6:00, then boffer-weapons fighting and a drum circle in the evening, before the midnight howl.”

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I stumbled upon the furry convention by way of a cryptic event page, Wild Nights in Robbers Cave, while researching for a camping trip last year. I was soon through the looking glass, puzzled by footage of anthropomorphic foxes, wolves, and tigers parading gleefully through nearby downtown Wilburton (population 2,843). They waved at gawking motorists and mugged for the camera, drunk on their own spectacle. Deeper in, I found photo galleries of furries riding horseback, practicing archery, and dancing with abandon under high-beam strobe lights.

What, exactly, was going on in Robbers Cave, and why had I never heard about it?

It turns out that Wild Nights has been happening here annually for five years. In 2009, it peeled off from yet another outdoor Oklahoma furry convention held four hours west in Roman Nose State Park. This other gathering—called OklaCon—has been going on for a decade, and it’s the largest furry campout in the world. Attendance at both is steadily rising, with each convention reporting recent attendance of 300-plus, making Oklahoma the premier destination for furries with a woodsy streak. [1]

This all struck me as too delightfully odd not to investigate.

After months of deliberating, Joel Ricketts—who, in addition to being MESA president, is also Wild Nights’ logistics coordinator—agreed to let me camp with the group and write about the event. After making my case to Joel, the issue was brought to a vote at the March 2 meeting of the Wild Nights organizing committee. The next morning, I was a registered attendee.

It wasn’t an easy sell. The fandom has historically been painted by the media as deviant and, in the case of a particularly damaging 2003 episode of CSI, dangerous.[2] As a result, these conventions tend to be closed events. “My concern,” Ricketts told me over the phone, “is that other attendees will feel uncomfortable with a member of the media hanging around, given our group’s history with the press. We’ve had a rough go of it in the past, as you may know, and we want to be careful.”

  I told Ricketts I wasn’t particularly interested in the story “Weirdos Dress in Costumes, Have Sex with Each Other.” I didn’t know what the story was. To find out, I had to go camping.

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“This is your first fur-con, huh?” A woman, the only one in a group of five, asks. They’re lounging in lawn chairs outside of a large tent, puffing e-cigarettes, and watching the archers in the meadow. She says she can tell I’m a first-timer because of my tucked-in flannel shirt. “Plus the boots,” she adds, like I know what that means.

She introduces herself as Holly Fox. She’s friendly. The whole group is, really. There’s PhatCat, a homebrewer from Austin who chats enthusiastically about a beer tasting happening in one of the cabins later that night. Another, called Ipaquey, encourages me to shoot archery with him later, once the crowd thins out.

This is how I meet Allen, an 18-year-old from Grand Prairie, Texas, who self-identifies as a rainbow-colored anthropomorphic fox named Candie Foxalure. He’s wearing a tie-dyed do-rag, blue jeans, and a too-large purple t-shirt that says “I’d Cuddle That. His frame is slight, his head shaved, and he maintains eye contact as he introduces himself.

I told Ricketts I wasn’t particularly interested in the story ‘Weirdos Dress in Costumes, Have Sex with Each Other.’

I reach out for a handshake and his face falls with disappointment. Doe-eyed, his bottom lip protruding for effect, he spreads his arms wide. “You don’t hug?”

We embrace, in what would be the first of the day’s many hugs from strangers.

He’s been awake for 20 minutes, and he’s already anxious to “suit up.” He asks if I want to meet Candie—I do—and delightedly scampers off to change. Despite the skittishness I was warned about, I’m beginning to suspect that I will find no shortage of people eager to talk to me. Everyone wants to enhance my experience. Everyone wants to tell their story.

Allen is what’s called a therian. This means that he and his fursona are connected—as he puts it—“mind, body, and soul.”

For some, fursuiting is a sort of “cosplay” not unlike what goes on at popular anime and comic conventions. Like those con attendees who role play in elaborate costumes based on characters from video games, comic books, and various pieces of popular culture, some furries see fursuiting as a method of escape and play: a fantasy. For people like Allen, though, it’s a core feature of their inner worlds.

He marches back to camp, covered head to toe in a vivid rainbow of fur, with an oversized fox head tucked under his armpit. Before I can comment on his suit, he asks, “Do you want to take some pictures of me in the woods?”

Since I didn’t come this far not to follow an anthropomorphic fox into the woods, I say yes. (This would become my mantra for the day: Say yes, unless it’s too creepy.)

We begin our shoot in a clearing down-trail from the campsite. Right away, it’s clear there’s no need to direct him for the camera. He launches into a series of playful poses. First he turns away, whipping his neon snout back toward the camera. “I’m a silly fox,” he announces, and darts across the clearing.

I feel a little silly myself, kneeling in front of a teenage therian, snapping pictures as he twirls, gallops, and prances in the Oklahoma sunshine.

This goes on for a few more minutes, before it becomes clear that I’ll have to be the one to end our session. “I think we got it,” I say. He gives me his email address and asks that I send him the pictures.

On our walk back, I learn that Allen is a devoted Christian. I began to pick up on this earlier, as he swatted at a wasp buzzing around his ear. “I hate wasps,” he grumbled. Then he stopped mid-stride, steadied himself, and looked plaintively toward the sky. “I’m sorry, God. I dislike wasps.”

I’m not sure why, but I’m a little taken aback by this. I ask how he sees his faith interacting with his life in the fandom. He says that he feels closest to God when he is wearing his fursuit.

“Ever since I was little, I knew I was a fox. I knew I wasn’t really human.” He tells me that looking in the mirror was a painful experience for him from a young age. The human reflection was at odds with how he felt inside.

He reconciles this dissonance with a reflection on his faith. “When I die,” he tells me, his voice serious and proud, “I truly believe I’ll go to heaven as Candie Foxalure.”

