This article originally appeared on VICE US
The Disney catalog is a body of work that serves as a greatest hits collection for cartoon cinema. It's also, unsurprisingly, a canon that appeals greatly to the furry community. If it's an animal, Disney has probably anthropomorphized it. A fish with anxiety disorder? Yeah. A fox in favor of wealth redistribution? Got it. A duck with tits? Check. This month, Disney released its latest offering, Zootopia, a film about a con-artist fox named Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman.
The fox is one of furrydom's favorite characters, and with Zootopia Disney has continued its longstanding if not-entirely-public relationship with the furry community. Like most Disney animations, it's marketed toward a general audience. But as a caper set within an anthropomorphic metropolis, replete with rabbits and cape buffalo as big-city cops and Shakira as a rump-shaking, singing gazelle, Zootopia naturally fits the furry community's interests.
"We're all about showing what it would be like if we were all different species," said Chip Fox, a veteran furry who works as a defense and space systems architect at MIT. "The movie is a great example of how some things actually work in the furry community."
Disney is at least somewhat aware of furries. Co-director Byron Howard tweeted early Zootopia sketches as he conversed with furries; animator Daniel Gonzales encouraged fans to send pictures of themselves in fursuits; and layout supervisor Joaquin Baldwin pondered the Zootopian presence of "smoothies" (for those of you outside furry culture, that's the concept of anthropomorphic characters obsessing over humans).
Moreover, BuzzFeed recently uncovered an email from Disney marketing hire Allied Integrated Media that asked Furlife, a furry Meetup group, to post pictures of themselves using the hashtags "#Zootopia" and "#ZooU." But Disney's relationship with furries goes beyond social-media marketing schemes, spanning decades before Zootopia's development.
Although anthropomorphic creatures have appeared in literature since at least the time of Hesiod, several centuries before Aesop's Fables, furry culture started gestating during the 70s. "During the proto-furry period, there was an art movement recognized by art historians as the lowbrow/pop surrealism movement," said Octavia Wolfe, a furry and art historian who says she used to design logos for Disney. The influence of lowbrow underground cartoonists can be found in furry art's inherently countercultural focus as well as its occasionally bawdy humor.
According to Wolfe and furry historian Fred Patten, the definitive starting point for furry culture came in 1976, with the founding of Vootie. An underground publication that grew out of the sci-fi community, Vootie marked the first time a magazine carried original, furry-related comics created by a fan base as opposed to being a commercial production. "It was devoted to the concept of original funny-animal creations rather than the fans creating their own imitation Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, and already commercially established comics," Patten wrote in an email. Among these original creations was "Omaha" the Cat Dancer, which became one of the first comics to incorporate explicit sex between talking animals into its storylines.
The "proto" label fell off in the early 80s. In an article titled "Retrospective: An Illustrated Chronology of Furry Fandom, 1966–96" Patten writes that former US Air Force graphics specialist Steve Gallacci provided a major breakthrough for the niche when he entered the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention's art show with a painting of Erma Felna—a dark-haired feline serving in the extraterrestrial military. By 1983, she'd become the central character of Albedo Anthropomorphics, an anthology that is often credited with starting the furry comic-book genre. That same year Marc Schirmeister began the amateur comics zine Rowrbrazzle, which featured illustrations of talking animals—the first publication to feature them exclusively—and its success was one of the first markers that a furry community existed, according to Patten.
"The reason that a lot of furries will say that they're misrepresented in media is because a lot of media has a tendency to focus on the sexual aspects," Octavia Wolfe said. "With a lot of furries, that's not really the case."
The furry community grew, eventually making its way into animation. Schirmeister worked on Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and one episode of Batman: The Animated Series. His Rowrbrazzle colleague John Cawley, A.K.A. Topfox, went on to have a hand in producing An American Tail, the Garfield and Friends series, and a few episodes of Dexter's Laboratory. As for specifically Disney-related works, Rowrbrazzle alumnus Chris Sanders is known for co-directing Lilo and Stitch, while fellow alumnus Shawn Keller did animation work on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Chip Fox believes there may be more furry animators working at Disney (when asked about furries at the company, a representative for Disney declined to comment). But it's hard to get an exact estimate since animators tend to distance themselves from the furry community. Some may have outgrown it, but others simply want to protect their careers. There's a rumored studio bias against furries because of the belief that it's a sex-focused culture. While NSFW furry art certainly exists, it makes up only a fraction of the community's artwork.
"The reason that a lot of furries will say that they're misrepresented in media is because a lot of media has a tendency to focus on the sexual aspects," Wolfe agreed. "With a lot of furries, that's not really the case."
The prejudices and stereotypes haven't stopped the furry community from growing its global membership and footprint in mainstream culture. Overall, Zootopia's significance—and its parallel with furry ethos—is bringing legions of fans together.
"This is the first time I have ever seen furries en masse go to see a movie," said Wolfe, who's been a furry for 14 years. "It's a huge impact, and furries are acknowledging it by attending it."
Follow Brian Josephs on Twitter.