Last Updated on 3rd May 2023

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April 24, 2023

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The internet is a constantly changing global forum that is filled with many different types of communities. These communities often allow people to express themselves in a way that frees them from what they consider to be societal ‘norms.’ In recent years, with the explosive popularity of YouTubers and TikTokers, some members of these communities have taken to popular platforms to widely showcase their subcultures. One of these subcultures is the Furry Fandom.

To be clear, this article is intended to provide safeguarding professionals, staff and parents with an awareness about Furries, reported concerns, and claimed misunderstandings surrounding the Furry fandom. Our online safety experts have provided further information on the risks and advice on what you can do to help make the children in your care safer. It is not promoting the activity, rather it is highlighting the risks and making suggestions about how to engage with those who may have an interest in.

What are Furries?

According to research from a range of sources, furries are people who have an active interest in animal characters with human characteristics. These characters are often created by the community members themselves, who take them on as a “fursona” (an alternate persona) who interacts with other ‘fursonas’ in the community via roleplaying and art. The fursona commonly embodies characteristics (personality traits, physical attributes, and projected ages) desired by the individual creator. Some members even make vibrant costumes of their characters (called “fursuits”), and usually wear them in a public forum either in-person or online. There are world-wide conventions and “meets” that act as real-life gathering spaces for members.

two people dressed up in fursuits

©By Pikawil from Laval, Canada – Otakuthon 2014, via Wikipedia

Recent Claims and Hoaxes

There have been recent rumours, claims and hoaxes about students within multiple UK schools identifying as cats and engaging in disruptive behaviours, such as crawling on all fours and demanding litterboxes be placed in toilets. These stories have been picked up and reported on by various news broadcasters. Many use the term ‘Furries’ when referring to the students in question (though it is unclear whether this terminology has been used by any of these students to describe themselves).

As the topic of Furries is very niche and claimed to be misrepresented by popular media, it can be easy to identify the two together. However, it’s important to note that many of these stories have been debunked as hoaxes that originated from misinformation spread by an American lawmaker in early 2022. It’s also worth mentioning that the Furry community itself is a complex one, made up of many different identities and definitions of what it means to be a ‘Furry’.

There are also multiple TikTok trends and social media posts that fuel and play into these rumours popping up across the world. It has been a popular topic on forums such as MumsNet, as well as a news story from The Sunday World. While some posts claim to be true, it is difficult to ascertain their validity, especially as many of the locations mentioned play into the hoax stories.

Due to this complexity, our online safety experts were unable to substantiate any reports being made about this behaviour in schools or claims that mentioned students considering themselves to be Furries.

Common Misconceptions

The Furry and cosplaying communities are different, though they share some similarities with conventions and specialised ‘costumes’. Fursuits are optional for Furries, and are based on characters created by the individual. Cosplaying, however, revolves around dressing up in costume as a fictional character or famous person. Furries are also based around using their ‘fursona’ as an alter ego, whereas cosplayers typically only act like or ‘play as’ the character/person they are dressed as.

While some Furries may be based on real animals, many members of the Furry community prefer to base their character on a mythological beast or creatures. ‘Therians’ are people who feel that they are innately something other than a human. This can be spiritual or psychological, and often takes the form of animals.

There have been portrayals of the Furry community as ‘sexually deviant’ and focused on a sexual aspect of being anonymous and in a suit. Furries dispute this, arguing that there is no evidence to support this claim, rejecting this as a misconception that does not accurately reflect their community. However, the fact remains that beneath the suit or persona, is a real person and we know that some people by virtue of their sexual motivation will invariably represent a risk.  This is true in many environments, from those who hide behind anonymous accounts to those who misrepresent themselves and engage in groups with an ulterior motive.

What are the Risks?

The Furry community claim to be founded on building confidence and respecting the creative choices and expressions of its members. However, as this group is spread across multiple forums and platforms with little to no moderation, it carries risks for vulnerable children and young people that include;

  • The idea of the ‘fursona’ can blur the line between real life and created reality. Whilst for some, this may present an opportunity to engage without fear of judgement about who they are and how they are perceived, it could also encourage a vulnerable young person to engage in risk-taking activity they would not normally consider and/or become so all-consumed in an alternative reality that they disengage from their everyday life.
  • Part of taking on a fursona is adopting a subjective age. This means that someone can project themselves to be a younger or older age than they are in real life. This magnifies the very real danger of interacting with strangers over the internet, as people may not be entirely honest about their true age or identity.

