There is a stranger behind me on this mountain path making horse noises -- not the silly "neighs" of childhood play but the sounds of a man in touch with his animal side. I turn and catch a nervous glimpse: He's wearing a midnight-black horse mask, a spandex bodysuit, biker boots and a network of BDSM harnesses. Oh, and his hands -- excuse me, hooves -- are bound behind his back.
I'm thinking: Maybe I was wrong to come here alone.
"Here" being Northern California's Fox Hunt, a version of hide and seek for kinky adults, held at a nudist retreat in the middle of the woods. Technically, I'm not alone -- there are a dozen or so others climbing the steep hillside, but they too are dressed like freaky-deaky versions of hunting animals. One man wears dark wraparound sunglasses under a black face-mask with fuzzy, species-indistinct ears duct-taped to the top of his head. Completing his look is a fake fur shrug and a mesh G-string that holds his man parts at attention -- it's subway flasher meets c...
The event targets animal role-players from the S/M scene as well as dirty-minded members of the furry community, which is broadly organized around a fondness for anthropomorphic animals. There are "clean furries" who keep it strictly G-rated and then there are dirty "furverts." Just as with sci-fi and comic book nerds, furries regularly take over convention centers, churn out fan fiction and artwork, and invest in elaborate costuming. Furries are more likely than BDSM animal players to fully identify with the creature they take on, sometimes to the point of feeling like, say, a horse stuck in a human body. The "fox hunters" are minority players in already marginalized groups, and they all found each other thanks to Fetlife.com, aka Facebook for kinksters.
The hunters, their "pets" and their prey first meet to discuss the day's activities in a yurt amid a scattering of lawns where tanned retirees pad around in flip-flops and nothing else. There is a jarring dissonance between the back-to-basics naturist routine and the sinister ornamentation inside the hut. Behind the eye holes of one man's leather equine mask is black mesh, which gives him a soulless, demonic look. A fashionable dominatrix is wearing tan leggings, a riding helmet and an elegant button-up blouse; her dyed red hair approaches the color of a traditional fox-hunting jacket. At her side, sitting on all fours, is her "pup," outfitted in Army camo, black boots and mitts, and a leather mask that offers an occasional peek at two small, blinking eyes. At the end of the meeting, an organizer intones, "Those of you not wearing much" -- she casts a glance toward the woman wearing a leather body-harness that leaves miles of flesh, including her large breasts, fully exposed -- "be careful of poison oak."
When the bullhorn is blown to mark the start of the first series of hunts, the pups run ahead, while the hunters hang back, hands on their horses' reins. A man with long hair and a leather vest who goes by the name Dragonslayer directs his pony, Splinter, onward while slipping slightly on the trail -- his cowboy boots' smooth soles are just one of many impractical accessories on this hunt. Later, Splinter, who wears a red bridle plume, a brown spandex body suit and has stirrups dangling from her sides, tells me that it's only an illusion that her master has total control: "I have a bit in my mouth, someone's telling me where to go, but I'm still as free-spirited as I could ever be," she says. "John Wayne's horse is by no stretch of the imagination a pussy." In her real life, Splinter is a paralegal for the federal government.
The punishment for the foxes isn't death, of course, but rather negotiated BDSM play later on. In the meantime, they are escorted to the bottom of the hunting hill. Smash, who helped start the original Fox Hunt, is the first fox captured. The 39-year-old has squeezed his round belly into a head-to-toe bright red latex fox costume complete with a cartoonish snout and a bouncy, inflated tail. The suit is smooth and seamless, except for a zippered crotch. He spends the rest of the first hunt held from behind by his captor, who rubs his nipples through his latex suit. Judging by the way Smash whimpers and rubs at his belly, it is far from punishment. "He's in fox heaven," someone says with a laugh.
Smash may not be family-friendly but he looks enough like a jovial mascot that it's fitting for him to act as a spokesperson, an emissary to the non-furry world. I'm introduced to him and shake his paw, unsure afterward whether he initiated it or I did out of routine. (It's been a while since I've visited Disneyland; I think: What's the proper protocol here?) The 39-year-old's playful appearance belies his utter seriousness about his animal identity. "Some people are considered 'gender dysphoric' and I envy them for having the option of gender reassignment surgery," he says. "For 'species dysphoric' people like myself, I could only wish genetic engineering would legally allow me to pursue species reassignment surgery." He insists that option is a closer reality than most think, but until that time comes, he says, "I have my costumes to transform me."
Smash was first drawn to the wolf. While learning about Native American culture in college, he was titillated by legends of transformation and shape-shifting -- especially the idea of being turned into a wolf by having sex with a werewolf. "I began to find artistic renderings of anthropomorphic wolves mating on art websites, UseNet and message boards," says Smash, who grew up in a conservative small town in Ohio. "I can't count the number of nights I fantasized about sexual encounters with a werewolf." Then, one night during a vision quest, a golden female wolf arose from the flames of his campfire, he says. Smash adds, "Some of my happiest, most blissful sexual moments are being lost in the musky scent of my partner as my face is buried in a faux fur costume."
The others' explanations are prosaic compared to Smash's fiery apparition. "Well, I've always wanted a border collie and now I've got one," says "Melvin," a 62-year-old wearing a buck-toothed plastic snout, a top hat and floppy ears. He doesn't consider himself a furry because it's just role-playing for him, it's not a lifestyle. A 20-year-old newbie with nervous, shaking hands told me, "I had a country-style upbringing. I have two bio-horses back home and I love them and I'm connected really well with the horse," he says. His primary fantasy persona is a pegasus by the name of Clip Clop, and his secondary character is an albino bull named Edgar.
Despite all the leather, latex and nipple-rubbing, there is a youthful quality to the event. It's like those playground games where kids pretend to be their favorite animals -- only these players have disposable incomes that allow them to splurge hundreds of dollars on leather masks, hoove-mitts, butt plug tails and the like. The visual of a pony giving a ride to its master is slightly reminiscent of a parent giving a piggyback ride to a child. (In the same sense that pouty porno spankings hearken back to childhood punishment.) There is some playful interspecies mock-humping and rubbing, but for the most part, the erotic undercurrent remains submerged -- at least, until the evening play party.
What inevitably arises in any outside discussion of animal role-play is the bestiality question. Smash immediately swats it away: "For me, and people like myself, by applying speech to our character that we role-play, allows us to act out consensual fantasies," he says. "An anthropomorphic animal has the ability to speak, communicate and give informed consent." It's certainly the case that the nuances of consent are respected and discussed within the BDSM community like nowhere else.
Most of the "fox hunters" seem accustomed to feeling like outsiders, even long before they got into animal role-play. "I find more comfort among people who are similar to myself," says Smash -- and who doesn't? Most of us seek closeness and connection with like-minded sorts, and we especially look for it in sex. The Internet proves true the saying that there's someone out there for everyone -- or in this case, a fox for every hunter.