Grivell et al—An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis of Identity in the Therian Community

An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis of Identity in the Therian Community

by Timothy Grivell, Helen Clegg, Elizabeth C. Roxburg

[Grivell, Timothy, Helen Clegg, and Elizabeth C. Roxburgh. 2014. “An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Identity in the Therian Community.” Identity 14 (2): 113–35.]


coming from psychology

interviewed five self-identified Therians online

found three patterns throughout interviews

  1. journey of self-discovery—mental shifts and phantom limbs occur in self-reflection that implies good mental health
  2. transspeciesism—interviewees made links to homosexuality and “coming out” as a part of Therian identity as well as to transexuality in that they did not feel they belonged in their bodies
  3. the “Therian Shadow”—the “animal” represents immature, uncivilized, and shameful behavior patterns in Western culture, so those behaviors are repressed, doing particular damage to the psyches of Therians. This creates the internal Therian Shadow, based on Jungian psychological archetypes. Therians mitigate this by asserting that they are “in control” of their theriotype behaviors.


Therianthropy is the belief that one is part nonhuman animal. Opinions vary in the academic literature as to whether it is a mental illness or a spiritual belief. Although believed to be rare in the Western world, the development of a Western online community of therians who largely have not come to the attention of the academic community suggests that it is not well understood. In this study, five therians were interviewed about how the adoption of the term therian impacts their identity. Using interpretative phenomenological analysis, three themes emerged: (a) a journey of self-discovery, (b) transpeciesism, and (c) the therian shadow. The personal discovery and acceptance of therianthropy appears to be a gradual development process. Strong parallels were made totransgenderism. A desire for public acceptance was expressed by the respondents. ”

Annotation Summary for: Grivell – An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Identity in the Therian Community

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Therianthropy is traditionally defined as the belief that one has or can transform into an animal (Keck, Pope, Hudson, McElroy, & Kulick, 1988).”

Page 4, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Therianthropy lycanthropy, ”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In the psychiatric literature the termlycanthropy, the belief that one can transform into a wolf, is often used instead of therianthropy, although wolves are certainly not the only animals described in the literature.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “therians do not believe in physical transformation”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “There has also been some confusion surrounding the distinction between therians and furries. Furries are individuals who are interested in anthropomorphic animals, such as cartoon animals, and who will sometimes dress up and role-play such animals (Gerbasi et al., 2008) whereas”

Page 4, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Furries”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “theriotypes are usually natural animals (Lupa, 2007).”

