Rainfurrest drew 2,500 people with pointed ears and tails extending from their butts. Matt Baume

Two weekends ago, I drove to the SeaTac Hilton and parked in a distant overflow lot. I was wondering if I was in the right place until I spotted a giant fuzzy bat standing on the sidewalk. When traffic cleared, the bat lifted its wings and scampered across the road, flapping as furiously as an actual winged creature would. There was no one else present. This was not a performance for anyone's benefit. This was a person in a head space so complete, they were no longer a person at all.

Inside, the lobby of the hotel looked like Noah's ark. Most people had at least some furry ears or a tail. They chatted in small groups, with a few on all fours, barking. Others gathered around a table, stitching costumes. There was a large room set up for game consoles, and a dealer's den where you could buy animal-shaped pillows, or furry romance novels, or snacks, or porn.

I started talking with a furry who told me his name was MetalFox. As we were waiting for the elevator, he said, "The first photo I ever had with a furry was a reindeer who visited the hospital. I had a few weeks left to live. It was Christmas."

Next to us stood a rat holding a slice of pizza, and a six-foot-tall blue jay. Neither one batted an eye at his story, and indeed they couldn't have even if they wanted to—their eyes were plastic mesh embedded in masks of synthetic fur.

Furries are people who think of themselves as animals, or at least nonhuman avatars. They might dress up in costume, or they might not; they might express themselves through role-play, they might be kinky, they might keep their furriness a secret; or they might do none of those things. Some have known they're furry since childhood, others only realized their affinity later in life. You could be a furry right now without even knowing it.

Personally, I've wondered if I harbored my own secret fur for years. As a kid, I wished my friends could be more like the frolicsome rabbit family in Disney's Robin Hood. In college, I went through a phase where I taped a drawing of a kitten over my student ID photo and said "meow" when shaking hands, until a financial-aid officer frowned and ordered me to remove the picture while he watched. Then last August, I dressed up as the Nintendo character Fox McCloud for a video-game party. I have no qualms about stripping down for underwear parties—I'm hopeless at putting together an outfit, and usually it's less embarrassing to simply wear none at all. But the thought of dressing up in furry ears and a fox tail stressed me out. I was definitely going to be made fun of, right? Well, no—as soon as I slipped into the costume, my ever-present social stress simply vanished. I felt cute. People like Fox, and when I was wearing his fur at the party, people liked me. I walked home that night with the tail still swaying at my hip, not caring who saw me, and wondering: What had I just unlocked?

Which is partly how I ended up at Rainfurrest, which drew 2,500 to the SeaTac Hilton this year. Though attendees might be human in their mundane lives, by the time they walked through the revolving door of the lobby, their ears had become pointed and their tails extended from their butts. Furry sleeves adorned their arms, and their noses had been blackened until they were foxes and Charmanders and pterodactyls and elk.

A few folks clustered by the entrance, gawking at an alpaca—a real alpaca, not a person in a costume. The convention raises thousands of dollars each year for the Cougar Mountain Zoo.

MetalFox leads Rainfurrest's charitable wing. A few years back, he told me, he realized that he'd reached all of the goals in his human life. He had a dream job (IT administrator) and a home, and he'd survived leukemia against the odds. What was left? His fursona provided an answer: giving back. "He's a character I wish I could be," MetalFox told me. "My fursona helps other people."

"So why the wings?" I asked, looking at a drawing he held of a fox hovering majestically in the clouds.

"I just love flying," he said. "After Challenge Air." That's a charity started by a pilot that takes special-needs children on flights. MetalFox had been treated to a flight while hospitalized with leukemia, and the idea of benefactors descending from the sky left such an impression that he had re-created it in his very identity.

Recently, MetalFox helped a friend overcome suicidal depression by introducing her to an informal furry social circle. Now on the mend, the friend helps other furries facing similar hardships, forming a chain of support that moves from furry to furry. As MetalFox described the community's emotional continuity, a wisp of synthetic white fur drifted between us, blown from a distant creature by the air conditioning. MetalFox plucked the tuft from the air, rubbed it between his fingers, and then released it into a breeze that carried it through a pack of lounging wolves. I felt like I was in the presence of a guru.

"Was helping her stressful for you?" I asked. He nodded, and for just a moment I saw the hesitation of the man behind the fursona.

"I was not able to take on that responsibility," the human said, then smiled, "but MetalFox was able to." He cast his gaze across the room, where a person in a dingo costume was locked in loving embrace with an inflatable dragon.

"The theme of being comfortable with who you are is something I learned about through furry fandom," Kyell Gold said. He's the author of several romance novels, including Out of Position, about a gay tiger that plays college football. Kyell's novels focus on personal exploration and coming to terms with one's true nature, a process he himself underwent: Earlier in life, he studied chemical engineering, then multinational management, and then got an MA in zoology. During that time, he started writing furry romance, and when he was laid off from a tech job in 2010, his partner—also a furry—helped him launch a writing career.

"There are a lot of people who come to this place because they don't feel welcome where they are," Kyell told me. A man in a partial raccoon suit strolled past waving giant orange feather-boa fans, eliciting friendly waves from a group of college-age boys who were busy helping each other into dog costumes. "And they can learn who they are here," Kyell finished.

What was I learning about myself? Were these my people? I certainly felt a geeky kinship. Furries are a diverse crowd, but certain interests seemed so common, they were near-universal.

