Let’s Talk About Animal Identity

Published: September 14th, 2021
Last modified: September 15th, 2021


“What animal are you?”

It was a question I asked newfound friends and acquaintances in my early childhood. In my mind, everyone was both human and something else at the same time. Sometimes that “something else” was a common animal – a dog, or a ferret, or a mountain lion – and sometimes the “something else” was more abstract and magical – a skeletal demon-wolf, a cryptid owl-monster, a flowery elven fae.

“Because I’m a dragon,” I would follow up with.

It felt like a powerful secret. A core truth that never wavered. I couldn’t exactly explain how I was a dragon – I just was. Obviously, I was a skinny white kid. But somehow I was ALSO a dragon. I spent some time trying to figure out how that could be true. Was some other iteration of me, in a simultaneous alternate reality, a dragon? Maybe I would, one day, spontaneously gain the ability to physically transform into a dragon, and I would spend the rest of my life keeping it a secret. Or, or, would the entire fabric of reality alter one day, and everyone – or, at least a decent percentage of people – would become their “true” self, whatever that was? 

While I was in early grade school – between 10 and 12 years old – I was certain that I should be able to travel to another world, one in which I was a dragon. Later, in the painfully awkward years of middle school, it felt more like I should be a “were-dragon” in this world, hiding my edgy goth shapeshifter nature from the world. I waited for my proverbial “Letter from Hogwarts”, the inciting incident that would unlock or bestow magical nature upon me and allow me to access my true form. I would walk under naturally arched trees deep in the woods, or a circle of stones, or go swimming in a mountain stream, and think, ‘This is it’. I would collect quartz crystals and interesting sticks, feeling certain that one of these days, I would find the hidden magical key to unlocking my dragon nature. 

I know, it’s overall pretty “cringeworthy” by our modern standards. But here’s the problem: even as an adult, it hasn’t really gone away.

Even now that I am a normal, functional, mature human being with a full-time job and a mortgage, I still experience the persistent feeling that I am not fully human on some fundamental, nonphysical level. In fact, I even experience what’s known as supernumerary phantom limbs – the feeling that I have a heavy serpentine tail, or long pointed ears, or hooked bony horns, or even wings. Or I will have the sudden, leaping urge within me to run forward on all fours, clearly imagining my hands as large and clawed talons. Sure, anyone (or, most anyone) can spend the mental energy to imagine that they have those things; but for me, it takes conscious mental energy to not have those things. These… sensations? Experiences? I’m not even sure what to call them – happen to me without my conscious input. In fact, it often happens at very inconvenient times, and requires conscious effort to actively ignore. Otherkin and therians call this “shifting”.

Otherkin, furries, people who engage in pet play, neoshamans who ascribe to the idea of spirit/totem/power animals – either way, some fundamental aspect of being an animal, real or imagined, is a core part of their identity. 

Expressing this identity looks different between these groups, but I argue that they are all the same core concept. Furries might roleplay online as their animal character, or create and wear elaborate costumes of their animal character. Otherkin tend to be more “froofy” – writing poetry and collecting aesthetic imagery that evokes their other self. Pet players deliberately enter the mental state of an animal for the sake of an in-person roleplay, sometimes with accompanying gear or costumery. Neoshamans might collect or create devotional art or sculpture to their animal self, treating it almost like a personal deity to worship, leaving incense and crystals as offerings.

I’m not sure which of these I am. I’ve related to people in all of these communities, and yet I don’t feel fully “at home” with any of them. You might be able to say that I meet the definition of one or all of those labels, but I can’t nail it down clearly enough to limit it to a label.

I can imagine my dragon-self as a semi-separate entity, like a “higher self”, or perhaps the form my soul takes, or a past life, or a future iteration of myself, or a version of myself that exists in another parallel reality. I don’t have a good explanation on why it is. It just is. I often compulsively “imagine” – in that unconscious way that just sort of happens to you, rather than you consciously choosing to do – this bright blue-gold aura of DRAGON superimposed around my physical self, my anti-shadow, this blazing soul around me that feels like it should be so obvious and noticeable to everyone else. 

Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept of your “real self” versus your “ideal self” – your ideal self might be more attractive, smarter, or more skilled than your real self. Well, my ideal self is a large, quadrupedal, blue-black reptilian monster. with scales, feathers, and spikes.

