Furry Friends bond over bowling

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The Lake Area Furry Friends bowl twice a month. They have bowled together almost 10 years. By this point, their routine is established: They meet for dinner at the Patio restaurant in Lombard; then they head over to the Tivoli Bowl in Downers Grove; and finally, around midnight, they drive a few miles away to Steak N' Shake, out by the Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, where the teenage waitresses greet them with smirks of bemusement and wariness.

The Lake Area Furry Friends know this reaction well and take measures to act accordingly, to put their best faces forward. Listed within the group's code of conduct is the following: Members can wear their furry ears and furry tails to dinner but not their full furry costumes (too unnerving to nonmembers). Members must wear bowling shoes while bowling; if members insist on wearing furry feet, those furry feet must be slip-resistant. Members are not to allowed to wear their furry feet on a wet sidewalk then clomp all over the bowling lanes ("leave the space tidier than when you arrived"). And under no circumstances is fetish gear acceptable: "If you must wear a leash, you are required at all times to be holding it yourself."

Also, sorry, dear reader: You are not invited to the Lake Area Furry Friends bowling night.

Members only, please.

For a while, I was not invited — until, like a zoologist creeping closer to a skittish wolf pack or band of skeptical primates, I established trust, and the Lake Area Furry Friends, or LAFF, grew more comfortable, allowing me to observe. See, LAFF is composed of furries, and if you don't know anything about furry subculture, understand: That metaphor — comparing members to wolves and monkeys — is not condescending.

These people are animals.

On a cold Saturday in late November, at the most recent LAFF bowling night that I attended, a pizza delivery guy stood on the sidewalk outside the Tivoli, mesmerized as LAFF members filed past him and into the bowling alley. A 20-something wearing no shirt, just pants, a cape, animal ears and a raccoon tail, sauntered by. The delivery guy said, "I don't get it." A 6-feet-tall, neon-blue dog followed the raccoon. "I am so confused," the guy reiterated. "But then, I wore baggy jeans in high school, so everyone has their thing."

Yes, everyone has. And if you are a self-described furry — and you would have to be self-described, as there is no national regulatory organization, no membership card to present or written test to take — your thing is this: You identify very strongly with anthropomorphized animals. The furtive, intelligent creatures from "Watership Down," the beasts of anime, even Snoopy. You love animals so much you adopt a fursona, an alternate, animal self. Which sometimes means dressing as a cartoon animal, looking like the mascot for a college that doesn't exist. For a member of LAFF, this also means parading your fursona around the Tivoli twice a month.

I followed the blue dog inside and down the steep staircase to the basement bowling alley. I heard the furries before I could see them, and when I saw them it was a virtual Serengeti: dogs, cats, wolves, foxes, donkeys, otters, squirrels, dragons.

This was my third LAFF bowling night, and, as outsiders go, I was now a regular. So much so that I began to recognize furries by their distinctive markings and large cartoon eyes: Barky! GreyWolf! MC Bark! Oh, look: Woofie! And hey, there's that quiet wolf, the one with the red and black fur who looks as if he's wearing fetish gear but, when asked, patiently explains that he's a wolf puppy, wearing a puppy harness.

The leaders of LAFF had told me they weren't expecting a huge turnout; Midwest FurFest in Rosemont was days away, and furries might have wanted to take it easy before attending the largest furry convention in the Midwest. But by 9 p.m. the Tivoli was fursona heaven: A collie in a sweater vest mingled with a fox in a Hawaiian shirt.

I spotted Chaz, a horse. He was out of costume. Chaz, with the slight build and pensiveness of a graduate student, is actually Chuck Whitten, 26. He's LAFF's bowling-night ringleader. In his other life, he is an industrial mechanic from the western suburbs. As we watched fellow furries register and split into teams, he told me that he's a transplant, having moved to Illinois from a conservative New Hampshire town. "My father is fine with my being furry. But my mom thinks I'm in a cult," he said. "I can't talk to her about this. But it's not like I drink the Kool-Aid. There is no Kool-Aid to drink."

Chances are, you've heard freaky things about furries. Let me puncture a couple of myths:

No. 1: Furries are not always in costume. Only about 30 percent of LAFF members (and about 20 percent of furries nationally, according to cultural studies and furry-convention organizers) wear full animal costumes to furry events. The rest merely accessorize. They add furry ears, tails, noses, feet or paws to their street clothing. Many furries just wear a badge that announces their fursona. (Several asked that I not use their real name and only identify them by their furry name.) I met a 32-year-old named Ray who wore a goat costume and said, "When I wear my (furry) suit, I lose definition." I met a 20-year-old custodian from Libertyville who was dressed as a fox and said, "There is the professional me, and there is the animal I can't show many people." But more common was 26-year-old tech-support worker David Rosario, who just wore a name tag. He said his name was Cavix and he was part tiger, part fox. He said he didn't have thousands of dollars for a costume (the often-cited reason for going fur-free), but spiritually he was Cavix. (And frankly, as gutsy as it might be to wear a $4,000 fox costume in public, it takes another kind of guts to just claim you're a fox.)

No. 2: Being a furry is not a sex thing. Furry get-togethers are not orgies. At least not on bowling night. Most of what I knew about furries (before I attended the bowling nights, anyway) involved sex. But I witnessed no sex acts. When I jokingly said this to a guy in a wolf costume, he said calmly, seriously, through his animal head: "Do furries have sex together? Some probably do. But are there journalists who have sex together? I bet probably. Furries are no different than any other group of people who spend a lot of time together."

I saw a lot of hugging (furries are huggers). And I met furries who didn't know the real names of furries they've been around for years (so submerged are some in their fursonas). But nothing kinky.

Still, sex is a touchy subject with furries. They know that, to nonfurries, "furry" and "fetish" are synonymous. The stigma is too strong. Said Lawrence Parry, Texas-based editor of the WikiFur website: "Some furries have fur fetishes, sure. But for the majority that I know, the attraction is nerdy, more like: 'Wouldn't it be cool if animals were like people?'"

OK, one thing I did witness:

Furries are lousy bowlers.

When matches got going, Yawni, a 24-year-old from Saskatchewan who said he was in town visiting friends, seemed to have trouble gripping the ball. He was a husky, with a plush white mane and bright blue back. "I mean, look, I have four fingers here, and I don't want to rip my claws off," he said, frustrated and groaning through his snout. Yawni cradled the ball in his arms, rocked it back and forth, then inelegantly hurled it.

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