Did you hear the rumor about kitty litter boxes for ‘furries’ in public schools?

hand scooping litter box
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An unfounded anecdote about kitty litter boxes for role-playing students in public schools is the rumor that just won’t quit, and especially in certain political circles.

Don Bolduc, Republican candidate for New Hampshire senator, is one of the latest conservative politicians to repeat the hearsay that schools are providing litter boxes for students who identify as anthropomorphic cats, or “furries,” according to CNN.

“And get this, get this,” Bolduc says in a recording obtained by CNN. “They’re putting litter boxes, right?… I wish I was making this up.”

It turns out the story is untrue.

The rumor, which has been repeated by several Republican nominees around the country as well as making the rounds of cocktail parties, has been repeatedly shot down by fact finding, including an Oct. 31 rebuke of Bolduc by Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire.

The academy tweeted that political candidates are welcome to visit the campus “before making claims about what occurs here.”

The kitty litter box hoax has spread so far and so fast it even has its own debunking wikipage, which claims the rumor is in response to schools enacting rights for transgender students.

“This is absurd. Without merit at all,” says Lydia Young, teaching professor for Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education and faculty lead for the teacher licensure program. 

“What’s interesting is how many people are repeating it in an effort to make it a thing,” says Young, who is also faculty lead for the McFarland Scholars program at Northeastern.”

Tomas Galguera, interim dean of the School of Education at Mills College at Northeastern University in Oakland, California, says the rumor reflects parental concerns about what is being taught in schools that are twisted into paranoia and amplified by the internet.

“It comes out of this worry on the part of the American public that their children are going to be educated in ways that are not approved by them,” Galguera says.

“It is a constant suspicion of schools that they are not doing what they should be doing, which gives rise to all these crazy ideas such as the notion there are going to be litter boxes in schools.”

The litter box rumor is so attention grabbing it’s just the sort of thing to go viral on the internet, Galguera says.

“It gives extra power to the most vociferous, smaller groups,” he says.

Furries are a subculture of people who dress up as anthropomorphic animal characters, sometimes developing online “fursonas” and attending conventions, one of which, Anthro New England, is scheduled for January in Boston.

Don’t expect to find litter boxes at the convention, says Sharon E. Roberts, a Canadian academic and co-founder of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project/Furscience, which studies “furry fandom from sociological, social, psychological and clinical perspectives.”

“Furries—like so many others who have hobbies—engage in limited fantasy,” Roberts writes in an email.

“For example, someone who goes to a Star Trek convention and cosplays as Captain Kirk is unlikely to show up for work on Monday and demand their phone be replaced with a Star Fleet Communicator and their supervisor beam them over to building B.”

“Similarly, furries might attend a furry convention, local meet-up or simply connect with like-others online, but they return to everyday life on Monday—just like everyone else,” Roberts says.

“Is it possible that somewhere someone has asked for a litter box? Like asking for a Star Fleet Communicator to be used at work, I suppose that anything is possible.”

“I can tell you, as someone who has studied furries for over a decade, the purported behavior of asking for litter boxes in restrooms is not supported by the research,” Roberts says, referring to the rumor as a type of “moral panic.”

Galguera believes that the funding of U.S. schools mainly with local taxes helps give rise to “overzealous concern about what is being taught in schools,” a concern that lends itself to rumors and paranoia.

There’s a sense of “I pay for what my kids learn” that isn’t the case in other countries that have a national curriculum, he says.

“If you go to France and you ask, ‘What are the kids studying?’ the ministry of education can tell you, ‘Today we’re going to be studying this geometry and this history,’” Galguera says.

In the U.S., some groups have “the idea we are indoctrinating kids for all these extreme views,” he says. 

Young says she had to do a bit of digging—and she doesn’t apologize for the pun—on the litter box rumor issue to respond to News@Northeastern’s questions on the topic.

“I had not heard of this at all,” she says. 

Young says she read that at least 20 Republican political candidates have mentioned the rumor. NBC included the information in a report saying the kitty litter box rumors have become a GOP talking point in states including Colorado, Minnesota and Tennessee.

The focus seems to be on schools and district where there have been efforts to have conversations, curriculum inclusion and communities for students who identify as LGBTQ+ and as transgender, Young says.

“The openness to people who are different is really the target here,” she says. 

“Educators know their students,” Young says, adding they do their best to create relationships and connections that foster safe environments for learning.

“I think this is a distracting technique to disparage public schools and to say creating inclusive environments shouldn’t be happening,” she says.

“I really hope they stop repeating that (rumor),” Young says. “We have more than enough to do in teacher education than to debunk false stories. Let’s focus on what’s really in front of us and not make up stuff.”

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