Animals crossing - using parades to count fursuiters

Regardless of how you feel about their place in the fandom, fursuits are an integral part of the er, fabric, of our community. Many of us have, at least anecdotally, felt their prevalence (and some might say importance) increase over the years, but estimating the proportion of furries who are also fursuiters is borderline impossible. Surveys are one option, but these are liable to considerable selection bias and depend on the truthfulness of respondents. A 2011 International Anthropomorphic Research Project questionnaire, for example, reported 13% and 18.5% of respondents owned, respectively, a full or partial fursuit. However, we have no way of knowing how accurate a reflection of the ‘true’ status of fursuits in the fandom this really is. Are people with fursuits more likely to engage with surveys such as these? Can we trust respondents not to lie (or at least exaggerate)? Wherever possible, more objective measures are to be preferred.

One of the few ‘clean’ ways to assess fursuiter numbers comes to us courtesy of convention data and, specifically, fursuit parades. While they are slowly going out of fashion (more on this later), they provide us with a surprisingly rare form of information. Specifically, fursuit parade counts give us a (fairly) indisputable lower bound on the number of fursuiters - or at least the number of people prepared to wear a fursuit, be it their own or a loan - at a particular convention. For example, at Anthrocon this year, of the convention’s 7,554 attendees some 1,890 (or 25%) played at least some part in the parade. Of course, many fursuiters skipped the event altogether, but we can nevertheless say with reasonable certainty that at least 1 in 4 Anthrocon attendees participated. While this doesn’t tell us much about the prevalence of fursuiters in the fandom in general (a convention has many of the same selection biases as a survey), we can at least look at how patterns have changed over time.

Following my previous posts on furry convention data, I therefore expanded my dataset to include - where available - fursuit parade figures. This proved a somewhat tricky task, as such data are often hard to track down, but I’ve managed to piece together numbers for 181 conventions over the last 10 years. Note that I’ve limited attention to conventions in the USA and Canada, as data for international conventions are a lot more patchy, and it’s typically better statistical practice to avoid comparing figures from disparate sources. The figure below provides a summary of fursuit parade numbers as a percentage of total convention attendance at cons where such data were available, offering a glimpse of how our fandom’s most public side has changed over time. As an example, in 2011 there were 15 conventions with fursuit parade figures available, making up a little under 19% of all attendees. (It’s mildly interesting to compare this with the figures reported by the IARP survey from that year.)

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There’s a pretty clear ‘take-home message’ from this one: if you felt fursuits were becoming more common at conventions, you’re (probably) right. 10 years ago under 14% of furry convention attendees participated in the parade, a figure that’s risen by 10% in the intervening time. However, this trend appears to be slowing down in recent years, with a small drop from 2016 to 2017 (albeit not a statistically significant one, stats-fans). We must be careful how we interpret these figures, however, as there are a number of important issues to consider.

First of all, it’s essential to remember that these data do not support any statement about the prevalence of fursuiters in the fandom overall. The plot above shows us, very specifically, about the total number of fursuit parade participants at conventions with over 100 attendees whose fursuit parade figures were easy enough for me to track down. As always with statistics, extrapolating beyond the dataset we’re working with is very difficult (and potentially dangerous), and so we must keep this interpretation in mind. My primary conclusions concern changes in fursuiter numbers over time, rather than the absolute numbers (although they still tell us something).

As with virtually any data source, there are therefore some important potential biases to be aware of. Perhaps the most concerning is that our data necessarily come from conventions where fursuiter figures were available. Many conventions have parades where, for whatever reason, the actual numbers are difficult to find. This may therefore mean conventions with larger parades are more likely to feature in the dataset I’ve used. Similarly, a convention that reports its fursuit parade numbers may reflect a convention that’s more appealing to fursuiters in particular (perhaps because it indicates a convention whose fursuit track is more developed). An obvious concern is that the numbers presented above are artificially inflated as a result of selection bias. However, I’m prepared to assume this shouldn’t affect any evidence of increases over time (but this isn’t really a testable assumption, so caveat emptor and all that).

A slightly more worrying concern is that fursuit parades are slowly being replaced by other, less intensive, events. Midwest FurFest’s ‘Fursuit Menagerie’ (effectively a large-scale fursuit photo shoot) is a prime example. Prior to 2016 MFF reported parade figures each year, with its numbers increasing broadly in line with other conventions. Such data are of course not available with the introduction of the menagerie, and other conventions have explored similar options. This opens up the possibility that fursuiters may be more drawn to conventions with parades, which could explain an increased prevalence in parade attendance over time, although I’d be surprised if it made a huge amount of difference to the overall trends (not least because the increases are pretty clear even before such events became more widespread).

Typically, it is the larger conventions that are seeing a switch to non-parade options, and so it may be interesting to compare parade numbers at ‘big’ and ‘small’ cons (with the cut-off between the two set rather arbitrarily at 1,000 attendees). This allows us to see whether, for example, smaller cons tend to attract a larger proportion of suiters. Time for another plot? I think so.

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I must admit I was rather surprised by the similarity between the two sets of figures here. There’s very little evidence (and no statistical evidence that I could find) of any ‘real’ difference in fursuiter prevalence between larger and smaller conventions. While the numbers we’re dealing with are comparatively small (for instance, 3,136 fursuiters across 5 ‘big’ conventions in 2017), it’s still impressive quite how little difference is apparent. The main period of interest lies in the last few years, where big conventions have shown steady increases whereas smaller conventions have seen a drop in fursuiter numbers. How much of this is tied up in the bigger conventions moving away from parades is, however, hard to determine.

As a final bit of mild fun I thought I may as well compare the USA conventions with those from Canada in my dataset, to see if there’s any international variation between the two.

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As you can probably guess, this really stretches the numbers: there are at most 5 Canadian conventions in any given year that have the requisite data available. It’s therefore quite difficult to draw any strong conclusions from the above. That said, it certainly looks like Canadian cons tend to see a slightly higher proportion of fursuiters than their counterparts south of the border. What’s more, if we aggregate the figures from 2010 onwards, we find a parade prevalence of 22.8% for Canadian conventions and 21.5% for those in the USA, which is enough of a difference that it’s almost certainly not just down to chance (if you’re p-valued inclined, it’s 0.0001, although in absolute terms the difference isn’t that big). Time for a new tourism campaign? ‘Canada: Cold Enough to Fursuit.’

It’s clear, then, that fursuiting is on the rise - a conclusion few of us would find surprising. It also helps illustrate why increasingly many conventions are moving away from fursuit parades to more ‘costumer-friendly’ alternatives. While I don’t have strong opinions either way (I usually skip parades because my eyesight isn’t up to them), I am a little sad to see them go from a statistical perspective. They offer a very definitive count of something; a rare commoddity in a fandom as amorphous as ours.

Written on December 29, 2017