“We’ve started a discipline,” says Dr. Sharon E. Roberts, Associate Professor at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo, cofounder of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, and one of the world’s leading academic experts on the furry fandom.
The IARP, also known more colloquially as FurScience, is comprised of psychologists, sociologists, social workers, and more around the globe; they’re hard at work gathering solid science behind a culture that has always been misunderstood — though thanks to their work, not as badly as it once was. With dozens of journal publications under their belt and over a decade of data at the ready, the field of Furry Studies is one of the most delightful, and surprisingly robust, areas of academia.
“We’ll tackle different topics in large part as furries bring them to us,” Dr. Roberts says. By training, she’s an identity researcher who studies how people transition into adulthood. The coping strategies developed over decades by the funny animal community (as it was known before the term "furry" took hold) are a source of deep fascination, because the data show that furries have particular insight when it comes to that transition.
“What we know from decades of research is that having a core sense of identity is essential to good health,” Roberts says. “You have this community that … has been largely abused and misunderstood by the general public, and they’re thriving. ... Furries are really doing well.”
The network of academics has conducted research into education (furries tend to be well-educated), species identification (holding “their” species in a positive light may be a means of bolstering self-esteem), mental health (furries report a more stable sense of identity than non-furries), sexual activity (furries rate sex as a relatively low priority in the fandom), and more.
To conduct these studies, they’ve developed a massive database of about a thousand people in the fandom who are willing to be contacted for research purposes. “We wanted to build a space for international collaboration,” Roberts says. Having established a trusted relationship with community leaders, the IARP is now able to collaborate with other academics looking for ways to access this sometimes-skittish community.
And although the pandemic has slowed some projects, such as a planned trip to conventions abroad to study different cultural approaches to the fandom, IARP researchers have several projects underway at the moment. Among them: an investigation into how the community impacts people with autism.
“Fursuits may or may not be advantageous” for people with autism, Roberts says. “Autistic people who are furries are not more likely to have fursuits … but they do have some interesting unique benefits,” for example calming sensations of compression and weight, less risk of overstimulation while wearing a foam head, less eye contact, and more exaggerated and explicit nonverbal communication.
Another project is an investigation into transgender wellbeing.
“We noticed that there are disproportionate amounts of people who identify as trans in the fandom,” Roberts says, and that they appear to be doing particularly well. “There seems to be a resistance that’s built into being part of the community ... That’s what’s fascinating, when you find vulnerable groups of people who are thriving.”
There was a time, many years ago, when furries were the much-maligned target of mockery online, and an occasional target of derision in mass media. Those days seem to be behind us, Roberts says, with long-term data showing a steady growth in acceptance. It’s too early to say why exactly the public perception has changed, but the phenomenon seems to align with the resilience of the community. The research seems to suggest three primary factors that contribute to furries' great strength: community, artwork, and friendship.
“It’s been the privilege of my life to engage with this community,” Roberts says. “Furries are misunderstood, but when you cut through it with science you find all kinds of great things.”