A fringe belief that Maine schools are accommodating children who self-identify as animals is recirculating despite Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer and a misinformation expert saying there is no evidence to support it. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A fringe belief that Maine schools are accommodating children who self-identify as animals is recirculating despite a school official and a misinformation expert saying there is no evidence to support it.

The Brewer School Department received questions over the winter about rumors that its schools provided litter boxes to children who “identified” as cats and other animals, Superintendent Gregg Palmer said.

“We’ve never had to deal with it, as no such thing has ever happened in our schools,” he said. “We assured folks that it had never happened in our schools and that was the end of it.”

Public schools in Maine and across the country have been plagued by false allegations that they have been forced to provide litter boxes for children who identify as animals, sometimes erroneously called “furries.”

Their emergence represents the spread of “furry panic” from niche sections of the internet to mainstream social media, where far-right social media figures with large followings have picked them up, according to Brian Friedberg, a Harvard Shorenstein Center researcher who tracks misinformation on social media.

Furries are a subculture of people who create anthropomorphic animal alter egos, known as “fursonas,” and sometimes dress in costume as their animalistic selves. Two furry community conventions took place in South Portland in 2018 and 2019.

School districts in Wisconsin, Vermont and Michigan have debunked rumors that they have accommodated children identifying as animals.

Rumors that Maine school districts have been forced to provide litter boxes to animal-identifying children have circulated since last fall on social media sites like Facebook and Reddit.

One man requested information from Regional School Unit 54 in the Skowhegan area about its “stance on allowing students who identify as animals to be an exception to [the] dress code,” according to minutes from an Oct. 21 school board meeting.

A rumor about workers at Bath Iron Works identifying as furries and demanding litter boxes in place of bathrooms also plagued the shipyard last fall. The Lewiston Sun Journal traced the rumor back to a Facebook post from Maine Journal News, a website that publishes “news and information you won’t hear from [mainstream] media.”

“[There] are reports of multiple cats, a gorilla and possibly a wolf furry being employed at BIW though we haven’t received a definitive answer on the species being employed though the cats seem to be prevalent furry species,” Maine Journal News said.

Maine Journal News did not respond to a message seeking comment. The Sun Journal did not find any evidence confirming there were furries at Bath Iron Works.

Political leaders across the country have cited furry rumors during arguments about school funding and operations, lending them credence despite their dubious origin.

Nebraska Sen. Bruce Bostelman apologized in March for citing a false rumor about children identifying as animals during a debate about a funding bill that would help students with behavioral problems.

“Kids who identify as ‘furries’ get a litter box in the school bathroom. Parent heroes will TAKE BACK our schools,” Michigan Republican Party co-chair Meshawn Maddock said in a Jan. 20 Facebook post.

A superintendent in Midlands, Michigan, debunked Maddock’s claim about schools providing litter boxes in the bathrooms.  

“Furry panic” in schools originally started as an internet culture war in the 2010s on niche sites like 4chan, then began proliferating on mainstream social media after they were picked up by far-right social media figures with large followings, said Friedberg, the researcher who tracks misinformation on social media.

He pointed to a Jan. 11 TikTok video from a substitute teacher who claimed her school district fired her for not meowing back at a student who identified as a cat as an example.

A news story about the video was reshared by Libs of TikTok, a Twitter account run by a far-right Los Angeles activist, Chaya Raichik, who reposts content from LGBTQ people, victims of police brutality and liberal advocates and reframes them with mocking, incendiary language.

The teacher said in a later video that she was not fired and that the story was false.

Raichik, whose identity was revealed in an April 19 Washington Post article, has more than 1 million Twitter followers and her posts are often reshared on other social media like Facebook, where they can reach even more people. People have reported receiving death threats and being fired from teaching jobs because of her posts falsely calling them sexual predators.

It doesn’t take much for content from niche sites to reach mainstream audiences and become a legitimate concern for people who don’t know their origin or whether they’re false, Friedberg said.

The combination of disinformation and misperceptions about what furries are “can sort of spark things up and turn it into something that is actionable for these conservatives, i.e. taking it to their school board,” Friedberg said.

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.