ARUN RATH, HOST:
Long the butt of pop culture jokes, people known as furries are fans of cartoon-like animals 0 so much so that they dress up in animal costumes. And every summer in Pittsburgh, furries from around the globe father for the world's largest furry convention, dubbed Anthrocon. From member station WESA in Pittsburgh, Deanna Garcia reports.
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DEANNA GARCIA: It's a warm, humid day in downtown Pittsburgh, and it's even hotter for the more than 1,400 people in full, head-to-toe animal costumes. Each year, Anthrocon hosts a Fursuit Parade, but it's always been indoors and open only to convention attendees. This year, they took it out doors and into the public. People of all ages showed up, including 10-year-old Mia.
MIA: I love it more than anything in the freaking world. There are unicorns, and I'm about to be all - oh, my God.
GARCIA: OK, but a question that comes up a lot is - what is a furry?
SAMUEL CONWAY: A furry is either a cartoon animal or a fan of cartoon animals. We use the terms interchangeably.
GARCIA: That's Samuel Conway. He's the convention chair. But what is it - hobby, a lifestyle? There are people walking around in ears and tails, some with paws, some in just street clothes and some in full animal costumes like you'd see at Disneyland.
CONWAY: We create our own fandom. Every person here is an individual dreamer, has made their own world.
GARCIA: Take Vitai, a white tiger from Jacksonville, Fla. Underneath the elaborate tiger suit is David Kanaszka. He's a regular at this conference and participates in online forums. He's a very, in part, he says because of the open-minded and accepting nature of the community.
DAVID KANASZKA: You can be yourself. You don't have to worry about what they're going to think of you because you're dressed up like a giant animal.
GARCIA: Conventions are held around the U.S. and the world. Pittsburgh's draws people from more than 34 countries. Anthrocon started in Albany, N.Y., in the late 1990s. It moved around a bit and has been held in Pittsburgh every year since 2006.
TOM LOFTUS: They've embraced us, and we've embraced them right back.
GARCIA: Tom Loftus with Visit Pittsburgh, the city's convention and visitors bureau, says they've had a positive impact on the city.
LOFTUS: From an economic standpoint, there's got to be - this year, it's got to be $5.7 million in direct spending.
GARCIA: And every year, Anthrocon donates to a local, animal-related charity or organization. But the furries do have to battle some big misconceptions - among them that it's a fetish thing. Conway...
CONWAY: I could probably go on all day. Oh, I heard that furries this. I heard that furries that. The only real statement is, you know, I heard that furries are some of the most creative people on the face of the planet.
CONWAY: Do they shed all over the hotel rooms? Yes. I'm sorry. They do.
GARCIA: The annual conference is scheduled to be in Pittsburgh through at least 2021. Pittsburghers are learning talk to furries, pet them, hug them, take selfies with them. But Conway cautions...
CONWAY: Please don't pull the tail. It's very, very rude.
GARCIA: For NPR News, I'm Deanna Garcia.
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