  • Even if interactions begin on a moderated online forum, the conversations could be encouraged to move to more ‘personal’ platforms with encryption features (e.g. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger) or in-person events (e.g. Furry Conventions). This makes it more difficult to ensure children and young people engaging in this platform are not being exploited or pressured by other members of the community, especially if they have a vulnerability.
  • The ability to mask and hide your personal identity as a ‘Furry’ may be misused by someone with a harmful sexual interest in children.  We know that mutual interest can create a sense of rapport, which sometimes feels like friendship.  As with other environments occupied by people with similar interests, this rapport can be used to exploit and potentially harm a child. Please note, this behaviour is not limited to the Furry community, as any online or offline community where people can mask their true identity can facilitate opportunities for people to engage with, groom and abuse children.
  • If a child or young person shows interest and/or decides to become a Furry, they may be subjected to bullying from their peers (and others) both online and offline. This is especially prevalent, as stories attributed to ‘Furries’ have seen students being disruptive within schools, and other students have taken to social media to make fun of them (with some even encouraging physical violence be taken against ‘Furries’)

Should I be Worried?

It’s normal for young people to express themselves through ‘dressing up.’ Some young people will develop a niche interest or hobby or be encouraged to do so by others. Events like Comic-Con and the popularity of superhero fandoms have made the idea of creating and donning intricate costumes more mainstream and accessible.

The danger comes when an interest forms into an unhealthy obsession, fixation, escape, or when the activity may potentially expose the young person to risk. If a young person feels unsatisfied or upset with their situation in life, it might be easier for them to disappear into an alternate reality or world they are able to control. This is especially true if they do not feel they have a supportive community around them. Fixation at this level may cause dissociation, anxiety, depression, and irritability.

Many within the Furry community would argue that Furries are not inherently sexual and would distance themselves from what they claim is a public misconception about the reported sexualised nature of the Furry Fandom. They would argue that it is not the main draw or point of the community. However, as safeguarding professionals, parents and carers it is important that we recognise the uniquely personal parameters of Furry culture and the potential risks this can represent.  As with any group, there is always the potential for someone with a sexual interest in children to exploit the ability to hide their true identity and motivation to engage with a child.

It can be difficult to teach children the importance of balance. We know that boundaries are key to healthy behaviours and relationships. When we add the fantasy/roleplay dynamic, which blurs the line between reality and make-believe, it can be harder to outline clear boundaries. This creates additional risk for children, young people, and vulnerable adults who engage in this type of interest, as they may not understand how serious a situation is until it is too late.

group of people dressed up as furries

By Douglas Muth, via Wikipedia

What can I do?

What you shouldn’t do is overreact or ridicule.

 If a child or young person in your care begins to show an interest in joining any community, be it online or off, how you approach and handle any related conversations is crucial. It is important to build a safe environment for them based on trust, where they feel comfortable expressing themselves to you as their parent or carer. To help you do this, our online safety experts have rounded up some top tips.

Note: While this article is specific to the Furry community, we believe the advice is interchangeable with more common ‘roleplaying’ communities/fandoms your child or young person may be involved in (e.g. video games, Dungeons and Dragons, etc.)

  • Approach the interest with no judgement. Ask open-ended questions about the content your child or young person finds most engaging. It is important to remain understanding, even if you cannot fathom why something has caught your child’s interest.

  • Do your homework. Familiarise yourself with the different forums and terms used by the Furry community to ensure you know what you’re discussing and have the ability to recognise and place in context what your child is saying.

  • Engage in conversation about what they think it means to be a Furry and what they see as the benefits. Outline what sort of behaviour is appropriate and respectful, online or offline.

  • Discuss online safety with children and young people. Remind them that anyone they interact with online may not be telling the truth about who they are and highlight the important difference between a fursona (an outward expression) and a real person. Go over online safety habits to ensure they are comfortable acting on them, such as not sharing any personal information or reporting something that makes them feel worried, scared or uncomfortable.

  • Ensure your child knows who their team of trusted adults are and the risks of talking to people they don’t know in the offline world. It’s important they know who to talk to and what to do in the event that someone they don’t know makes contact with them,

  • If your child has joined a group or you think they may have, consider joining a parent’s group and check out the range of resources online, choosing the ones that meet your needs or concerns.

Other sources

If you want to further explore the issues, common themes and risks, it is possible to find a range of resources online. Remember to check the credibility and credentials of such information.

The International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP), often known as ‘Furscience’ is one such resource. The IARP was co-founded by Dr. Stephen Reysen, Dr. Courtney Plante, and Dr. Sharon Roberts.

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists from different Universities around the world doing research and publishing findings to better understand fandom communities, including the Furry community. According to furscience.com, their research has been extensively published and leads the world in peer-review scholarship on Furries and the fandom. Furthermore, this research “was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada”, the University of Waterloo and other educational establishments.

For a deeper look at what Furscience does and their findings, visit their website.

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