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Allen isn’t alone. According to findings published by the Anthropomorphic Research Project, a 2013 survey conducted by the University of Waterloo found that approximately 8 percent of an 800-person sample identified
as therians.

The word “therianthropy” arrives in English from the Greek theríon (wild animal) and anthrōpos (human being). Enthusiasts point to its long mythological history throughout the world, and more than one Wild Nights camper references the Navajo “skinwalker” myth: yee naaldlooshii (“with it, he goes on all fours”).

Desir is a freelance artist in the furry frandom who specialized in realistic renditions of anthropomorphic and fantasy creatures. Photo by Jeremy Charles.

Désir is a freelance artist in the furry fandom who specializes in realistic renditions of anthropomorphic and fantasy creatures. Photo by Jeremy Charles.

“I mean, would the people who call us weird say that about the Egyptians for worshipping cats?” This from a camper dressed as an anthropomorphic wolf wearing a Kevin Durant jersey. I couldn’t hear him particularly well through the mask, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking him to take it off. “You look at history, and the stuff produced by these different cultures—especially different Native American tribes—all have an element of anthropomorphism. Some of us see ourselves continuing this tradition.”

Hopi and Mohawk mythologies have their own versions of the skinwalker, as does Norse folklore tradition, where warriors could be transformed by donning a “bear shirt” (berserkr) or “wolf coat” (ulfheðnar). But as this bright, friendly camper is trying to situate the group in history, I can’t help but notice his human stare behind the wolf mask. Most suits have plaster eye pieces with exaggerated pupils, but his only has two holes revealing his hazel green eyes and the slightest tug of age near the corners of their sockets. There is something uncanny and unsettling about this, and it brings to mind something I don’t say out loud: In all these folk traditions, the skinwalker is a figure of danger.

We’re soon joined by another self-described therian, pushing into his mid-60s, whose identity—like Allen’s—is fused with his fursona. He is not in character at the moment due to the heat. “When it’s not so hot,” he says, “I suit everywhere: at the doctor, the dentist, my real estate agent’s office.” His fursona is GreyHare, a rabbit that transforms into a wolf. (“I’m a shape-shifter,” he tells me. “One of only a few in the whole country.”) In human form, he works for the City of Dallas and asked that I not give his name.

“And you might not believe this,” GreyHare adds, “but the rabbit has healing powers.” He watches me for a moment to gauge my reaction, making sure I’m sufficiently titillated. “That’s right. Before I started suiting every day, I was deep in stage-three kidney failure. Since then, I’ve increased my kidney function by 4 percent and my mobility has improved significantly.”

Tenderly, he adds: “The doctors said I should expect to lose function of my legs, but here I am, in Oklahoma, talking to you on this beautiful day. And it’s all because of the rabbit.”

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“The fandom is made up of people who’ve been outcasts most of their lives,” Ricketts tells me on the hike to Robbers Cave that evening. “They were the unpopular kids in school. That’s a story that recurs over and over again. When we came up in school, it was miserable. It was hell. We were the kids who were constantly teased and picked on.”

It’s a problem that still persists. While I met people in Wilburton who tolerated the furries—“They don’t bother anybody, far as I know,” a cattle farmer told me at the Corner Cafe—other locals haven’t been as understanding. Last year, a truck full of young guys drove up in the middle of the night and sprayed the camp with paintballs. The year before, a man entered the grounds on foot and verbally harassed campers.

Incidents like these are why the furries no longer parade through downtown Wilburton. As an added precaution, attendees are encouraged to leave their fursuits at camp if they decide to venture into town on their own. “The merchants were all very receptive to us,” Ricketts said, “but apparently some people started complaining to the parks department, saying they didn’t feel comfortable with us wearing suits in town.” That, coupled with these uglier clashes with locals, prompted organizers to turn down the volume on this growing convention’s public presence.

Still, Ricketts chalks much of Wild Nights’ success up to “Oklahoma hospitality.”

MESA initially wanted to hold the event in Missouri, but Ricketts says that they couldn’t find a park to take them on. “After seeing our website,” he said, “they all started looking for reasons to deny us.”

Since OklaCon was already established, MESA was more optimistic about their chances in Oklahoma. “Robbers Cave was most willing to work with us,” he said. “The staff has just been phenomenal, and the park itself, as you can see, is just breathtaking.”

We’re standing on top of the cave, overlooking a spectacular vista of short-leaf pine trees that billow out into gentle, rolling hilltops. Ricketts—a.k.a. Heros, the Noisy Panther—shades his eyes and squints toward the horizon. A cool breeze travels up through the rocks as the setting sun breaks like an egg over the Sans Bois Mountains.

“I’ll never forget the first time I hiked this,” he tells me. “I came up here alone, the day before our first event in 2009. I got to this plateau above the rocks, right here, and I could see the group camp down below. It was kind of an emotional thing for me.” He begins another thought, then shrugs in explanation. “That was it,” he says. “That was the moment. I knew we were home.”

Footnotes

1. According to WikiFur, a collaborative web application created by a young Wild Nights camper from the U.K., there are 19 annual furry campouts in the world. Ontario’s “Camp Feral,” started in 1998, is the oldest. There are four others in the U.S.—in Kansas, Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—but their numbers don’t come close to Wild Nights and OklaCon. Attendance at most of these other events hovers between 30 and 40, whereas attendance at the twin Oklahoma conventions has steadily been rising through triple digits for years.

2. In the season four episode “Fur and Loathing,” forensic evidence leads investigators to a hedonistic furry convention characterized by hard drug use and kinky sex. Ricketts acknowledges the impact the episode has had on popular opinion regarding the fandom, and he says he can understand why: “I watched that episode, and it freaked me out.”


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 17, September 1, 2014. 

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