Tucked away behind an unmarked door in downtown Toronto once a month lies a world where humans take the form of foxes, dogs, and made-up mythical creatures. Fursuiters—furries who dress in full mascot-like garb—sometimes spill onto the sidewalk, attracting the attention of passersby.
The sight may seem off-putting and strange to some, but to others it's the tell-tale sign of a haven where they're free to be themselves, be around people who understand and accept them for who they are, and, of course, party their asses off. It's called Howl, and over the past few years, its attendance numbers have grown, becoming a vital part of Toronto's thriving furry community.
The furries who started Howl in 2014—Yennix, raverfox, and Dralen—wanted to give the local community a way to come together more often than just for conventions. While conventions can be cost-prohibitive, Howl costs $5 at the door, making it an entry point for newcomers to the community.
"I have heard a couple of attendees say that this is their first real furry gathering they've been out to," said Yennix, 37, aka James. On Howl nights, Yennix can be seen doing circuits through the venue to greet people and check up on people partying, ensuring they have water or a ride home if they need it.
Yennix, like a number of furries at Howl, does not wear a fursuit. Though his fursona (aka an anthropomorphic persona) is a black panther, it's common for furries to not express their identities in fursuits or even animal accessories like cat ears. Some are just really into drawing their characters, some enjoy wearing T-shirts with animals on them, others wear a number of badges from conventions they refer to as "bling."
"I'm super thrilled that we're one of the venues that drew them into the community and gave them a positive, warm feeling… That's what being a furry is [about]," Yennix said.
In spite of the long history of sensationalized media attention focused on the sexual side of the fandom, furries often describe the community as a place of friendship, art, partying, and acceptance. And though there isn't a furry I've spoken to who will deny that yiffing—aka fucking in fursuits—can happen, most will say so with the disclaimer that a small minority of furries are of the fetish variety while denouncing a particularly salacious episode of CSI called "Fur and Loathing."
Inside of Howl, among the pool tables and booths of people wearing furry tails, it's not unlike raves I've attended: a dancefloor rammed with sweaty people, multicolour flashing lights, and loud electronic music, where people are constantly gathering into groups to embrace and pose for photos.
AvWuff, a blue-and-white husky with a giant orange plushie fidget spinner who I met outside the venue, told me that when he got his fursuit—which can cost thousands of dollars—he had the urge to find places to wear it out. "That's why I started coming to Howl—it's an excuse to be a big fluffy dog," he said. As we talked, AvWuff was stopped repeatedly by people walking past who would excitedly ask him questions or request to pet his fursuit.
"The thing about furries is we come from all walks of life," he said. "As a result, it can be difficult to get together and see people. It's really cool to just see everyone in one place."
AvWuff, who works in software, also mentioned how Howl, and the furry community at large, is not elitist, and feels like an open space for people to express themselves as they choose.
In the hallway before entering the dancefloor at Howl, there's a side room known as the "headless lounge." For fursuiters like AvWuff, it's a place where people can get dressed if they come in with their street clothes on. Outside of that room is where I talk to raverfox, 34, who regularly DJs Howl and just finished his set.
"Because furries tend to be so very niche, their musical tastes and partying tastes are very niche," he explained. "Typically if it's happy and bouncy, furries tend to like it," raverfox said, noting that 80s music and electro swing play well to the Howl crowd.
Cofounder Dralen, aka Daniel, said that putting on local DJs was a goal when they started Howl. Since conventions typically happen annually, there are few, coveted booking spots, meaning that not many furries would get a chance to play to a crowd of their own.
Dralen has been a furry since the early 90s. His fursona is a dragon-fox, and he can usually be seen by the entrance of Howl, easily spottable by the fedora he typically wears. "I've been a furry longer than some of the people who come to this event have been alive," Dralen told me as we stood on the sidewalk outside the venue, directing furries to the entrance. He said that a major reason he wanted to start Howl was to put on local furry DJs. He was also inspired by Frolic, a long-running furry party in San Francisco.
"Furry is really a community that invents itself… In a very real way, we make it up as we go along," Dralen said.
Though music is a creative outlet for some in the furry community, Howl has also facilitated meetings between other artists in the community. Mark, aka Arrkay, met his YouTube channel partner at the party.
"I was there by myself and across the way I see other Mark [aka Underbite]—I was single, so I thought I'd try to flirt with him," Arrkay said. "He was taken, so that didn't work, but we had this really great chemistry, had a great conversation, and he told me that he went to school for graphic design."
Arrkay said that from there, Underbite made him a logo and ended up bringing him onto his project, Culturally F'd, with the two eventually becoming business partners. "Next thing I know, he's coming over to my house every week to film this video series," Arrkay said.
Ultimately, there are a number of events that bring together the members of Toronto's furry community: a summer camp in Ontario called Camp Feral, the massive convention Furnal Equinox, and even regular outings to an Italian restaurant. But Howl is undoubtedly a vital part of the comm, serving as a regular social hub and a way for beginners to get into the fandom IRL instead of just online.
"We're very proud we've carved out this space," Dralen said.
For Yennix, his involvement and time commitment to furry events is a way to leave a legacy.
"When I sit down and wonder what life would look like if I didn't do these things, it would be maybe not as fulfilling," he said. "This is kind of one of the ways I have of saying 'I was here; I managed to touch the lives of the people who were with me.' That's why I do it."