One Friday a month, Pittsburgh's Furries flock to Fernando's Cafe on Liberty Avenue. This meetup is their second most popular, next to bowling.
Last Friday, about 20 locals were eating and talking when someone put "Le Freak" by Chic on the stereo. A few jumped up - some in fur suits, some not - and joined in a disco line.
Pittsburgh's annual Anthrocon, which begins Thursday, draws all the attention as costumed enthusiasts suddenly appear in Downtown. But really, the Furries have never left. Active and visible year-round, the city's Furry community provides not only an anchor for the convention but also a welcoming social environment for like-minded people - with or without fur suits.
"We've jokingly referred to Pittsburgh as `Furry Mecca,'" said Paige Ward, 29, of Allentown.
Ward, who works as a document custodian at BNY Mellon, wore a pair of red ears to Fernando's. As she ate a slice of pizza, her red panda helmet looked out from the table. "Sage Firefox," Ward's chosen fursona (a fictional animal alter-ego), is a reflection of her personality, she said.
"For me, being a Furry is acknowledging and embracing the animal side of me," Ward said. "I have that connection on a spiritual level with the animal I chose to represent myself."
That connection varies from Furry to Furry.
"I'm totally human from top to bottom," Ward said. "Within our local fandom, I know of at least three 'therians' - a wolf, a fox and a phylocene - and for them, their spirit is that animal, and their body does not match what their spirit says they are."
Ward, who helps organize the local group, didn't identify as a Furry until 2008, after she graduated from Marietta College in Ohio. Like many local Furries, she found her way into fandom through its anthropomorphic artwork.
"It's kind of an all-or-nothing thing," she said. "You start going, they drag you to the convention, and that's it, you're done."
Around Pennsylvania, Furries congregate on one online forum, www.pa-furry.org, and a handful of Facebook and Twitter groups. Anywhere between a dozen and a hundred Furries, friends and family show up to the local events, which become more frequent in the summer.
Pittsburgh's Furries gather outdoors in Schenley Plaza and Alameda Park (in costume), take trips to Kennywood (no costumes), and even go ice-skating (just ears and tails). Last month, around 50 marched in the Pittsburgh Pride parade, and a group participated in Midland's July 4th parade. The scene has never been so big.
There's no one way to participate, however. Of the crowd at Fernando's, only three had full fur suits, which aren't cheap. The rest wore some combination of ears, tails, convention T-shirts, or maybe just a badge with their fursona on it.
Neither Morningside resident Khalil Brown, 21, or Highland Park resident Courtney Wagner, 22, have fur suits, but both said they found the community welcoming. Wagner said she's been a Furry her whole life, but only realized it when she became a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
"When I found out about the fandom, it was like, 'Yes, this is what I am.'"