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Inside the strange story of the Midwest FurFest attack

Who is to blame for the chemical assault that hospitalised 19 members of the internet’s most derided subculture?

By Rachel Cunliffe

It’s almost ten years since a convention centre in Chicago was hit with a chlorine gas attack, hospitalising 19 people. Those people were furries: members of an online community – part cosplay, part kink, part queer identity – who dress as animals, and are part of perhaps the most derided subculture on the internet. This was one of the largest chemical weapons attacks the US has ever experienced, but no one was ever arrested and the case remains unsolved. And Nicky Woolf can’t stop thinking about it.

This is first and foremost a true crime podcast. And it’s an exhilarating one, as Woolf and his team of researchers track down FBI reports and travel the US to interview witnesses and suspects. They even return to the scene of the crime and attend the most recent Midwest FurFest, where thousands of adults in elaborate costumes – from tails and ears to full fur-suits – rejoice in their cartoonish animal alter egos. This community is colourful and fanatic and weird, but it isn’t hurting anyone. Who hates it enough to gas it?

It’s also a story about politics – “Nazi furries” (who wear “pawstika” armbands), the far right, the polarisation of American culture. And it’s a story about the internet: what it does to us, and how the distinction between real life and online doesn’t exist the way we think it does. “The realm of the extremely online – digital communities like furries – are bellwethers for the rest of society,” Woolf warns. “If you want to understand the world today, all you have to do is look and see what was happening on the internet ten to 15 years ago.”

As we learned from the QAnon hoax – which escaped from an obscure web forum to become the global conspiracy theory that laid the groundwork for the 6 January Capitol riots and could decide the 2024 US presidential election – what happens on the internet doesn’t always stay there. So if you didn’t care who attacked a Chicago convention centre full of furries back in 2014, perhaps you should. The FBI couldn’t figure it out – maybe this podcast can.  

Fur and Loathing is out on podcast platforms now

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[See also: On the trail of human traffickers]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink