Remembering Mark Merlino (1952-2024), a founder and soul of furry fandom

by Patch O'Furr

Mark (left) and Rod holding their Lifetime Achievement Award — from the 2022 Good Furry Awards

They had a shared vision

Mark Merlino was a founder of both the furry fandom and the North American anime fandom. In 1971, meeting fellow hobbyists at science fiction conventions led to the 1977 formation of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (C/FO), using the clubhouse of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society (LASFS). They would screen rare videos of imported Japanese animation for lucky members to see before anyone else, and movies like Animalympics that were first called funny-animal and later furry. In 1989 Mark and his partner Rod O’Riley co-founded the first furry convention, Confurence.

Their vision stood apart from major influences like Star Trek or Star Wars. They would gather fans without elitism or ambitions of an exclusive club, with no central property, brand or owner. It was a vision of collaboration, expressed with sketchbook sharing, convention room parties, and direct fan-to-fan creativity. That’s how love for animal characters turned into being original role-play fursonas. It was shaded by counterculture of 1960’s underground comix, and lit by the sparks of pre-internet fandom circulated by VHS tapes and mail ‘zines.

The flame was tended from Mark’s Southern California house, The Prancing Skiltaire, established in 1980. It was named after a mink-like alien species he created and also a reference to the Prancing Pony Inn in Lord of the Rings. Mark shared the house with Rod and a rotating cast of fellow creative oddballs and luminaries. In the mid-1980’s he created his fursona Sylys Sable and Rod created Vinson Mink with a similar back-story. They supported regular monthly furmeets, con staff meets, furry BBS and MUCK activity and an ISP, animation screenings and mingling with California industry talent, and development of independent zine/APA publishing, animation, games, and costuming. They were at the forefront of an explosion of nearly 200 conventions and worldwide subculture that serves millions today.

Tributes around the world

After 5 decades at the heart of it all, Mark’s elder health problems led to hospitalization at the new year in 2024. He was lovingly supported by friends and partners and a crowdfund until he passed away on February 20. Anime, furry, and brony networks lit up with condolences from around the world while the name Mark Merlino trended on social media next to mainstream celebrities.

He is survived by partners including Rod, and Changa who joined them for 28 years. They were united by love and creativity, but as queer people, their relationship was fundamental to the acceptance and expression that aligns many furries with queer culture. Fandom may be a hobby, but it’s also a way to show identity, and theirs was the soul of what furries are.

Mark contributed stories to Dogpatch Press. With eyes on the future, his 2022 look at Furality featured its hugely successful 15,000 attendance. He also wrote 2020’s A brief history of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization, America’s first anime fan club. Then there were meetings in person.

Patch O’Furr’s memory: generosity and delight

At first contact in 2013, I was a cold caller to Mark. I reached him to write about his furry gallery art show that he called a dream he had for over 30 years. He was super excited to be asked. He was always that generous for convention meetings at his room, where he would tell funny grandpa stories in a Zootopia hat with fuzzy ears. His eyes would light up while he played a fan cut of Animalympics and explained how it was unjustly unseen until being rescued for people like us. It was charming when Rod chimed in with him.

In 2019 my girlfriend planned a trip with time to visit the Skiltaire house. It was packed with memorabilia like Aladdin’s cave, a museum, or a holy shrine for a pilgrimage. We got a tour, watched documentary about them, and had dinner. My girlfriend, not a furry, was very quiet while taking it all in, which turned into delighted writing about the visit later. That means a lot because she has passed away. It’s one of life’s best memories because of their generosity.

The most personal way I got to know Mark was private email where he explained philosphy that I boiled down above, and “lifestyler vs. traditionalist” conflict (a way that rivalry or even homophobia came to furry spaces). From long experience, Mark asked me not to publish unless he could collect it into “things clearly marked as ‘opinion’, ‘recollection’ and verified fact. I am particularly nervous about ‘naming names’. This has bitten me badly in the past.” That included a story about once receiving a dead squirrel in a UPS package!

He added: “I am very proud of what Rod, myself, and our friends have done to help create Furry Fandom.”

Our Furry Heritage — by Jack Newhorse, Telegram: @JackNewhorse 

“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.” — Hazel, upon the death of Bigwig; Watership Down, by Richard Adams.

Mark Merlino, half of the couple generally acknowledged as “Fathers of the Furry Fandom”, died today. I’ll leave personal tributes to those who knew him, as I didn’t. But still I said the phrase above to myself, as I do whenever I hear of a furry’s death.

You who are reading this might already know about Mark (and his partner Rod). As creators of seminal furry organizations who have remained active in the fandom, they form an important part of our heritage. Visitors to monthly gatherings at their home in Southern California have had the opportunity to touch its dust: The newsletters, drawings, and other furry ephemera stretching back more than forty years.

Furry heritage of this sort has been getting more attention in the last few years. Fred Patten led the charge in 2016 with his book, Furry Fandom Conventions, 1989-2015, followed by Joe Strike’s Furry Nation and Ash Coyote and Eric Risher’s award-winning documentary, The Fandom. More recently, Gamepopper started the Furry Fandom History Project and has been giving talks at conventions about it; he’s among the contributors to the 250GB Furry History Collection on And in academia, the topic is covered by dozens (if not hundreds) of papers. (All of these projects owe a debt of gratitude to Wikifur, a primary source of furry information since 2005.)

I joined the fandom in 1998 and so had a ringside seat to some of this heritage. I promise you: life seemed as banal then as now. You never know what ideas will catch on, and Things require Space. Do I keep this con book? This flyer from a picnic? A supersponsor plushie? As the past recedes, we eliminate minor (and inconvenient) details, we create myths. But if you keep the artifacts, you have a base truth more true than memory.

This becomes more important as our fandom passes through the membrane into mass culture. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people now make their living exclusively by catering to us; furry businesses are popping up like spring flowers. Partygoers have discovered our club nights, and celebrities show up at our cons. We offer something compelling: It’s only a matter of time until every family has (or personally knows) furries. And you’ll be able to say to those newcomers, “I was there.”

(My organization, Otterdam Foundation, recognizes this and works to ease integration by “helping non-furry institutions explore anthropomorphic arts”. On this note, we’re planning the public-facing Otterdam Furry Arts Festival in cooperation with local arts organizations for this October.)

Mark will never again tell his stories on a couch in a con lobby, at the Prancing Skiltaire, or to his partner. But he did tell them. He and Rod invited people into their home; they presented at cons. (I was fortunate to be at their talk at what I think was Mark’s last, Midwest Furfest 2023.) They saved their artifacts, allowing those who followed to contextualize it all. To do that they had to first decide that what they were doing was important, even if seemingly banal at the time.

He mattered. This matters. And you, too, matter.

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