Dr. Dolittle may have walked and talked with the animals, but unlike me, he never got drunk on margaritas with them. I have this advantage because he never attended a weekend event called “FurFright,” held at the Sheraton Bradley hotel in Connecticut.  “FurFright” is an annual Furry convention in which regular, tax paying citizens dress up as jungle beasts, house pets or woodland creatures and socialize under assumed zoological names. They also attend Furry-themed seminars, play air guitar and battle each other with water noodles at Fursuit Massacre.  Contrary to popular lore (and perhaps disappointing to some) kinky sex is not necessarily the main attraction.While this hotel is connected to the Bradley Airport and shares the same parking decks, I cannot claim that I simply stumbled onto this convention on a layover to Milwaukee. I made a special effort to get there for the weekend, enlisting my boyfriend Mike to drive. I even purchased a white kitten outfit, with mask, tail, collar and a little golden bell.

Now, Mike is often roped into these situations against his will. I won’t deny that I have a taste for invading subcultures. It brings out my inner Margaret Meade. But having no driver’s license, I usually need transportation. And while he drove to Windsor Locks from New York without complaint, once we near the hotel, he insists he is strictly a chauffeur.

“Let’s just be clear about this. I don’t mind driving. But once we get there, you’re on your own. Okay? I’m just going to watch football while you hang out in that freak zoo.”

While I’m fine with that, I don’t think he initially understood how thoroughly the Furries were going to take over the entire hotel.  It turns out there are well over 500 attendees. We walk up the hill from the airport parking decks, round the corner and are immediately surrounded by a gaggle, herd or whatever the collective noun is for a group of Furries. They are gathered outside the hotel for a photo op: tigers, deer, cats, foxes, a horse, a frog and some type of wolf in pimp’s clothing are all jumping around and striking poses.

Mike’s face contorts.

“Holy shit,” he mutters.

We check in at the front desk next to a bear carting around a tube of Pringles. Off in the distance a jungle cat clad in shorts trudges up the stairs. But many Furries have opted not to wear a full fursuit, and just sport ears, antlers or a plush tail sprouting out of some khaki pants. Considering that fursuits cost thousands of dollars, (the head alone can set a Furry back upwards of 500 bucks) this comes as no surprise. Still, those not in fursuits don’t seem as gleeful. Perhaps because they don’t get as much attention. Case in point: two Furries in bedraggled feline ears slumped at the café, glumly munching on nachos.

I make my way up to the registration area as Mike flees to our room (which I must add is the exclusive “King Guest Room,” as the hotel was completely booked, chock-full of Discovery Channel refugees). I notice that Mike has to share the elevator with a swashbuckling Pirate Wolf. I doubt they will discuss the weather.

Once I reach the registration room, my confidence dips a bit. I do not think I will blend in as easily as I’d anticipated. I had chosen “Puss in Boots” as my alias. But now that I’m here, I’ve noticed that everyone has snappier names like “Punk Tiger,” “Cybercat,” and “Kemeeleon.” Somehow the literary, vaguely sexual tinge of “Puss in Boots” seems fraudulent.

So, as I type my information into the computer, I figure it’s better just to go with my real first name. The next question asks what species I am: feline, ursine, amphibian, etc. I had no idea this would get so specific. What kind of headcount are they doing? Is there some type of affirmative action in place, where they need a certain number of badgers or chipmunks? It’s all starting to make me nervous. A wolf, clad in a T-shirt and shorts, stumbles in and someone cracks, “Isn’t that just like a Furry? Entering through the exit door.”

I don’t get it, but I laugh along with everyone else anyway.

Finally, I pay up and receive my badge and program booklet. I am particularly saddened that I have already missed both the “Biker Furs” and “Wolf Spirituality” seminars. Reading over the code of conduct section, I learn that fursuits are not meant to be worn in the pool area, and that donations made to FurFright over the amount of $75 dollars are tax-deductible. I try to picture what my no-nonsense accountant in Flatbush would have to say if I coughed up any FurFright receipts. It might go something like,

“This is a fucking joke, right?”