Page 5, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “theriotypes”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Today, in the Western world, research investigating therianthropy has tended to be divided into two perspectives: that of psychiatry which positions therians as mentally ill and that of anthropology and archaeology which explains therian beliefs and experiences as spiritual phenomena.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In psychiatry, therianthropy=lycanthropy has been associated with psychosis, and there have been suggestions that it is a form of hypochondria, a delusional misidentification, or a type of depressive disorder, or that it involves depersonalization (Coll, O’Sullivan, & Browne, 1985; Garlipp, Go¨decke-Koch, Dietrich, & Haltenhof, 2004; Keck et al., 1988; Khalil, Dahdah, & Richa, 2012; Silva & Leong, 2005).”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A specific psychiatric diagnosis has yet to be agreed on. Whatever its form, it is generally considered to be a transient medical condition that requires medication to alleviate the symptoms experienced by the patient.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “There has been some use of psychodynamic interpretations of therianthropy in the psychiatricliterature with suggestions that it is literal animalistic expressions of the id using splitting to pre-vent feelings of guilt (Coll et al., 1985). It has also been viewed as a projection of suppressedsexual and aggressive urges (Garlipp et al., 2004), or as being associated with Jungian archetypes(Younis & Moselhy, 2009). ”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In the archaeological and anthropological literature, therianthropy is not considered an illnessbut rather it is associated with spiritual experiences. Indeed, therianthropy is a common compo-nent of shamanistic belief systems (Jolly, 2002; Lewis-Williams, 2002, 2004). Therianthropicimages in San rock art have been explained as shaman transformations into animals (Jolly,2002). However, Parkington (2003) suggested that the rock art represents more pervasive beliefsaround identity since the distinction between humans and animals in southern African hunter-gatherer religious beliefs is indistinct and boundaries between humans and animals are focusedaround who to marry and what to consume rather than around species distinctions.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Although therianthropic beliefs and experiences seemto be an accepted part of culture in many non-Western countries, this normalization and validation of experiences does not generally appear to extend to Western culture. Mithen (1996) argued that the ability to conjure up such therianthropic images comes from the architecture of the modern Homo sapiens mind, which allows for cognitive fluidity and the ability to think across different mental domains, and so therianthropic beliefs and experiences are symptoms of the human condition and should not be confined to specific cultures. Regardless of this, therianthropy is generally believed to be a quite rare phenomenon in Western cultures (Keck et al., 1988; Younis & Moselhy, 2009).”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The therian community has developed a definition of what constitutes a therian: ‘‘A person who is, feels, or believes he=she is in part or whole (non-physically) one or more non-human animals on an integral, personal level’’ (Strill, 2008, p. 1).”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “this article is a report of findings from a qualitative study using interpretative phenomenological analysis addressing the question: Howdoes the adoption of the termtherian impact one’s sense of identity?”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “METHOD”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “We used interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA; Smith, 1996), which values the nuances and idiosyncrasies of individual experience.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “IPAadopts a broad realist ontology by suggesting that what people say has some signifi- cance and represents their psychological world”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “We obtained consent from the administrators of five Internet forums to post a message inviting participants to take part in an interview via synchronous chat instant messenger: The Werelist (, Werecats Anonymous (, Christian Therianthropy (, Therian Discovery (http://therian, and Werespace (”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “5 self-labeled therians were chosen at random from interested respondents.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” A transcript of each interviewwas available to print out from the synchronous chat. ”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “RESULTS”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A Journey of Self-Discovery Understanding Through Introspection and Extrospection”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Four of the five participants perceived themselves as animal-like sometime during childhoodfrombetween 0 and 15 years old,”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Phantom Limbs and Mental Shifts”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Two types of evidence key to identifying as a therian for the participants were mental shifts (a transition into a mindset closer to that of their theriotype) and phantomlimbs (sensations of body parts that are not there, often ears or tails).”

Page 10, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “mental shifts phantomlimbs”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Spiritual Versus Biological”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “From the data, it appears that ther- ianthropy is consolidated into whatever belief system the therian holds.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Therian Community”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The participants in this study were varied in their involvement in the online therian com- munity, but therianthropy came across strongly as a personal identity rather than a group identity.”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “on the journey of self-discovery, the online therian community appeared to play a role in providing a secure space within which the participants can be therians, but had little impact on the development of their identity other than providing the label ‘‘therian.’’”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Transspeciesism”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “All participants paralleled therianthropy to being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered(LGBT). As for transgenderism, all participants experienced a discrepancy between how theyfelt on the inside and their physical body. Also, similar to many LGBT individuals, the parti-cipants identified a desire to ‘‘come out.’’ ”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I’d like therianthropy to come out more like trans-gendered than the furry community. If people can have it explained as a spirituality or trans-spieces thing thatd be a lot better than coming out as a part of furry fandom or something like that.”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This suggests an identification with a more ecological, as opposed to fantasy, journey toward identity and social acceptance.”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The parallel with transgenderism also can be observed in descriptions of a sense of dysmorphia, a perception of one’s body as wrong.”

Page 13, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “dysmorphia,”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The Therian Shadow”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “parallels between the difficulties the participantsexperienced in being open about their therian identity and the conflict between Jung’s (1968)shadow and persona. ”

Page 14, Note (Orange): That’s not what he meant

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I’m told I have somewhat intense mental shifts, though, from what I’ve described to people, like needing to walk on all fours during, and move like an animal. Thankfully, I have pretty decent control over them.”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I’d love to be able to completely ‘let go’ but I always can’t help thinking I’macting like an immature kid playing dog …can’t do this as an adult.”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “evidence suggests that it is not the experience of therianthropy that may indicate mental illness, but rather that the suppression of the therian identity into the shadow may create enough conflict within the therian to cause serious psychological distress.”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “DISCUSSION”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A Journey of Self-Discovery Initially, self-reflection and evidence are central to the formation of a therian identity. ”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The analysis of evidence to confirm identity has been found in individuals considering their religious identity, and those individuals who sought con- firming and disproving evidence to explore their religious commitment tended to be identified as having achievement identity status which has also been associated with good social and mental functioning”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Using Erikson’s (1968)model of psychosocial development might suggest that such extensive exploration around thetherian identity could prevent identity foreclosure and promote a well-developed ego strength,which is the key to mental health”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “All of the participants appeared to come to some acceptance of their identity as therians in their late teens or early adulthood. This is in line with Erikson’s (1963) stages of psychosocial devel- opment where the development of an identity focuses around adolescence and early adulthood.”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “since their experiences and ‘‘symptoms’’ emerge regardless of any rationalization of them, they are compelled to reconsider the societal norms around species identity.”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the intermingling of animal-human identities can be considered a collective representation within the human psy- che, hence enabling the possibility of such a real-life identity.”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Furthermore, Western individual-istic societies are more flexible in allowing individual variation in identities (Kroger, 2004), thuspossibly enabling less conventional identities, such as being a therian, to exist at all. ”

Page 18, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Western individual- istic societies are more flexible in allowing individual variation in identities (Kroger, 2004), thus possibly enabling less conventional identities, such as being a therian, to exist at all. The emerg- ence of the Internet has also enabled those with marginalized identities to explore and define their experiences within a group context.”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The emerg- ence of the Internet has also enabled those with marginalized identities to explore and define their experiences within a group context.”

Page 18, Underline (Red): Content: “McKenna and Bargh (1998)”

Page 19, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Generally, the conception of bodily sensations has been assumed to begin with the body part and end in the brain where the sensation is registered (Halligan, 2002). However, studies of ampu- tee patients who experience phantom limbs have argued against such assumptions and, instead, suggest that the brain constructs bodily experiences and our sensory inputs moderate our physical experience rather than directly cause it AsMelzack (1992) suggested, ‘‘We do not need a body to feel a body’’ (p. 126). To explain this,Melzack proposed that we possess a ‘‘neurosignature’’ ”

Page 19, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “that is genetically determined, although it can be modified by experience to some degree, and consists of a blueprint of our bodies that continues to function regardless of whether we have all the body parts that map on to this schema.”

Page 19, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “‘‘neurosignature’’”

Page 19, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “although it could be argued that these phantomlimb experiences were purely imaginary constructions that were evoked by the participants to support their beliefs around an animal identity, the parallels to amputee phantom limbs suggests that these experiences may have some basis in a therian’s biology.”

Page 19, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “biological attributes have been argued to override social constructs in embodied identities”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “mental shifts (thinking like their theriotype).”

Page 20, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “mental shifts”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Such altered states of conscious- ness parallel those of shamans who often experience possession by animal spirits”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “However, although for certain cultures there is a belief that shamans can go beyond possession and transform into the actual animal, generally shamanic trance posses- sions involve being taken over by an external animal spirit with no fusion of animal and shaman identities (Baruss, 2003).”

Page 20, Underline (Magenta): Content: “However, although for certain cultures there is a belief that shamans can go beyond possession and transform into the actual animal, generally shamanic trance posses- sions involve being taken over by an external animal spirit with no fusion of animal and shaman identities (Baruss, 2003).”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Those with greater scores on the Highly Sensitive Personality Scale have been found to experience a greater degree of altered states of consciousness”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This personality variable correlates strongly with the ability to empathize,”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “there has been a suggestion that therianthropy is a reaction in the West to disen- chantment with current outlets for spiritual expression (Robertson, 2013).”

