Trapped in the Wrong…Species?





You feel too pale, naked, slippery. Not heavy enough. Moving through the world, you yearn for a more lumbering gait; see huge branches and want to grasp them between paws; study your cuticles and wish for long, curved, sharply pointed nails.

Since childhood, you have been convinced that secretly, deep inside, you are a bear. A bear trapped in a human body.

This is not facetious. Science writer Michael Bond interviewed an engineer—married with two children, a responsible member of human society—who calls himself BearX. He does not champion this internal conviction. Rather, he has spent his life suspecting “some kind of cataclysmic failure in the universe’s sorting system.”

BearX is a therian: someone who identifies with a species other than human. Though the connection might be seen as spiritual or psychological, the sense of mismatch often extends through the body. Bond spoke with a wolf-dog therian who takes corners carefully and tries to keep the tail he senses from getting caught in the door or swiping a cup off a table. A snow leopard therian—an American woman in her twenties—tells Bond, “Even as a kid, I remember feeling like I had a tail and telling people it was invisible. It’s as much a part of me as my arms and legs, really. I also have constant phantom paws and a muzzle, which can make eating and drinking funny sometimes. I’m likely to miss my mouth if I’m not thinking about it.”

Therians feel themselves less than 100 percent human—and most prefer their internal species. Rare, new to the rest of us, and at first glance bizarre, the subculture is following the usual trajectory. Therians are banding together and finding reassurance in one another’s existence, concluding that they are not mad or deluded, just very, very different. Psychologists are beginning to study the phenomenon. And the world is responding with mocking incredulity, anger, or vicious scorn. Comments below Bond’s article call the therians he writes about “immature narcissists” and “delusional” “loonies.” “Before you know it,” one reader predicts, “there will be tweetmobs of wolf people howling down authors who limit their stories to human characters, demanding their own bathrooms and their own Furry Studies degree programs.”

Another commenter makes the undeniable point that “their fantasy selves are all animals that could be considered magnificent in some way—strong, large, powerful, majestic…. Nobody seems to have an inner gerbil!” The reader sees this as grounds for debunking, but I am not so sure. We do tend to imagine up, not down. Asked “What Animal Are You?” on a personality test, I have never once written “prairie dog,” though I suspect commonalities. But the psyche supplies the affinity all by itself, unbidden. People with schizophrenia believe they are Jesus or Elvis, not a mail carrier or a county clerk. They hear the voice of God, not the voice of their Aunt Sally. The ego and the unconscious must be collaborating behind the scenes, indulging a sense of wished-for grandeur that can tip into grandiosity. It is, I suspect, the human compensation for feeling small in the world.

For his book on the psychology of belonging, Bond interviewed therians of all ages, genders, and life situations. What they all have in common? “They realize at a young age that they are different in body and spirit from those around them. They feel ‘off,’ separated from humanity, and this estrangement defines the rest of their lives.”

That sense of separateness and isolation reminds me of autism, especially when I read the next example: a communications technician who identifies as a coyote and remembers, as a kid, responding to situations in an instinctual way, not with the emotional or intellectual skills he saw the kids around him developing.

Sure enough, when Helen Clegg, a psychologist in the U.K., did the first comprehensive study of therians’ mental health, she found that 7.69 percent of participants had been diagnosed with autism. The incidence is only 1.5 percent in the general U.S. population. Clegg’s team also found that, despite an overall healthy sense of well-being, many of the therians struggled with social skills and relationships. As Oliver Sacks taught us, the brain often creates narratives to explain away a painful lack.

Still, there are possibilities other than autism. This could be a developmental issue: maybe there was a childhood trauma, or a fixation on animals that was so strong, and lasted so long, it penetrated the entire psyche. Maybe the brain’s wiring crisscrossed at some juncture we have yet to identify. For those who believe in reincarnation, maybe a past life is spilling into the present….

The most likely arena, at least within medical science, is neurological. And once you absorb the possibility of some confusion (or is it expansion?) in the nervous system, the experience of phantom paws or a tail becomes more plausible. When people are born without arms or legs, those limbs “can still be represented in the sensory and motor regions of the brain,” Bond notes. Ronald Melzack, a psychologist who studies phantom pain, believes the brain continuously generates a pattern of impulses, a neurosignature that is genetically determined and different for every individual. If your neurosignature is atypical from the start, you could easily experience a body, neurologically, that does not match the physical one.

Unsettling. Also heartbreaking. Many therians avoid looking in mirrors because their physical reality is such a disappointment. Contrary to the usual hateful comments, these are not people fantasizing that they can fly or lope across the Serengeti. They are sharply aware that they cannot; they simply yearn to. Or, like Azi, who struggles with altered states of consciousness about thirty times a day, they shift between identities. The human part of them turns off, they explain, and another way of being takes over. Which must be exhausting, and which sounds more like schizophrenia. But therians do not have schizophrenia; nor do they have its related condition, lycanthropy, in which delusions and hallucinations convince someone they have transformed into an animal. (Kafka’s cockroach, perhaps.)

Should this seem so strange? Traditions that blur the species lines have existed for millennia. Merlin readying young Arthur for kingship by teaching him how it felt to be various animals. Folklore mythologizing werewolves, centaurs, skin-walkers, and shapeshifters. Cultural rituals that assign an individual a totem or spirit animal. Western pop culture’s talk of Catwoman, the Birdman of Alcatraz, tiger moms, cougars, and men who are pigs. Furries custom-ordering plush suits, not because they identify as that animal, but because they enjoy anthropomorphizing and identifying with animals.

The therian world is more literal, and more extreme. It can start with a bond, a strong inner affinity with another animal that leads to a shift, a transformation in which someone enters more fully into that identity. For some, it is a way to escape being human, a more exciting and glorious way to live. For some, it is an unwanted condition, one that in the West is usually pathologized.

Yet it can be protective. I went back to Clegg’s study to puzzle further. After noting that therians had a harder time with social relationships, the paper continues: ‘However, being a therian moderated the relationship between both autism and introverted anhedonia in relation to autonomy. Thus, a therian identity may act as a protective factor for those experiencing higher levels of autism and schizotypy.” In other words, figuring out a new way to be, when you feel different from everyone around you, might be a healthy approach. Identifying with a specific set of traits, a specific life form that is, like you, other, at least anchors you in the universe.

Activists worry that therians, whose dysmorphia is so easy to mock, will undermine the transgender struggle for acceptance, understanding, medical care, and civil rights. It is possible to change your gender, and someday, your sex. But living as a different species? Just look at our language—we still speak of humans as separate from animals, unwilling to admit that we are animals, and our coccyx was once a tail.

In a time of engineered traits, clones, and hybrids—designer doodles and wolf dogs, ligers and tigons, killer whales interbred with dolphins, beefalo that offer lean meat and a docile disposition, and green sea slugs that incorporate algae into their DNA, Aristotle’s species and genus hierarchy is quickly becoming outmoded. So are the lines of belonging and exclusion: drawn with thick black ink, they keep blurring on us.

Maybe we drew them too straight in the first place.



Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.