Many people in the otherkin and furry communities have expressed how badly they crave external validation – how they want someone else to be able to say “yes, you ARE this creature, I can see/feel/sense it too.”  It’s agonizing when something feels overwhelmingly true to oneself and no one else can experience it.  A lot of folks will ask others, “How do I know what animal I am?” or “Does this count as being otherkin?” and describe some experience they have. Just like any other part of identity, no one else will be able to tell you what to believe about yourself. You might pick up a tendency towards a particular species from your peers or those you look up to much like you can pick up hobbies and a fashion sense from the people you hang out with. Identity is an iterative, ever-changing process, not a single end goal. I strongly discourage thinking of animal identity as “discovering a past life” or “connecting with a higher power” because those tend to make people think there is a single “right” answer, when there isn’t. You don’t need to know the reason why you might identify as or with a certain thing, as long as you aren’t using it to justify hurting someone. I recall dragon-people forums in which you had to refer to yourself as a dragon in the past tense – “I was a dragon”, because they only ascribed to past-life explanations. Doesn’t work for me. 

Brains are weird. Identity is messy.

Do people identify as non-human because of a brain structure difference, learned behavior, or social influence? Is there a neurological difference that makes me think I’m experiencing these things, so I make assumptions based on that? Or is there something inherent within me, spiritually or psychologically, that causes the physical experiences to manifest? It’s easy to understand why people attribute identity to their soul or other non-physical spiritual concepts.

It just is.

It’s important to note that NONE of what I’m talking about is Clinical Lycanthropy, a very rare delusion in which someone believes they actually physically transform into an animal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clinical_lycanthropy). Otherkin, furries, and pet players are often erroneously associated with clinical lycanthropy. What I am talking about in this article is people for whom it is a part of their deeply-held personal identity to be an animal or other non-human. It is similar to ways in which how gender identity and expression, passions, aesthetic, political affiliation, and membership in certain communities can be important, deeply-held parts of someone’s identity.

No, that doesn’t mean that someone gets to call someone else “transphobic” for not knowing or acknowledging their animal identity. People with animal identities are not marginalized, there is no history of oppression or silencing their beliefs. There’s a tremendous amount of trolling and agent provocateur-ing (often trolls on Tumblr pretending to be otherkin, in order to post ridiculous things that then make otherkin look bad) in which people claim stupid things like “you can’t step on grass or you’re harming plant-kin” or “if you don’t acknowledge my pronouns as raccoon/raccoonself then you’re racist”. That sort of nonsense is why I avoid online animal-people communities. I’m not here to claim that you should be considerate or that it’s politically correct to go around assuming that everyone has an aspect of animal identity. I’m just here to say that these things are largely the same core concept and that it does, in fact, legitimately exist as a facet of identity.

Yeah, I’m a big angry magical lizard, but I’m not gonna be a jerk about it.

So what animal are you?

 

Some terms:

    • Animal-person = a general term for people with some aspect of non-human, animal-based identity
    • Otherkin = a person who identifies, partially or entirely, as something other than human
    • Therian(thrope) = a sub-set of the otherkin community – therians are people who identify partially or entirely as a real, earthly animal
      • Theriomythic = a sub-set of therianthropes, theriomythics identify partially or entirely as a mythological animal
    • Furry = an enthusiast for animal characters with human characteristics, in particular a person who dresses up in costume as such a character or uses one as an avatar online
    • Fursona = a fictional character created by a person to represent them within the furry fandom, “fur+persona”
    • Alterhuman = Having an identity that is alternative to the common societal idea of ‘human’; a person who identifies as such. A large umbrella term that applies to a wide range of experiences. Kind of the modern version of “otherkin” after the term “otherkin” became popularized and misused, especially on Tumblr.  
    • Pet play = a type of roleplay; sub-set of BDSM subculture in which someone acts and/or dresses like an animal, often with a separate mental state that they enter (called “puppy space”, “kitten space”, etc); BDSM and its subcultures are NOT inherently sexual – BDSM can be, and often is, non-sexual 
    • Neoshamanism = a wide variety of modern day “shamanistic” beliefs and practices, adjacent to modern Wicca/witch culture, the most common context in which people use terms like “spirit animal” these days
    • Spirit animal = .an animal spirit that guides a person through a single, important experience in life… it would be inconsiderate to use this term to describe Neoshamanism experiences as it is a cultural and historical aspect of First Nations peoples
    • Totem animal = an animal spirit that is called upon or invoked; traditionally the guardian spirit animal of a particular Native American tribe… it would be inconsiderate to use this term to describe Neoshamanism experiences as it is a cultural and historical aspect of First Nations peoples
    • Power animal = a spirit guide in animal form; arguably the most “correct” term to use for Neoshamanism, but still definitely evokes cultural appropriation of First Nations peoples
  •  

 

Further reading and references:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_self 
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoshamanism#Power_animals 
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_guide 
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totem 
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furry_fandom 
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otherkin
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_roleplay
  8. http://frameacloud.com/theri-there/ 
  9. https://alt-h.net/educate/glossary.php 
  10. https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/please-stop-using-the-term-spirit-animal

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