The Centrality of Shifting and Related Issues

I’ve stopped explaining the way I experience animality, for the most part, because it invariably leads to discussions about shifting that leave me frustrated. I started talking to other people about how one can be a therian and yet not experience shifts in animality around 2002; as early as 2004 I had thought about and explicitly stated that shifting and some other traits are considered the rule among therians, and that wasn’t the last time I brought up the subject of norms in the community. In recent times too it has been echoed by younger animal-folk that “you don’t have to shift to be a therian”, but the community is still very much shifter-centric.
The problem is that it seems as though most therians cannot discuss their animality without framing it in the context of “to-shift-or-not-to-shift?”.
I don’t like having to rely yet again on gender matters to draw a parallel, but it’s pretty much as though it was expected that all trans people must be genderfluid – but no, the changes in one’s experience or perception of their gender isn’t the be all and end all of gender identity, and some people don’t even envision gender as a spectrum. Likewise, animality isn’t necessarily a spectrum from “human” to “animal” to move along. It may just be something all living beings possess, including humans, with only some variations in its expression.
Well, it also may be, very simply, a human concept that does not have a reality other than in the human eye, but for the purpose of this essay let’s just do as though animality is an actual thing, an essence or pattern we all have that defines us, differentiating animals from each other.
My animality and humanity are the same thing. Or more exactly, my humanity is not simply a trait of me being human; nor the animality is the trait of being nonhuman (the trait of nonhuman beings). I can also say: it’s not possessing “animality” that makes me an animal-person, it’s the fact that my own animality is not a very human one in nature.
That’s the reason I don’t shift: I don’t have a less animal side and a more animal side to shift to. I can’t experience variations of any sort in the intensity of my animality. This lack of changes in one’s animality intensity IS contherianthropy; it’s not, as often misunderstood, that contherians are “balanced” or “half animal” or “50% shifted all the time”. It’s just that there is no human-animal spectrum at all, just one steady humanimal whole, where behaviours are not classified binarily (there may be classifications, but of another nature; not about whether said experience or behaviour sounds more human or more animal, feels closer to one’s animal identity or not).
Having to explain, over and over again, what contherianthropy is/is not was a big part of why I grew unsatisfied with labels and why I stopped using the word when discussing my animality. A lot of people were confused about what was contherianthropy and a lot of people still are confused, the lexicons are full of non-sense, but I’ve lost interest in debating the matter. But the point is that when a word is rendered meaningless by what people make of it, then it becomes useless to describe oneself. When I described myself as a contherian, people often didn’t get what I was experiencing, thinking it was something it’s not. With time also, I became more interested in the detail of how people experience their animality, so I realized that I prefer a longer, personal explanation than the umbrella of a label.
For this however, you first need to get rid of the old models. You see, I used to describe myself as a contherian, which means putting myself on the “non-shifting” end of the shifter’s spectrum. How many other therians out there are also trying to understand themselves through models that don’t suit them? I had to realize that this was just a paradigm framing my animality, and that it was not mine. It was irrelevant to me. Well, it’s relevant in the community, sometimes, because again it differentiates me from most animal-people (shifting therians, ie. animal-people who sometimes feel more or less intensely animal), so in a way I’m part of a minority. But it’s not relevant personally in that it says very little about my specific experience of being raven and clouded leopard.
Another example is how I used to represent myself. Being fond of anthropomorphic creatures such as in furry art, I was used to the standard way to draw one’s therian self or one’s fursona: either in full animal form, ie. “feral”, or with one degree or another of anthropomorphism. Sometimes, and this was especially true for the therian furries who felt more “shifter” in nature, they had two forms, an animal one and one more humanoid. These artworks were supposed to represent our inner self, the shape we felt was the closest to our reality.
