The week of April 24, 2016

How the furry community rallied when Zarafa Giraffe lost his head

By Whitney Kimball

A Smokey the Bear in a cheerleader outfit dances on a table; a pair of snow-white Grimm’s Fairy Tale wolves nuzzle noses, near a black dragon with motion-detecting video pupils. It’s “drag queens vs. furries” night at San Francisco’s maze-like DNA Lounge, but aside from a guy wearing a pompom wig, it’s a neon safari on hind legs.

I’m looking for a purple giraffe named Zarafa. Amid the Grimm’s Fairy Tale wolves nuzzling and about a dozen dogs, cats, foxes, and raccoons, Zarafa stands apart. He discovered the furry fandom at age 52 and now can’t imagine life without it. I thought he might be able to explain furriness, not as a niche subculture, but as an identity—one that for most of his life he’d never had a word for.

After a long and winding search through balconies, stages, bars, dance floors, and back, I finally spot him through the crowd. He extends a squeaky paw, leading me through winding bars and balconies to a quieter room. Contrary to his Kewpie doll eyes and sparkly blue mane, he’s sweaty and a little matted from partying. Walking behind a giraffe at a furry party feels like being Freddie Prinze Jr. in a teen movie: The seas part, dudes give him fist-bumps, girls grind on him and stop him for photos as a club version of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” blasts out from the main stage and the whole place goes bonkers. On the dance floor, I’m literally jumping up and down, because looking at a big smiling Bambi-eyed giraffe with a sparkly blue mane has that sort of effect on you.

Yellow light-up cat eyes emerge out of the darkness, belonging to a cheetah whose paw is waiting for the drop. I’d heard of Spottacus’s beautifully tailored high-tech suits, but it’s impossible to appreciate until you see him move; unlike the standard mascot silhouettes, the thick, realistic Steiff-like fur fits like a second skin. He is magnificent. There’s even something a little sexy about watching a giraffe sidle up and lock hips with an antelope, and the suits, with their broad shoulders and big hands, add some physical heft.

The suits are hot, and furries need to surface for air. But just steps outside the club, the magic fades. Having been warned about excess hugging, I’m surprised to notice that the other furries are a little standoffish. Everybody’s been burned by the press at some point; Zarafa says Fox News once ran the word “FREAK” over a clip of his face, and everyone’s quick to insist that it’s not all about sex, even though I never bring it up.

On cue, a French guy in a leather jacket quietly asks me to explain what’s going on with the suits. I tell him to ask the furries standing in front of us. He refuses. I turn to a white cat in a plaid-skirted schoolgirl uniform, who explains that animal anthropomorphism is a part of who she is. “Yeah, but, you, like, woke up one day and decided this was a thing?” he asks.

The conversation trails off, and soon Spottacus is scrambling to save his tail from some vomit on the street: an occupational hazard. Soon Zarafa experiences one, too; he overheats and faints, sinking in slow motion to the concrete.

We have to break a furry rule: taking off his head.

“Quick!” the cat shouts, and five dogs are on it. The face underneath couldn’t be farther from a cartoon; it’s angular, etched with lived experience, grayish and more threadbare. He reminds me of my uncle or my dentist, but it’s hard to picture him as a “Bob” or “Jim.”

Tomorrow, Zarafa Giraffe will go back to being a 57-year-old veterinarian in a high-stress job, but for tonight at least, his world is furry.

Zafara and I turn to the topic of his work life, and the suit goes quiet. Earlier that day at the clinic, he had to euthanize a stray cat whose leg was broken because nobody could pay for the treatment. He has to euthanize animals all the time. “How do you cope with that?” I asked. “Well, this,” he says, touching his suit.

Ten years ago, he was divorced, nine years into an exhausting veterinary career, and emotionally repressed. He was nearing 50 and felt like he had nothing to show for it. The “kick in the ass,” he says, was his girlfriend running away with his best friend and losing all their mutual friends. In despair, he went to Burning Man, the annual alternative arts and lifestyle gathering in Nevada.

“[Burning Man] taught me and a lot of people to listen to yourself: What are you like, and what do you truly want to be?” he says. There was this sense of creativity everywhere you look, in what people are wearing and performing. If you’re a guy who wants to wear a woman’s dress, at Burning Man, everything is acceptable.”

“My friend finally twisted my arm and made me try on her costume. It was this beautiful cow. It was electrifying.”

On the third year he attended, the morning after the man burned, a choir sang the song “Amazing Grace,” and the words hit him like a heat wave. After the fifth year, he moved to the Bay Area, and at a mid-year Burners’ party, he met Spottacus, in sabertooth guise. Zarafa had bought some animal hats at Burning Man before, but he’d never seen anything like Spottacus. Something clicked.

