On Sunday night, a candidate in the GOP primary for Texas House District 136, which includes a large portion of the suburbs north of Austin, tweeted a curious allegation. That candidate, Michelle Evans—an activist who works with the local chapter of conservative parents’ group Moms for Liberty and who cofounded the anti-vaccine political action committee Texans for Vaccine Choice, back in 2015—tweeted that “Cafeteria tables are being lowered in certain @RoundRockISD middle and high schools to allow ‘furries’ to more easily eat without utensils or their hands (ie, like a dog eats from a bowl).”
She was responding to a tweet from right-wing Texas provocateur Michael Quinn Sullivan, who had shared a video of a woman speaking at a December school board meeting in Midland, Michigan, claiming that schools there have added “litter boxes” in the halls to allow students who identify as “furries” to relieve themselves. Sullivan retweeted the video, adding, “This is public education.” (It isn’t; the claims made by the speaker in the video have been shown to be untrue.)
As in the debunked Michigan example, the claim about Round Rock ISD is false. Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, Round Rock ISD’s chief of public affairs and communications, told Texas Monthly, “This is not happening. Our tables don’t even have the option of lowering.” She added, “You win the award for strangest media question of the year!” When reached for an interview about her tweet, Evans said she had “no comment” and was “merely relaying information” that she received from another parent. She promised to put other parents and students who could speak to her claim in touch with Texas Monthly. As of press time, we have yet to hear from anyone who could offer firsthand knowledge of what Evans described in her post.
At face value, Evans’s claim fails to pass a sniff test: Did an entire school district of smartphone-addicted teens just forget to snap a picture of their classmates eating in the way that dogs do? If not, where did this strange claim come from?
The furries panic appears to have originated from a news report from Meade County, Kentucky, about an hour southwest of Louisville, that ran on WLKY, an NBC affiliate, in August. That story lacked some of the more sensational elements that appeared in the tweet about Round Rock and in the video from Michigan, but it cited a lone, anonymous Kentucky grandmother who claimed that students wearing cat ears and tails were bullying her grandchildren. “Apparently, from what I understand, they’re called ‘furries,’” the grandmother told the station. “They identify with animals. These people will hiss at you or scratch at you if they don’t like something you’re doing.” (Notably, the story the station posted on its website is illustrated not with a picture of a student in an outfit like the one described by the grandmother, but with a photograph of a house cat.)
In response, the Meade County school district superintendent said there was no need to change school policy because what was being reported as a plague of cat-people taking over a school was actually “a small number of Meade County High School students [who] have violated the dress code policy during the early part of the school year.” As for allegations of teens hissing at classmates they don’t like? That just sounds like high school.
Nonetheless, concerns over furries in schools began to take on elements of moral panic and urban myth in the ensuing weeks and months. In October, an Idaho talk radio station ran a report that said students who claimed to be furries were being excused from their homework because “paws and hooves can’t grip a pencil and struggle with a keyboard”—with citations such as “I recently heard someone say that there are students in the Twin Falls city school system identifying as animals.” The story was later updated, after the station spoke with the Twin Falls school superintendent, who clarified that “none of the TFSD schools have experienced students coming to them with claims of identifying as animals. Nor have any building administrators heard from teachers that students are being disruptive during class due to identifying as an animal.” He added that such a claim would not exempt a student from homework.
Similar reports have popped up elsewhere. In Iowa, an unsourced, anonymous report claimed that school boards were considering placing litter boxes in the bathrooms, while a Canadian public school director took to the media to connect similar rumors in his community to a backlash around accommodations that his schools had created for transgender students. Evans’s claim that Round Rock lowered its tables appears to simply be a new variation on the myth.
Experts on the furry community say the panic doesn’t make much sense. While the subculture does exist, its members don’t “identify as cats and dogs,” and thus wouldn’t demand schools make accommodations for them. According to Sharon Roberts, an associate professor of social development studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who researches the subculture as part of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, “Furries are people who have an interest in anthropomorphism, which—when applied to the furry fandom, specifically—refers to giving human characteristics to animals.” Think people who have an affinity for Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy, or The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as opposed to folks who actually believe they’re canines.
The closest most furries come to “identifying” as an animal is creating a “fursona,” or an avatar-like character they can illustrate, or a “fursuit” costume to wear at conventions, in the same way that Star Wars fans might dress as a Jedi knight at Comic-Con. Furries aren’t, in other words, using litter boxes or sticking their faces into dog bowls, Roberts said. “It is such a misunderstanding that we used a similar concept as a joke in a public service announcement, where we put furries in ridiculous situations, where the punch line was, ‘Of course furries don’t do this, but if you want to know more, come to furscience.com,’” she said. “It’s that far off from what is accurate about the furry fandom.”
But truth about furries is of little concern to the activists claiming that schools have allowed frightening subcultures to take over their children’s lives. Outrage at school boards has animated right-wing politics in the past year, particularly in Texas. Right-wing activists have argued against the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools, despite not being able to define what the term refers to. They’ve found supporters in the Legislature, which passed a bill last year, signed by Governor Greg Abbott, that bans the teaching of CRT. GOP leaders in Texas have also made headlines in recent months by investigating “pornography” in books available at school libraries, frequently targeting content that discusses gender identity.
The goal of the furry wars seems to be to drum up outrage among parents who’ve grown addicted to school-related outrage, but who need a fix of something weirder and more specific than “critical race theory.” Spreading false stories about already embattled school administrators is justified, it seems, so long as it keeps the outrage machine churning along.