Page 20, Underline (Red): Content: “(Robertson, 2013).”

Page 21, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “although transgendered individuals are bombarded with stimuli representing how the gender opposite to their biological sex is understood, viewed, and expected to behave, this is not the case for therians.”

Page 21, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Although therians may have some contact with the animal of their theriotype, they lack a considerable amount of information on the experiences, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of the animal with which they identify.”

Page 21, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Although the therian part- icipants did not overtly express feelings of shame surrounding their identity, issues around control and fear of being labeled abnormal, which are addressed in the third theme, suggest the possibility of at least expectations that they should hide their therian identities and, therefore, such identities”

Page 22, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “could be considered shameful.”

Page 22, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The final theme highlights the conflict between participants’ desires to be able to fully express their therian identity and their fear of society’s reaction. Such a conflict is reflective of the relationship between Carl Jung’s (1968) archetypes: the shadow and the persona.”

Page 22, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” places animal behaviors froma human body beyond the norm, and hence such behavioris seen as embarrassing and even shameful, which can lead to placing it within the shadow. ”

Page 23, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Control of animalistic behaviors appeared to be paramount to all of the participants.”

Page 23, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the term animal is often associated with uncivilized and inappropriate behavior (Baker, 2001). This leads to the socially encouraged sup- pression of animalistic behaviors early in childhood.”

Page 23, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Limitations We considered synchronized online chat to be the most appropriate method of data collection. However, due to the nature of that type of written expression, responses were often much shorter”

Page 24, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “than would have been gained in other types of interviews such as face-to-face.”

Page 24, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Future research could consider the use of face-to-face interviews, telephone interviews, diaries, or the production of written extracts to supplement synchronized chat and reduce participant fatigue.”

Page 24, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Conclusion”

Page 24, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This study is just a beginning to provide insight into a phenomenon that once was considered almost exclusive to non-Western populations.”

Page 24, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Identity formation for therians appears to be a self-reflective process that, due to the sociocultural climate, results in a careful balance between self-expression and self-presentation.”

Page 24, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “There are strong parallels with identity formation within the lesbian, gay, and transsexual communities, who in the past have been subjected to classification of their experiences as a mental illness, and this is still the case currently for the transsexual com- munity.”

Page 24, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The participants in this study appeared to be mentally healthy.”

Page 24, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Baker, S. (2001). Picturing the beast: Animals, identity and representation. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.”

Page 25, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Coll, P. G., & O’Sullivan, G., & Browne, P. J. (1985). Lycanthropy lives on. British Journal of Psychiatry, 147,201–202. ”

Page 25, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Garlipp, P. (2007). Lycanthropy. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 15, 161.”

Page 25, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Garlipp, P., Go¨decke-Koch, T., Dietrich, D. E., & Haltenhof, H. (2004). Lycanthropy–Psychopathological and psycho- dynamical perspectives. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 109, 19–22.”

Page 25, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Grivell, T. (2011). Peoples’ experiences of therianthropy in everyday life. Unpublished manuscript, Division of Psychology, University of Northampton, Northampton, England.”

Page 25, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Khalil, R. B., Dahdah, P., & Richa, S. (2012). Lycanthropy as a cultural-bound syndrome: A case report and review of the literature. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 18, 51–54.”

Page 26, Underline (Magenta): Content: “McKenna, K. Y. A., & Bargh, J. A. (1998). Coming out in the age of the internet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 681–694.”

Page 26, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Silva, J. A., & Leong, G. B. (2005). Lycanthropy and delusional misidentification. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 111, 162.”

Page 26, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Younis, A. A., & Moselhy, H. F. (2009). Lycanthropy alive in Babylon: The existence of archetype. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 119, 161–164.”

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