The furries are gathering in Pittsburgh, and they're ready to shed.
No, not clumps of fur. They're looking to dispel what they contend are the mistaken perceptions that their fascination with all things anthropomorphic _ animal characters who exhibit human characteristics _ are dangerously weird or fetishistic.
More than 5,000 devotees are expected at the city's convention center through Sunday for Anthrocon. They refer to themselves as "furries," though only about 1 in 5 will be cavorting in "fursuits" _ full-bodied costumes including otters, foxes, cats and dogs. There's even a guy who dresses as an extinct species of zebra.
They're celebrating animal characters from movies, TV shows, comic books, video games and, most especially, the characters they create themselves.
Gary Guy Mathews, an unemployed, self-described computer geek from suburban Green Tree, prefers to appear in public in a costume of shredded paper that looks much like the "The Shaggy DA," a Disney movie that unleashed his inner canine when he was about 11 years old. He prefers to be called Boomer since becoming enamored with "Here's Boomer," a short-lived NBC TV series about an adventurous, good-deed-doing mutt.
"It's a very personal thing to me, as my dog persona. It's just something I feel I should be, having had the name for so long. It just says who I am: Boomer. The. Dog," Mathews said.
Samuel Conway, Anthrocon's chairman, is a chemist for a major pharmaceutical firm. He dresses in a lab coat and goes by the alias Uncle Kage (pronounced KAH'-jay). That's short for Kagemushi, the samurai cockroach character he dreamed up years ago.
Though he speaks with the exaggerated inflection of some cartoon characters, Conway doesn't dress like a bug because the costumes are, "too hot; they're unwieldy."
"That's what people seem to think Anthrocon is all about, but it's about more than just costumes," Conway said.
The convention draws artists, puppeteers, costume makers, writers and just plain fans. This year's guests of honor are Mike Kazaleh, a comic book and TV cartoon animator known for his work with characters ranging from Bugs Bunny to Ren and Stimpy, and Dev Madan, a video game and comic books illustrator.
The convention features displays and vendors, an artists' show, cartoon and character-related presentations, dances and live performances.
So where can one see Kagemushi this weekend?
"I'm not an artist, I simply imagine him," Conway said. "He exists primarily in my mind. It's fun."
Media members were escorted and warned that some characters might be reluctant to speak because of past publicity portraying the group as "some kind of whacked out, crazy culture," Conway said.
Accordingly, Anthrocon.org advises furries that all public areas are rated "PG," except for "events or exhibits that are specifically noted to be inappropriate for minors." Minors must have a parent's notarized permission to attend "due to unfortunate situations in years past," the website says, without explanation.
Fetish wear is discouraged, though collars are acceptable as a fashion statement, "but leashes attached thereunto are not."
Asked about the adverse publicity, Conway said when Americans "encounter something that people do that they don't understand, they immediately draw the conclusion that it must be a sexual fetish."
"I find it highly annoying ... because some of our people have lost jobs over it," Conway said. "They'll go into work on Monday and the boss will say, `I heard you were at one of those things over the weekend' and that's it."
CooperTom, dressed as a life-of-the-party housecat, confesses to be named Jim, a 29-year-old systems manager for a New York City advertising agency who restores classic cars.
"I was actually afraid of this kind of thing," he said of learning about furries online. After determining they were both friendly and normal, he joined their ranks in 2009.
"Just becoming something different kind of hooked me," he said.
It's a bigger deal to some members, like Matthews.
Only a reluctant Allegheny County judge kept Mathews from legally changing his name to "Boomer The Dog." The judge ruled such an unusual name could confuse a 911 operator into believing Mathews was making a crank call should he ever need emergency help.
Mathews said individual furries have supported him but some Anthrocon officials have not, especially since the convention moved to Pittsburgh in 2006 after outgrowing Albany, N.Y., and Mathews received widespread local publicity when the judge rejected his name change in 2010.
"The convention heads were a little put off, I think, because I'm kind of out there with it," Mathews said. "Furries and Anthrocon are going through these growing pains right now where, I think, they're a little bit shy of the press."