For me, being both raven and clouded leopard and accepting my “human coat”, that meant I would draw a mixture of all three species, and call myself an hybrid. I did use this term to describe my animality, and I realize in retrospect that it was quite misleading to other people regarding the way I truely experience therianthropy. Indeed, I don’t feel that, as a therian, I’m a chimera being. As an example, in spite of being both corvine and feline, I’m not a gryphon and I don’t identify as such. Of course some gryphon otherkin may also identify with specific avian and mammal species, but a gryphon is its own unique thing as well, neither exactly bird nor mammal, or rather beyond bird and mammal. The hybrid form that I had chosen to use to represent myself actually didn’t reflect “my reality”, at most it was one possible interpretation of it.
I am exactly bird. I am exactly clouded leopard. That’s what my non-human animality is like, this one thing. It’s not “something else entierely”, an exotic creature that is more than the sum of its parts, like third gender applied to the concept of species. I mean, myself as a transman, I do identify more as “Other” than as a man or woman, and this “Other” isn’t some kind of middle ground between man and woman. It’s the “something else entierely”, a gender on its own.
And this is exactly the way that I do not experience my animality as a raven and clouded leopard. My gender and my animality do not mirror each other at all; my avian-feline animality is not one androgynous peculiar thing on its own. I’m just raven, just clouded leopard – but in one simultaneous occurence, not separately like it is right now in language. Because identity is more complex than that, I guess. A times a bit of a paradox.
So no, I don’t experience my animality as an hybrid creature or as a balance between two aspects, and I don’t experience it as a spectrum between two kinds of animals either, shifting or flickering from one type of animality to the other. My experience of animality escapes diagrams and sliding scales – and in being simultaneous and constant but yet not multiple in nature, it cannot have a proper pictural representation. Which, as an artist, can be frustrating at times, but I’ve learned to live with it.
Why do I feel detailing how I experience animality is important at all? There are two main reasons for this. First, this is in a way a continuity of my “I am Not One-winged” manifesto. I am tired of being categorized in the “other” category instead of just avian or feline, as though I was less corvid or less feline than those who identify as one single animal. My felinity doesn’t make me any less raven than the next raven-person, and my ravenness doesn’t make me less clouded leopard either.
I may better relate to gryphon-people than some other categories of therianthropes, but it only is because our theriotypes share points in common, and not because I am myself this hybrid creature; I’m not.
My second point in this writing is that I want to highlight a fact: the usual paradigms found in the community, such as viewing therianthropy on a human-animal spectrum, or assuming otherkin/therians never identify as “also human”, leave different categories of individuals behind. They narrow down the experience of therianthropy to one specific mold, putting aside those who can’t relate to these representations, and make it seems that anyone who fall outside of them are less therian, less animal – or not animal at all.
Like I’ve been writing on a blog recently, I think when discussing personal therianthropy we are first and foremost talking about animality, and we need to re-think therianthropy and develop our language (language, not necessarily terminologies) so as not get so much trapped into pre-conceived notions of how we should experience this animality*. People can frame their experience in terms of shifting or in terms of human/animal dichotomy later on if they want to, but re-centering the debate over “experiencing our animality” beyond the usual paradigms may be a start to leave the space more open for people who are different.
I want to make it clear that don’t believe the term “shift” and the concept behind it is a bad thing, in itself. I think it can be very useful to some individuals to describe a certain type of experiences. But to put it simply, I wish for people to talk about the expression of our animality in more diverse ways, just like discussions about gender identity don’t only focus on whether or not we are genderfluid or place ourselves on one end of another of some gender spectrum. “Shifting” takes such a central place in therian discussions… Let’s question more the things that are considered “normal” in the community, to really think about it, and about the things we forget to discuss or that don’t have enough space left to be discussed.
*A side note: I feel that looking at therianthropy from a gender theory perspective does help to try looking at things differently, but it’s also a tough issue because is it developping our own language to talk about animality? We may just be mirroring the language of gender studies and trans people. Being trans myself, this isn’t automatically an issue, however some other animal-people may be accused of being appropriative, and, well, maybe there are other ways to frame therianthropy that we need to discover and explore. Hopefully this essay can be one more step to start talking and thinking about that.