“It’s as if there were jigsaw puzzle pieces floating in my head that that I didn’t know were there,” Zarafa told me. “And in talking to him, they all fell down and formed a picture.” One piece was an incident 20 years earlier, when an animal park he worked at asked him to wear an otter mascot costume for Halloween and direct kids on stage in a costume contest. At the employee after-party, he’d had the time of his life. But the suit went away, and the episode was quickly forgotten.

“To watch him, over an hour, suddenly realize that there was something in his life that he intuitively understood but had never been exposed to—and there was this door opening—you could see it in his eyes,” Spottacus tells me later. “They just kind of got wider and wider. It was this hungry curiosity. He asked me, ‘Do you think I would fit in?’ And I said, ‘Well, I kind of have the impression you already are furry, you just don’t know it.’”

Six months later, Zarafa describes putting on his first fursuit as a spiritual awakening. “I thought it was the weirdest goddamn thing I’d ever seen in my life,” he says. “But my friend finally twisted my arm and made me try on her costume. It was this beautiful cow. It was electrifying.”

When his own fursuit was delivered to his hotel room at a furry convention, a small crowd quietly formed and followed him to his room. “I thought it was really strange… My friend pulled out his cellphone and started videoing me. I said, ‘Really?’ He just said, ‘Oh shut up, just put it on.’ When I put it on, I understood. I had lightning bolts. It’s so strange now to see myself taking it out of the box and looking at the face for the first time.”

The sensation Zarafa describes is common with autistic furries; painfully shy people describe being electrified with bursts of energy and sudden extroversion. Furries often cite vivid childhood memories of a movie or cartoon (Disney’s Robin Hood is a common bellwether), but for Zarafa, there was no movie. “One of my friends believes he’s part tiger. I don’t think for a second that I’m part giraffe. Just… something happens when I put on this piece of clothing.” Dancing, which he’d hated, is now his favorite thing to do.

“I was on the dance floor in my suit,” he remembers, “and tears just started running down my face with happiness.”

Zarafa interacted with lots of people for his job, but a whole worldwide social network has opened up for him now (as we speak, he’s hosting a man from the U.K.). Still, his life as a vet hasn’t changed much. He came out to one clinic where he frequently works, but he keeps it to himself at the others. His sister is weird about it, and his mom’s mystified. Zarafa doesn’t think his brother, who’s on the autistic spectrum, would be able to handle the information responsibly.

But his best friend from high school had noticed he was happier, and whatever had happened was good. “I was so nervous,” Zarafa says about coming out. “I even sent him a picture of me and my fursuit. That’s a big deal.” His friend texted back: “awesome.” It meant the world to him.

Recently, he went to a concert alone in his fursuit for the first time, just for the joy of not caring what people think.

Spottacus compares himself jokingly to Tony Stark, except instead of the high-tech suits, he has state-of-the-art furs with sculpted haunches and LED eyes. His house—an airy 1950s modernist pad overlooking San Francisco from an emerald hilltop—is surrounded by cages for his serval, an African wildcat, who emerges from a lump under Spot’s comforter, leaps seven feet vertically onto a perch, and hisses. Spot won’t say exactly what he does for a living, but he says it involves lecturing as a biophysicist and running a medical company that’s going public. Apparently, he also takes job applications at furcons.

Spot also organizes periodic furry outings on the streets of San Francisco. He’s quick, fit, loves to talk, and his one distinctly uncatlike feature is total extroversion. Born 50 years earlier, he imagines he would have been an eccentric inventor.

Spottacus is a perfect breed of inherent furriness. He’s also in his late 50s, but unlike Zarafa, he’s been hissing and purring since birth, according to the bio on his site, which jokes that “Amazingly, [Spottacus] crawled on all fours well before he learned to walk upright and pretend to be human.” He remembers sitting in his childhood living room watching a black-and-white scene of fuzzy aliens deplaning their spaceship and wanting to be abducted.

He and his wife would later bond over hand-making animal costumes for their two sons. Now on dress-up days at the office, HR staff wear animal prints in his honor. He rides planes in his suit. He’s delivered emergency medical treatment to a car crash victim as a sabertooth. Recently, Facebook made him prove that “Spottacus” was his real name, so he showed them his credit card, his business card, and his name on lecture programs. “Everybody knows me as Spot,” he says. “It’s my name.” (It hasn’t legally been changed, but it’s on everything but his driver’s license.)

He shows me around his art collection, which includes drawings by Man Ray and Dr. Seuss and an original Rafiki animation cel for The Lion King concept art. One Wyeth-like drawing depicts a cheetah aiming his bow and arrow in a field; another shows Spottacus on a rock with two cheetah kittens representing his sons.

