I have a confession: I have wanted a tail for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was growing up with so many dogs and cats, riding ponies and then horses, or maybe it's something else, something deeper. It always seemed to me that humans looked somehow incomplete without tails. (And that thought still crosses my mind at least once a month.)

So while I've never been compelled to dress up in an animal costume, I've imagined what my own tail would look like (adorable!), and I think I get part of the reason why people dress up as foxes, bears and cats — usually called furries or fursuiters. You could call me a furry sympathizer.

A tiger furry at the European Furry ConventionWhich is why I'm glad the practice of dressing up as an animal has moved from the freakish sidelines — remember how the person dressed in a bear suit in "The Shining" upped the creepiness factor of the sex scene? — to the mainstream. That's due to a combination of more open-minded attitudes, the wonderful furry community that can be found on the Internet, and bold individuals who have spoken out about what furry culture really is. Not to mention that "furry lite" fashion — wearing animal-face hats, hoods and gloves — has become so commonplace, even among adults.

But there are still plenty of myths about what it is to be a furry.

First of all, furry culture is about way more than just sex. If that's your association, that's because the media has tended to focus on that angle. Like other parts of costume-play that came out of Comic-Con and other fantasy and gamer gatherings, dressing as an animal a chance to express another part of yourself or to explore a side of your personality that you might not feel comfortable with in your everyday life. Masks of all kinds — from those worn on stage, to makeup, to costume balls and Halloween — have a long and fascinating role in human history.

Fursuiters are just wearing another kind of mask, but the people who like to dress as wolves, penguins, bunnies or other creatures are generally those who strongly identify with animals — rather than a witch or a Disney character or a famous actor. They run the gamut from fairly faithful animal imitations to more or less anthropomorphized creatures — a half wolf/half man for example — to fanciful combinations of animals, like a bunny-dog. Others hew more closely to completely made-up animals from anime or art.

Midwest Fur Fest 2006The fascination with furries isn't a modern idea. The costumes and themes are different, but the premise has its roots in ancient traditions. (Photo: Laurence "GreenReaper" Parry/Wikipedia)

A sense of play

The furry community is primarily about creativity, playfulness, freedom and exploration. If it seems like those things are in short supply in conventional Western life, you're onto part of the reason this movement resonates with so many people. The Internet is an important connecting place, but IRL (in real life) gatherings of more than 3,000 have occurred, and it's especially popular in the United Kingdom.

Fursonas or fur-personas can also be about transcending divisive social issues like race, gender, class, weight or religion — or basically any label that makes people uncomfortable or unsure about where they fit.

Relating to animals in this way isn't new: In many native cultures, totem or spirit animals help people understand their place in the world, and beloved stories from almost every culture include animals that could speak, humans who are reincarnated as animals, or rituals that involve dressing as animals.

"Humans tend to anthropomorphise as a way of understanding and interpreting the world around us. Furries just take this interest a bit further than most people," anthrozoologist Kathy Gerbasi told the BBC.

Some of the popularity of fursuiters may be found in our culture's disconnect with the natural world, or in a longing for the simpler life of an animal. In truth, different furry fans probably have varying reasons for why they love to dress up as. And whether this idea resonates with you or not, it's definitely growing in popularity. In Japan, "kigurumi" are mainstream. These cute animal onesie outfits are worn for fun, and you can now buy those plushy ensembles in the U.S. too, via the wonders of the Internet.

I'm waiting for really cool, pre-made tails to become available. It might confuse my cat, but it would definitely be fun to try on!

Inset photo: A tiger furry at the European Furry Convention (Photo: Torsten Maue/flickr)

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.