Fur & Loathing: an unsolved gas attack on a hotel and the rise of Nazi furries

Podcast: Why was a potentially deadly gas released at a meeting of an online community?

On December 7th, 2014, a chemical attack took place on American soil that many of us have never heard about. In part that’s because, although there were many victims – almost 20 people were hospitalised – there were no fatalities. But the intention, and the potential of a weapon that can be fatal, were clear, and the target even clearer: furries.

Yep, furries. A small subculture of people who like to dress up as anthropomorphic animals, adopt furry personas – or “fursonas” – gather online, and meet up IRL – in real life – at conventions wearing elaborate costumes ranging from team mascot-type attire to more sophisticated, elaborately crafted designs. “I think of it as like a centre of a Venn diagram between, like, a kink culture, a cosplay culture, something like drag and something like just an identity group, like queerness or transness.”

That’s Tommy Bruce, a furry and a photographer who was at Midwest FurFest on the night of the attack. He’s one of the many voices from this community in Fur & Loathing, a new podcast from Brazen and a personal odyssey for Nicky Woolf, a journalist whose beat is online cultures. Woolf says the Midwest FurFest gas attack is his “white whale”, the story he can’t let go of as a longtime reporter. “I’ve been low-key obsessed [with the attack] since the day it happened, when I watched it unfold in real time from my desk at the Guardian office in New York,” he says.

The result is this six-part investigation into what happened that night, when toxic levels of chlorine were released in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois. Nineteen people were hospitalised and hundreds were evacuated from the hotel, many still dressed in their costumes. Various media reported the attack, though few with a straight face, and local police bungled the investigation. To date there have been no arrests.


But Woolf and his team head back to the scene of the crime to learn more about how this gas – one used to kill thousands in the first World War – was released, and what kind of local police force was being relied on to investigate. They zoom out to look at furry culture in the United States at the time, and how a far-right fringe developed even within this most progressive community, and they take a deep dive into poorly redacted documents and track down some of the suspects in this cold case.

How often do you find the first World War poet Wilfred Owen, a Nazi group called the Raiders and a giant furry wolf with star-shaped pink glasses sharing airspace in a complex and detailed story about an internet subculture and the dangers that emerged from it?

Four episodes into this six-part series, I don’t yet know where the investigation will lead, but I’ve learned a lot about a subculture that endeared itself to Woolf as a “particularly nice and earnest” largely online community.

Woolf also makes a compelling argument for paying attention to such digital subcultures because of what they can show us about a future for us all, drawing a direct line between the rise of Nazi furries and what happened in Charlottesville in 2017. “If we can dig into some of what was happening to furries 10 years ago, the kind of forces that led to what happened at Midwest FurFest, then we’re going to find the roots of some much bigger things happening all around us today,” he claims.

Fur & Loathing may pique your interest because of its apparently esoteric subject, but Woolf makes the case here that you can come for the animal costumery but should stay for the insights into what might be coming to the world at large.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast