Shapeshifting. (Credit: John Jerome E. Ganzon/Pacific Press/ Getty)

May 9, 2023   9 mins

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a man who feels in his bones that he is a bear. He is a therian: someone who believes from a young age that they are an animal trapped inside a human body. The dysphoria is so far from regular human experience that therians struggle to describe it. Ask them what it is like to be an animal and they will ask you, quite reasonably, if you can describe what it is like to be a human.

I first learned about therianthropy while talking to Kathy Gerbasi, a social psychologist who specialises in relationships between humans and animals. She has an interest in furries, a fandom that dresses up as anthropomorphic animals. Gerbasi conducted a survey at a furry convention that included the following two questions: “Do you consider yourself to be less than 100% human?”, and “If you could be 0% human, would you be?” Furries feel an affinity with animals, but that’s generally as far as it goes. So, when a few of her respondents answered yes to both questions, she realised that she was dealing with people who were fundamentally atypical.

Since then, Gerbasi has held several discussion groups with therians, who she describes as “very sincere”. “They look like people,” she says. “They mostly behave like people… But if you really talk to them, they’ll tell you that deep inside they are not a person.” My friend the bear, who goes by the sobriquet BearX, lives an improbably normal life. He is married. He has two children. His career in engineering has afforded him a nice house and a comfortable middle-class life. As he says: “If you didn’t know something was up, you wouldn’t know anything was up.”

When psychologists investigate an unusual pattern of behaviour, they look for common attributes that may help explain it, such as age, gender, class or geography. So far, Gerbasi and the handful of other psychologists who have studied therians have failed to find any. While researching my new book, I talked to therians in their teens and in their seventies, of female, male and undetermined gender. The only thing that can be said about almost all therians is that they realise at a young age that they are different in body and spirit from those around them. They feel “off”, separated from humanity, and this estrangement defines the rest of their lives.

“I had an internal sense as a kid that I was supposed to be bigger, heavier,” says BearX. “Later, I worked out that bears fit everything that I felt. It led me to think that maybe I was supposed to have been born a bear and there was some kind of cataclysmic failure in the universe’s sorting system.” Caesar, a communications technician in his mid-thirties who identifies as a coyote, remembers feeling “very animal” as a child. “Maybe the best way to put it is that humans think with their emotions or on a higher level of cognition, but the way I responded to a situation was more instinctual, not calculating.”

As they grow up, therians move from having a general sense of feeling not quite human to a more concrete awareness of the kind of animal they are: their “theriotype”. The most common theriotypes are predator species such as wolves and large cats. As with furries, culture plays a role here: jaguars are more common in South America, and foxes in Japan, whose folklore contains many stories of people being possessed by a fox. Mythical or fantasy creatures are no less valid, though their owners are differentiated in the community as “otherkin”. While researching, I spoke to a couple of dragons.

Finding your theriotype can be a struggle. Most therians make their decision only after a great deal of research and thought. The community encourages its members to be scientifically rigorous: outlandish claims that would give ammunition to sceptics, such as the idea that it’s possible to physically transform into an animal, are dismissed as “fluff”. On therian forums, moderators frequently rebuke contributors for promoting theories that would break the laws of physics, and they are quick to correct errors in morphological or behavioural descriptions of species, such as the suggestion that wolves have red eyes, or that all canines hunt in packs.

A peculiar and often alarming characteristic of being a therian is the feeling that you have phantom body parts. Blayz, a wolf-dog hybrid, lives with the permanent sensation of a tail that wags or droops on command. “Going around corners, I will alter the movement of my frame to keep my tail from getting caught in doors or swiping cups off the table,” he says. Caesar, the coyote, is often convinced he has outsized ears that he can manipulate like antennae. I spoke with a snow leopard — an American woman in her early twenties — who has been saddled with the full range of phantom phenomena. “Even as a kid, I remember feeling like I had a tail and telling people it was invisible,” she explained. “It’s as much a part of me as my arms and legs, really. I also have constant phantom paws and a muzzle, which can make eating and drinking funny sometimes. I’m likely to miss my mouth if I’m not thinking about it.’

To feel body parts where none exist is not as biologically improbable as it sounds. Studies of people born with missing arms and legs have shown that limbs that have always been absent can still be represented in the sensory and motor regions of the brain. The psychologist Ronald Melzack, an expert on phantom pain, proposed that the brain continuously generates a pattern of impulses that indicate that the body is intact and “unequivocally one’s own”, even if it isn’t. This pattern, which Melzack called a “neurosignature”, is genetically determined and characteristic of each individual. It is not inconceivable that someone born with an atypical neurosignature might experience a body that is out of kilter with the one they possess. So far, no one has systematically examined the brains of therians to see if their neural patterns reflect what they feel.

Therians who are acclimatised to their animal side often find their phantom experiences reassuring, since they confirm an identity they have been trying hard to accept. But it can be a let-down when they recognise they don’t have the superpowers they thought they did. When Caesar realises yet again that he cannot direct his ears to hone in on a distant sound, he has the sobering thought that what he is trying to do is “in direct conflict with my own biology”. Kathy Gerbasi, in one of her studies, asked a therian who felt they had “wings” what it felt like when those wings were fully out; they told her it made them frustrated because they knew they couldn’t fly. Many therians avoid looking in mirrors because it reminds them that they are not what they think they are.

Some psychologists believe that the distress suffered by therians is similar to the distress suffered by people whose sex at birth does not match the way they feel. The comparison is often made by therians themselves, a minority of whom are transgender as well as “trans-species”, as they sometimes put it. (Not all transgender people are comfortable with this analogy, fearing that it complicates the public discourse and undermines their movement’s drive for recognition.) The obvious difference is that while you can change your gender, you cannot do anything about your species.

For therians, “finding yourself” — that nebulous ideal promoted by the self-help industry — is obligatory. Although discovery may bring relief, it does not help with the bigger question: why am I this way? Science doesn’t provide many answers, so they can only speculate. Therianthropy may be a developmental response to early trauma or a childhood fixation on animals, or it may be a result of abnormal brain wiring. People of a spiritual inclination might think of it in terms of reincarnation or a “misplaced soul”.

In psychiatry, therianthropy is often erroneously considered to be synonymous with clinical lycanthropy — a condition related to schizophrenia, where delusions and hallucinations convince a patient that they have transformed into an animal. In her book Unthinkable, Helen Thomson describes meeting a lycanthrope who periodically believes he has turned into a tiger; her interview with him was cut short when he suddenly started growling and threatening to attack her, a relapse his doctors blamed on his failure to take his anti-psychotic medication.

But therians are not delusional or psychotic. Their animalistic feelings are a perpetual feature of their lives and are not alleviated by medication. They are aware, often to their profound disappointment, that they can never transform into animals. The medical profession’s impulse to diagnose them as lycanthropes has less to do with clinical evidence than the age-old tendency to pathologise behaviours and conditions that challenge social norms. The most we can say about the medical status of therians is that they are neurological outliers — hardly a signal of illness.

In 2019 Helen Clegg, a psychologist at the University of Buckingham, led the first comprehensive investigation into the well-being and mental health of therians. She recruited 112 across a broad range of ages, genders, ethnicities and species. Among them were wolves, foxes, dragons, birds, a snake, a shark and a couple of dinosaurs. Clegg’s team found that a disproportionate number of them had been diagnosed with autism (7.69%, compared with 1.5% in the general US population), though it is not clear how the two conditions could be linked. They also found that, compared with a control group, many therians struggle with relationships and social skills. This could be due to cognitive factors, or it could be because social taboos around therianthropy make it difficult to talk about. When you are forced to hide your true nature, communicating with others can be a challenge.

Their study also noted that many of the therians displayed “schizotypal” personality traits, such as a tendency to have unusual perceptual experiences. But these therians mostly found their experiences enriching rather than distressing. Clegg suggests that this is because they have found a way to integrate their fantastical thoughts into a coherent narrative that allows them to make sense of the way they feel. The therians in Clegg’s study scored just as highly as non-therians on several standard measures of psychological well-being, including personal growth, purpose in life and self-acceptance. The researchers concluded: “The findings suggest that therians are functioning well.”

Azi, a Mexican wolf living in Tennessee, experiences altered states of consciousness around 30 times a day. Therian friends of his told me that his experience is more extreme than anyone they know — for much of the time, he is more wolf than human. When we initially corresponded, he was apprehensive, fearing negative publicity; when we finally spoke via video call, he was open, eloquent and precise. His perceptual changes arrive suddenly and can pass just as quickly. When they happen, he says, “the human part of me is turned off. Mentally, I’m gone. The wolf mindset is running this body… It’s very dissociative.” He often finds himself growling, snarling, down on all fours, walking on his toes or, if the opportunity presents itself, chasing deer. It can be physically exhausting. Towards the end of our video call, my cat Cecil jumped up onto my laptop and started nuzzling the screen. Azi looked away and appeared to disengage for a moment. When I asked him about this, he admitted that as a wolf, few things are more inflammatory than being stared at by a cat. He has to contend with provocations like this whenever he goes out in public — a loud noise, a fleeing animal, a bothersome human. He must always be on his guard to stop himself shifting to wolf.

The reality of therianthropy can be hard to live with. Elizabeth Fein, a clinical psychologist who has worked closely with Kathy Gerbasi, observed that acceptance of therianthropy often brings sadness or a sense of estrangement. “It’s like, ‘I’m always going to be different, I’m always going to be kind of separate from humanity. I’m never going to have the right body.’” The scale of the challenge that therians I interviewed face in trying to reconcile their human bodies with their animal minds may be partly a function of the culture in which they live. In the West, for much of the past two millennia, we have considered ourselves distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom, elevated by cognition, intelligence, language, morality and culture. The Christian God granted humans “dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth”, and philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have emphasised our superiority over nature.

But over the tens of thousands of years of human existence, the line separating us and other has not always been so well-defined. Many cultures recognise animals as ancestors. A popular Tibetan creation myth maintains that people are descended from a meditating monkey, while in Turkic mythology people originated from a she-wolf named Asena. Meanwhile, stories about people who “shape-shift” between human and animal form have persisted throughout recorded history.

A world in which animals were treated as human and humans were treated as animals would be a lot easier for therians to live in. Their experience and their psychology are so different to most people’s that they often feel profoundly isolated. “Our lives would be immeasurably improved if people accepted it, if it wasn’t considered strange,” BearX told me. Thankfully, therians have each other. The community’s origins lie in the Nineties message boards of an online werewolf fan group called alt.horror.werewolves, and it has since evolved into a vibrant network of discussion forums and advice boards, with thousands of active participants.

Therians do disagree — about the causes of therianthropy, the distinction between therians and otherkin, and whether it is appropriate to discuss the sexual feelings some therians have towards animals. Nevertheless, Caesar the coyote told me that his introduction to the community was “unquestionably one of the happiest moments of my life: finding out that you’re not alone”. Blayz, who spent years trying to figure out his strange canine sensations, came close to dismissing them as “the delusions of a madman, nothing more than a side-effect of mental illness”. When he discovered that he wasn’t the only one who felt this way, it was revelatory. “So many of my own experiences and conclusions were echoed by this group of real people out there in the world.”

“Therians are really weird,” one of the coyotes says to me in a moment of exasperation. But in certain cultures, and in certain eras, they have been regarded as less weird — and among other therians, their behaviour is absolutely normal. Most therians want to be accepted by the wider world. In the meantime, it’s reassuring for them to always be accepted by their own. Life looks different when you’re part of a pack — whether you’re a bear, a coyote, a leopard, a dinosaur or a dragon.


This is an edited extract from Fans: A Journey Into the Psychology of Belonging, out 11th May.

Michael Bond is a writer specialising in human behaviour. He is a former editor and reporter at New Scientist. His latest book is Fans: A Journey Into the Psychology of Belonging.