As I leave the room to go get dressed into my kitten costume, I run into an event offered by REGAP (Retired Greyhounds As Pets) an organization that tries to find homes for these recently unemployed canines. I cannot imagine what one greyhound in particular is thinking as a Technicolor tiger (or panther – it’s hard to tell) rubs his belly, cooing, “Who’s a good boy?”  I worry about the creatures set to entertain tomorrow at an event entitled, “See The Ferrets And Let Them Lick You.” I certainly hope the ferrets are not mandated to lick against their will.

Up in the room, Mike eyes me warily. I think he feels duped. He did not plan on being imprisoned in the room the whole time, but it shaping up to be that way.  He dreads The Wild Kingdom lurking in the lobby, the lobby bathrooms, the café, and all the elevators. There are also issues with my kitten costume. I have no problem with putting on the collar, but affixing the tail proves problematic. Mike spends a good ten minutes with two safety pins, his face inches away from my ass, trying to get the tail straight. I wonder if right about now he’s wishing he would have married his college sweetheart from Ohio.

When he’s finished, I’m not satisfied. “I don’t know Mike. I just don’t look authentic.”

He glares and says, “What? You’ve got to be kidding me. Have you seen that menagerie of douche bags?”

I shrug and head downstairs, determined to get a prime seat at the Furry Talent show called “Masquerade.” It’s held in the Grand Ballroom, and I walk in to find it nearly empty. I choose a row and sit at the end, hoping other Furries come in soon so we can chat. I’m interested in hearing about lifestyle issues such as fursuit upkeep and flirting protocol. But while the rest of the room fills up, no one will sit in my row. It appears that I am the odd kitten out. Finally, when there are no other options, a Furry of indeterminate species politely inquires if anyone is sitting next to me. After he sits, the row fills up with an assortment of bears, panthers, cougars and pasty fat men in their mid-thirties. Still, no one wants to talk.

Shunned by the Furries, I’m pleased when the kindly, beardly host and convention organizer Belic Bear asks us to “put your paws together” for the first act. There is a murmur of anticipation as the lights dim. But as the talent show plows on, I cannot believe what I have chosen to endure on a perfectly good Saturday night. There is Wally Wolf lip-synching to “Footloose” with a neon pink blow up guitar. Coyote and Crew stomping out “The Roverdance.” Silverfox, billed as “The World’s Worst Furry Stand Up Comic” offering up such yuk yuks as,

“How many mice does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. But they have to be really small.”

There is an all-Furry interpretation of the 70’s soft rock staple “Escape,” otherwise known as “The Pina Colada” song. I never thought that song could get any worse. But trust me, when you’ve heard the lyrics: “If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain” acted out by a troop of fursuited individuals with names like Crimson and Clover, you change your mind fast.

A horse named Flare Starfire plays some New Age music on synthesizer. He is an enterprising horse. Not only is he the composer of this tune, entitled “Music From The Heart,” but he also has CD’s for sale at the Dealer’s Dungeon.

The last act I manage to sit through is a performance by a Furry who promises to put the “gay in geisha” and offers up a seductive fan dance.

Halfway through this act I have to shift my tail because it is causing a pain in my left butt cheek and it occurs to me that I am far too sober for this. So I quite literally high-tail it off to The Cloud Nine Lounge. I take a seat, making sure not to sit on my tail this time, and notice that there are some Furries already there. A deer and a skunk are camped out on a couple of barstools. A gypsy cat, her face painted like a performer in a regional production of “Cats” is twirling around in the corner. I am trying to come up with the punchline to complete the opening line of: “Okay, so a deer, a skunk and a gypsy cat walk into a bar.” Other Furries are scattered about, chatting and sharing photos on their digital cameras. The King of the Jungle in sweat pants and a fannypack orders a margarita. This strikes me as so funny that I order one, too. I overhear someone saying:

“See, there’s a reason I always work behind the scenes at the talent show. I just don’t even want to KNOW what’s happening on stage.”

The skunk orders another beer, prompting the bartender to ask the various Furry factions:

“Now, you folks aren’t driving, are you?”

They all shake their heads no, and the deer speaks for everyone with a garbled, “No way, man.”  I picture the field day the local press would have at the reversal of nature if a drunken deer hit a man with his Chevy on a dark country road. Minutes later when the deer tries to order another mixed drink, the bartender puts the brakes on by appealing to the skunk:

“Look, I’ve served this one six drinks. He seems pretty drunk. I don’t want him puking in my bar.”

The deer looks at the bartender and slurs, “Can deer puke? I’ve never seen a deer puke. Does anyone know? Can deer puke?”

The bartender says, “I don’t know buddy, but I’m not about to find out. Why don’t you sit this one out, huh?”

The deer obediently shuffles over to a booth, collapses and shuts his eyes.

I pull out my FurFright booklet to see what I should check out next. If I’m lucky I can catch the tail end of “Domestic Animals of the World Unite!” in which the Furries are staging a mock protest, parading around the hotel under the slogan “Just Because I Sleep in a Basket Doesn’t Mean I’m Undeserving of Dignity!” I figure I’ll fit right in with my bourgeois golden bell collar.

Of course, when I get there, the protest seems to have ended. Domestic Animals don’t seem to have much backbone or stamina. So I decide to check in on Mike. As I walk in the room, I am met by a foul odor. The stench is unbearable. I look at him and he says,

“Yes, I farted. A few times. I have to get out of this room. Let’s hit the bar.”

“Okay,” I say. “But only for a few minutes. I’m going to the ‘Shake a Tail Feather’ dance.”

Mike sighs. But having hotboxed The King Guest Room, he has few choices but to mingle with All God’s Creatures Great and Small.  However, when the elevator arrives, we find a plain, practical-looking woman saying to her equally plain, practical-looking husband:

“These freaks are everywhere in this hotel.”

Starting to feel some Furry solidarity, I nonchalantly twirl my tail, just enough so she can see it. That’s right: Up yours, you stuffy New England bitch in clogs and sensible slacks!

Back at the Cloud Nine Lounge, the skunk is still drinking, and the deer is fast asleep. Mike keeps his eyes on the TV above the bar and orders us some drinks. Conversation is stilted.  So I head to the bathroom where very nice woman in very large rabbit feet compliments my choice of lipstick. I also notice some beige paws peeking out from under the toilet stall, and leave before whatever creature taking a dump in there can emerge to provide commentary on my wardrobe or hair.

On the way back to the bar, a bear nearly bumps into me, and bows in my direction as a means of apology. He is so cute and looks just like a teddy bear I had when I was seven. I remember that bear in particular because my Dad gave it to me when I visited him one weekend. It was one of the few times I saw him while he was married to his third wife.

As I slide into my seat, Mike pulls his eyes away from the TV and shifts them in the direction of a Furry leaving the bar. He shakes his head and says,

“What inspires a grown man to walk around with a skunk tail attached to his size 40 jeans?”

It is the question of the weekend. I’m about to make a quip when suddenly an unfamiliar voice chimes in with:

“Because, if you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re dorks.”

I turn in the direction of the voice to see three rodents squished into a corner booth. At least, I think they are rodents. They are not in fursuits and their ears are rather ambiguous.

“Excuse me?”

“Look at us. We’re dorks. Look around this room. The furry fandom gives us the chance to talk to each other and feel comfortable.  A lot of us don’t really like socializing at all outside of these conventions.”

While I’m glad that I’m finally getting some Furries to talk, I’m slightly annoyed that although I’m the one wearing the kitten outfit, it’s Mike’s surly attitude that got them to open up. Still, I take advantage. I notice that they’re all displaying multiple badges.

“I see you’ve been to several of these conventions. True badges of honor, I guess.”

The rodent in overalls says, “Yeah. They’re all pretty fun. It gets kinda weird when we have to share the convention space, though.”

The middle rodent butts in with:

“One time we had to share the hotel with some Southern Baptists. They were pretty creeped out.”

The third rodent adds, “Another time it was a teenage beauty pageant. Now that was funny.”

The check comes and they split the bill. Unfortunately, they are not planning to attend the dance, which ruins my new-found fantasy of starting a conga line with three rodents.

Having spent enough time on Animal Planet, Mike goes back up to the room, while I set off for the dance, undeterred.  I enter the Ballroom, and find it sparsely populated. A couple of bears, a few wolves and a leopard shuffle listlessly from side to side as 1980’s sing-a-longs like “Come On Eileen” blare from the DJ booth. The room for some reason is incredibly hot, and I can’t understand how the fursuited dancers can take it. They must be melting. They’re certainly sweating. The smell of B.O. is enough to singe nostril hair.

