Virginia Tech has no shortage of unique organizations, from clubs dedicated to the work of Kanye West to hiking groups on the search for Bigfoot. While each group falls into a color spectrum made of blues and greens and ultraviolets, they all have one thing in common: community. The Society of Anthropomorphics (SOAP) at Virginia Tech is no exception.
Bailey Pleasant is a junior studying environmental horticulture and the vice president of SOAP.
“Most are mammals; some are avian, some are reptiles and everything in between,” Pleasant said. “Your imagination can become limitless when it comes to what you want to represent yourself. It can come down to what your favorite animal is. It can be based off your physical traits: maybe you like to sleep a lot, so you choose to be a cat; maybe you’re very sociable and choose to be a dog.”
Pleasant said the most unique character they have now is a dolphin with human hands and feet but a dolphin’s tail.
Those who dress in animal attire, or Furries, contribute to a fringe society that has reportedly been in the United States for decades.
According to Pleasant, the club was founded in 2001 and was one of the first social organizations of its kind on American college campuses. They have grown since and reportedly have around 20 active members. The Furries that burrow in SOAP vary on how serious they commit to the fandom. They vary on the level they take it to.
“There’s a very large range of what people can do within the fandom,” Pleasant said. “There are people who are just associated with it, and there are people who make it their entire lives.”
Pleasant also mentioned that while they make their own costumes, some go out and buy custom costumes from independent artists who can reportedly make a living from it.
“Some have spent thousands of dollars going to conventions, buying their personal costumes, art and similar things of that nature,” Pleasant said.
The self-labeled fandom is much more individualized than other interest groups, and most people involved initially discovered the Furry community through the internet.
“Before I came to college, I didn’t realize that there were so many people like me living around me,” Pleasant said. “I later discovered that there were people in my hometown that were even affiliated with the fandom.”
While Pleasant mentioned that some like to express their existing personalities, dressing in this representation is also a way for some to escape into completely new identities. In order to accomplish this, a small percentage of the fandom utilizes what Pleasant referred to as a fursuit, which usually involves a concealed head somewhat resembling a sports mascot.
“It can be a form of escapism; to present themselves (as) the person they wish they were,” Pleasant said. “They like to let go of the stress of what it’s like to be a human in our every day (life) and instead be this little creature (…) it’s kind of acting or cosplay to an extent.”
When the club met in person regularly before the pandemic, those who had fur suits would dress up and go on outings beyond scheduled meetings, such as trips to Sinkland Farms to pick pumpkins or trips to parks, which they have been able to do with social distancing. Pleasant said that Halloween is one of their favorite holidays because they get to freely display part, if not all of their culture, easily. Those who have fur suits also vary in actions; some do not speak at all while in costume.
“When I’m in my fursuit, I am very mascot-like — bouncy and energetic, but at the same time I don’t talk when I’m in my suit,” Pleasant said. “I feel my voice doesn’t fit my character, so instead I motion for things and sort of play charades. That’s the me that I am when I’m in costume.”
SOAP also previously served within the New River Valley community.
“Before COVID, we had a volunteering group that would work in collaboration with the local animal shelters to enrich (the) lives of the animals in their care,” Pleasant said.
In terms of how large these communities are, SOAP reportedly worked in collaboration last Halloween with Furry groups at universities across Virginia, including Old Dominion University, the University of Virginia and James Madison University. While the club itself is growing with the fandom among many universities, graduated alumni also sometimes participate in gatherings; they have a large network, including the founders, two decades after starting it.
“We have a significant alumni presence,” Pleasant said. “We have a group chat where everybody can still have the opportunity to build connections with people that have been across generations (of Furries).”
Generally, most people find this culture extremely out of the ordinary, an opinion which Pleasant is very familiar with.
“It’s generally assumed that the club is full of people who do bad things; we like things that are weird and taboo, and that’s definitely not the case,” Pleasant said. “Generally, the things that make the rounds on places like social media tend to be negative. People don’t quite get to see the positives as much.”
Pleasant wants to help educate and encourage people to lessen those opinions.
“We’ve been trying to break that stigma by being proud of our presence,” Pleasant said. “Just because people may choose to laugh and mock us, we still choose to proudly put ourselves out there.”
Pleasant also mentions they have a large LBGTQ+ presence and will always try to make the club welcoming to all identities and majors. They stated that anyone who wants to learn more about the fandom or to join SOAP can best reach them through GobblerConnect.