They walk among us, proud and covered in fur.
Anthromorphs, or furries as they are nicknamed, are people who dress up as animals with human personalities and characteristics. They've been around many years, though under the public radar, gathering together with those having the same interests and even staging conventions around the country. But like the woodland creatures they mimic, furries are rather shy. They rarely give interviews and prefer to stay out of the limelight.
However, every so often, they find themselves making news.
That's what happened last March, when a Trumbull man was arrested in connection with the fire that destroyed several cottages on Long Beach in Stratford.
Stratford police were scratching their heads after asking Kevin Stewart, 23, why he had been hanging off radio station WICC's transmission tower near the cottages by two gray, furry paws. Stewart's answer: He's a furry.
"Furries often frown on other furries doing public stupid stuff because they don't want that kind of negative attention," said Kathleen Gerbasi, associate professor of psychology at Niagara County Community College in New York, a nationally recognized expert on so-called furdom. "They are reluctant to go public because of the negative way they have been portrayed in the media and on television," she said.
In an interview with the Connecticut Post, Stewart admitted to having been a furry for about nine years.
"It's more aspirituality thing," Stewart said. "There are many reasons people become furries, but I do it because I feel very connected to wolves."
Stewart morphs into Rex, a large blue-gray wolf character, when he dons his furry costume. While he often appears in public wearing paws, Stewart said he only rarely dresses up in the whole costume.
"I go to parties and hang out with a great group of friends who share the same sort of spirituality. I've been to a couple of conventions, but that is not really my thing. I just hang out with my friends and we are kind of like a support group for each other," he said.
While Stewart said he has found people are of the furry persuasion for many reasons, including sexual, he said that's not why he is one.
"Other people have different views on what it is to be a furry. Some do it as a sexual thing, but that's not why I do it. I am happy with my boyfriends, and we have a close relationship," he said.
Stewart, who works for his family's business, Stewart Amusements, said being a furry is in line with the company's philosophy of making children happy.
"I will get dressed up to do fundraising for charities. Last year we donated a lot of money to local charities, and I'm very proud of doing well for others, especially children," he added.
Every so often, furries in full costume dash into the limelight, but when they do they usually choose the safety of numbers, such as conventions where other furries are in attendance. Last weekend, several dozen furries in full costume were among the crowds at a comic book convention in Hartford.
Since 2006, Gerbasi has conducted the only scientifically recognized surveys on furries. Some of her findings have been published in national magazines.
"Furries are involved as anthropomorphic animals, a combination of people and animals sort of like your basic cartoon animals. Typically I don't see any furries who embrace commercial cartoon animals, but rather they create their own. The most popular are foxes, wolves and felines such as lions and tigers," she said. "Some people who say they are furries say they do it as a hobby or a social thing. But others say they are furries because they really identify with the particular species and feel they are one. Those people typically say their character is a kind of spirit guide."
Gerbasi said in her surveys she poses two key questions: Do you consider yourself to be less than human? And, if you could choose not to be human, would you? "Many furries will answer yes to both these questions," she said.
She said some furries have costumes called fur suits that cost more than $2,000. Others may just have pieces of suits, such as a tail or a head piece.
"For many I would call it a lifestyle and for others it's a hobby. It has kind of been facilitated by the Internet. People had this interest, but didn't realize there were others with similar interests until they saw it online. Furries now have conventions all over the world. At a convention in Pittsburgh last year, there were furries from 20 different countries," she said. This year's convention in Pittsburgh attracted nearly 4,000 people.
Gerbasi said she first became interested in furries in 2005 when she discovered one of the students in her class was one. At that time, no one was studying furries. She said the first survey was completed in 2006.
Most furries are male, she said of the survey findings, and one-third of the males who responded to the survey in 2006 described themselves as homosexuals, while none of the females who responded said they were attracted to the same sex, she said.