Furry art isn’t restricted to private collections; it’s embedded in pop culture. You can commission higher-end fursuits from costume designers who worked on Star Wars and the Muppets. Disney had to instate a policy that staffers couldn’t wear fursuits for branding reasons—now it’s just in the theme parks—and Spot sees Disney’s Zootopia as a movie blatantly catering to the furry community.

“Things have changed,” Spot says. “When my kids tell people, ‘My parents are furry,’ they don’t have to feel they have to hide that.” Once restricted to the fringes of sci-fi conventions and mail-order zines, the furry fandom coalesced in the message boards of the early Internet and rudimentary online text-based role-playing games called “mucks.” ConFurence, the annual furry convention founded in Los Angeles in 1990 and discontinued in 2003, propelled the community, and by 1996, when the New York Times Magazine caught on to “a growing national subculture of furry-suit hobbyists who don pelts, whiskers and tails year-round,” the scene was in full swing. Now you can find traces of furry fandom everywhere, from blogging platforms like Tumblr and LiveJournal to fanart sites DeviantArt and FurAffinity, to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.

“If people are more open with their identities, more creative, and hug each other more, what could be wrong with that?”

Spot would be sorry to see mass production take over the bespoke craftsmanship of custom suit makers, but he doesn’t see a problem with more tourists. “If people are more open with their identities, more creative, and hug each other more, what could be wrong with that?”

His house has a playroom, but over the years it’s filled up with sewing machines, heads, and fursuit sketches, as has the contiguous temperature-controlled storage room. The fan is running on full blast to dry out the sweaty cheetah, and Spot’s “handler”/tailor Erro Wolf is spraying Lysol on heads and brushing down furs. (Erro’s fursona is a black cat who likes to knock things off tables, because cats are assholes. It suits him).

Behaving as though it’s a natural extension of a host’s duties, Spottacus starts modeling; he runs from the house to a boulder in the yard, where he strikes athletic poses to showcase the full range of the suits’ flexibility. I get to meet additional personas: Toofs, a sabertooth with fangs, antlers, and muscular, double-jointed legs; a second, stunningly realistic Toofs à la The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; a mosquito, as he wanted something nobody else had; and even a custom pajama set, a lightweight cat suit with a zipper in the front. It’s an impressive collection. The suits take years to make, and prices start in the thousands of dollars range.

“It has to be fitted to every diameter of every limb you have,” Spot says. “You’re an inch off, it snags, and you can’t dance in it.”

Spot’s rifling through the closet, stripping down and pulling the suits on and off, posing and bantering with Erro about where’s the eye switch for the this and the interior head fan for that. He likes to sway his hips back and forth to feel his tail swing and to waggle his fingers to accentuate each individual claw. He insists that I try on the sabertooth; it’s like wearing an ultra-lightweight bed, and my immediate impulse is to violate everybody’s personal space and pet them with my paws.

As the suits go back in the boxes and I’m packing up the camera, Spot and Erro are whispering about something. Apparently, just after I left the party, Zarafa’s suit had been stolen from the back of his car. “He’s bereft,” Spot says.

“It’s not like losing a friend, because he can always replace it, but…” He trails off.

“Things have changed. When my kids tell people, ‘My parents are furry,’ they don’t have to feel they have to hide that.”

In silence, Erro starts excitedly scrolling. Twitter is exploding with condolences, drawings, hugs, updates from Craigslist and eBay, and custom flyers. The community is rallying around Zarafa in full force.

Spot and Zarafa’s fursuits play different roles in their lives, and they’re on opposite ends of the furry spectrum in many ways. Zarafa is still discovering things about himself, while Spot’s life has been wholly subsumed by his furry persona.

For both of them, however, furry fandom offers a different life from what the real world has to offer them, and a true sense of community.

“People were pissed, people were upset,” Zarafa said later over the phone. “I think it really struck a nerve.”

Zarafa received hundreds of consolation messages, some even said they were crying. He got 400 new Twitter followers. Friends called his fursuit maker to see if he could expedite his replacement order. Somebody tried to hook him up with the local TV station. Two people insisted on covering the reward money.

The costume was eventually found by two homeless women in an alley. Shortly after, someone tweeted Zarafa a cartoon drawing of a giraffe hugging the back of a man’s head, with the words “Welcome Home.” The giraffe is giving the hug—it’s the man who’s being welcomed.

On the phone, I could hear Zarafa tearing up. In his moment of need, friends and strangers had helped him. They’d supported him. Whether they knew him or not, they’d welcomed him. “That’s what the community is about,” he said.

Photo of Zarafa by Kyreeth of Dragonscales photography | All other photos by Whitney Kimball |  Illustration by J. Longo