Seattle might just have the rest of the world beat when it comes to those interests. In addition to Rainfurrest, we also host Emerald City Comicon, FIRST Robotics, GeekGirlCon, BrickCon (for Lego enthusiasts), Sakura-Con (anime), ZomBcon (the undead), PAX Prime (games), and the Monsters of Accordion tour. Seattle isn't home to the largest furry convention in the country—that would be Anthrocon in Pittsburgh, which draws crowds of more than 6,000. But we have the best homegrown crop of nerds, and you can bet that attendees of Rainfurrest see each other at other local geek gatherings throughout the year.

"I'm also a Brony," said Phin, as he plunged an air hose into a blue vinyl orca balloon and let it slowly inflate. He was wearing a Dr. Who shirt. "I'm also in the 501st." He just assumed that I would know that the 501st is a group of Star Wars cosplayers. He was correct.

"When you're a geek, you find yourself restraining yourself," Phin went on. "If I told my coworkers I was here, inflating animals, what do you think they'd say?" Around us, a half dozen pool toys, twice as large as a regular person, wobbled back and forth. They'd been custom-made for thousands of dollars, and there were stern admonishments to leave all sharp objects outside the room.

As he spoke, I idly stroked a bundle of fur in my jacket pocket. I'd just been to a workshop where we were supplied with patterns and materials to build our own tails. I chose a bunny pattern, and as I stitched the fabric, I flirted with a boy in a sharply tailored vest. Like me, he was thin, fair, and soft-spoken. By day, he works for the coast guard. But when he's off the clock, he told me, he's a rabbit.

"I can see that," I said, and somehow I really could. Rabbits have a way of finding each other, I guess.

"I'm super shy, so friends don't always come easy," Kappy told me. She was a blue raccoon, in full costume except that she had placed her furry head on the table in front of her so she could sip coffee. Role-playing as an animal wiped away the stress of socializing, which is why she was so comfortable spending time with friends like Kilo, who sat next to her.

"This is the only time I'm able to throw on the suit and have fun," Kilo said. "I would love to be silly all the time. But I catch myself. When I'm in a suit, I have freedom." When he's not in the suit, he studies diesel technology and welding in a small conservative Idaho town, and he goes to great lengths to ensure that no one will ever find out who he really is.

I could sympathize with their relief at finding a way to interact without anxiety. I'd had to walk past their table three times before I worked up the nerve to introduce myself.

"I discovered werewolves in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual when I was 9," Buni told me as we sat in the hotel courtyard. At a bench nearby, a bearded man gently stroked the rainbow mane of a unicorn with bulging chest muscles.

"The notion of not-quite-human struck a note in the same way as not-quite-male did when I was 17," Buni said. "When you look at a mirror and you see something that is not-quite-you looking back."

For most of her life, in conflicts between the head and the heart, she'd always gone with her head, resigning herself to reality as it was. For years, she had presented as male and lingered at the periphery of the furry community, quietly empathizing more with the werewolves than the heroes in horror films. Then one night, a furry friend asked her: "Are you serious about this? Or are you a hanger-on?"

"It was a shock to the system," Buni said. "Like when a kid gets caught wearing his mom's clothes for the first time." She was 19 and closeted, not even out to herself about being trans. "I had got as far as figuring out that I wasn't straight and not wholly male."

But as she began exploring online communities and flying across the country to attend meet-ups, she realized, "There are elements of self that I can control... I could transition. I got to decide what life meant."

As Buni spoke, a little girl ran around a corner, tripped on the sidewalk, and started to cry. The rainbow unicorn saw what had happened and clopped over to hug and comfort her.

Meeting a snow leopard named Keet at a furry gathering hastened Buni's transformation. At the time, Keet also presented as male, and as soon as they found each other, Buni said, they were "old friends who just met." Keet moved across the country to start a home with Buni, and they transitioned together.

"Everyone has that potential to find the furry," Buni said. "The pony. The crystal gem. It's finding the right key... finding that way of expressing that self, because we don't know we're allowed to look for it." At this point, I momentarily considered firing my therapist and asking Buni if we could set up weekly sessions.

When I got home, my partner James asked, "Did you find your people?"

"I don't know!" I said. "Maybe?" I showed him the tail I'd made, and then I noticed the mound of dishes that had accumulated in the sink during just the few hours I was away. "Are you fucking kidding me?" I exclaimed, and started to berate him about making a mess. This is my typical response to anything that triggers my cleanliness anxiety—lashing out with blame.

"What the fuck is this?" I demanded, pointing at an unwashed cheese grater.

"Uh. Hold on," he said, grabbing a clip from a bag of chips and using it to affix the bunny tail to the back of my pants.

"Oh," I said, considering. I wiggled my butt and felt the weight of it.

Suddenly, I was thinking about a peaceful woodland bunny nibbling grass, and a comforting stuffed rabbit named Buttons that I loved as a child, and that one rabbit that became internet-famous for balancing pancakes on his head. Relaxing, peaceful, tranquil thoughts. Staring at the tail, I could remember all of those images in an instant. But I couldn't remember why the dishes were worth getting in a fight over.

"Are you still stressed out?" James asked.

"No," I said. It takes a lot more than that to stress out a bunny. recommended

Matt Baume writes about politics and other kinky topics daily at slog.thestranger.com