I half-heartedly dance. But the heat and smell get to be a bit much. Plus I’m a lousy dancer under any circumstances, whether it’s with frat boys, coked up stockbrokers or Furries. So I decide to prowl around the second floor where the majority of the convention rooms are until 11:30 when an aptly titled gaming event called “Dork Tower” begins.

I stand around reading a copy of “The Daily Howl” until I hear a couple of Furries talking. One of them says, “Well, you should stay away from him. He’s a Furvert.”

I lean in. Is this an offshoot of the Furry subculture? Is it a made up phrase? I am hoping for more, but it seems my eavesdropping is unwelcome. The two gossipers exchange glances and leave in what could be construed as a “huff.” Still, I am undeterred. And intrigued. I need to find out about Furverts. I also realize the easiest way to do this is not by talking to Furries. As this subculture began with the birth of the internet, an off-shoot of a Star Trek convention, filled with people who would much rather livejournal than talk face to face, there is ample WI-FI access. With some trepidation, I log in and look up FURVERT.

This ultimately brings me to some rather questionable material called “yiffy porn.”  And as I am sitting there, dressed as a kitten, looking at images of a guy with his cock hanging out of a custom made hole in his bunny suit, I realize that my high school guidance counselor was right. This is exactly the kind of thing that happens to people who don’t take advanced algebra seriously.

I am no longer interested in Dork Tower, and hang up my tail for the night.

But lying in bed, I start thinking of a cute little fox that I saw at the Masquerade talent show. She was helping out “backstage” (just a screen that they had erected) that was visible from my seat. She was so adorable that I couldn’t stop looking at her. Straight out of a Disney movie. But then at one point she got too hot or something and removed her head. It was jarring. She was no longer a cute Disney cartoon. She just looked sweaty and tired – like hundreds of women I pass on the street each day.

It occurred to me that maybe that was the point.

Everyone hides behind some type of façade to gain an advantage. How many people have inflated their title at work or lied about their unfashionable zip code? What about the countless people who have charged a dinner they can’t afford, or worn a dress to an event that they have to return the next day? And who isn’t surprised when they see non-airbrushed photos of celebrities?

Maybe the Furries are actually more honest with their disguises. Because unlike other kinds of disguises, these have to be stored in extra-large Tupperware boxes for much of the time, awaiting the next convention.

The next morning I wander down to breakfast, where I find early-rising Furries indulging in eggs and bacon and reading the paper. There is a Furry family with coloring books and a Furry couple figuring out the tip.  I ask the waitress if they are good tippers in general, and she says, “Yeah. They’re pretty sweet as a whole. Crazy, but sweet.”

For some reason this makes me happy.  Despite being a bit alarmed by yiffy porn, I have turned into quite a Furry sympathizer. So much so that when Mike joins me an hour later and says,

“You ready to leave these weirdos?”

I snap, “Well, I think your golf buddies are weird.”

But Mike is so ready to get the hell out of town that he has already brought down our bags and checked out. We are about to leave the hotel when I realize that he has forgotten my coat in the room. I tell him I’ll meet him at the car and make my way back upstairs.

Walking through the lobby for the last time, I pass the Grand Ballroom, now dubbed “FurFright Stadium” where Fursuit Massacre is about to take place. This is the event where teams with names like “Extreme Ultra Violet” and “Green-eyed Monsters” compete in games like Toss-Your-Noodle and Belly Ball. I peer in the ballroom, spying what looks like a goat practicing his moves with a water noodle. I’m about to exit the hotel when I see the teddy bear from last night. He is so cute and cuddly. I can’t stop thinking about my own teddy bear, which I haven’t seen since I was eight or nine, lost in all the moves my mom and I made over the years. The urge to cuddle him is overwhelming. Finally I muster up the courage to say:

“Excuse me, I don’t know you and I don’t mean to be impertinent, but can I have a hug?”

There is no hesitation. This bear whose name I don’t even know, grabs me in his warm, furry arms and gives me a big squeeze. He doesn’t say a word as we stand there hugging. Maybe I should feel ashamed. Maybe I’m just using this poor bear for cheap nostalgic kicks. Maybe someone should call PETA on my ass. But being in his poly-cotton blend arms, smelling his scent of Febreze and sweat feels just right.