Origins of an urban legend: “litter boxes for furries” joke gets revived for moral panic

by Patch O'Furr

Update: Thanks to The Daily Beast for linking this and quoting me. – Patch

No school ever had litter boxes for students who identify as animals. So how did the rumor explode into mainstream consciousness, like bad diarrhea from a diet of concern trolling and right-wing blogs?

In January 2022, the malodorous myth rose from local news in Michigan to the New York Times: Litter Boxes for Students Who Identify as Furries? Not So, Says School Official. Furries in the Times is a rare achievement. (Check the 1996 example at bottom of this story.) That isn’t simply debunking, it also has cultural potency for a post-truth era full of flat-earthism and Qanon cults.

I can’t count how many headlines there were about one incident. One is just absurd, but it keeps happening. That shows cynical calculation by Otherphobes. They’re demonizing minorities by proxy, with a target behind the target. It’s a cousin to transphobic memes like “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” using weirdos to make it easier to swallow. But before we digest that, let’s go to the splatter zone and trace the patterns.

At Dogpatch Press, I’m obsessive about tracking media mentions and memes, and we also do debunking — like for a misinterpreted “nazi furries” photo — and I’d been asked to trace the old litter box myth before. So I dug deeper than the mainstream news. Furry News has the real shit.

The oldest mainstream source I found is in this 2008 photo from Anthrocon in Pittsburgh. He’s a broadcaster who likes furries, although it’s complicated.

How the media gave us the shitty end of the stick — and wacky radio personalities.

Furries are loveable misfits born from 1970’s underground comix, nurtured by 1980’s nerd conventions, full-fledged before the web, and they secretly run Silicon Valley. Those are deep roots beneath the costume look. Inside the fandom, their default lore is full of grievance about sensationalizing from around the turn of the century. Vanity Fair, MTV Sex2K, and CSI were the villains. The problem with blaming them is overcompensation and ingroup pressure.

I think furries do plenty of their own exploitation with Rule 34, and it’s OK to laugh about. Bad news was a phase, not a box to hide in. A dose of media literacy can help sort PBS from the National Enquirer. Someone should track how the fandom and mainstream have a dance, not a war. You can even Be The Media.

A cake made with tootsie rolls. Yum!

The first time I heard the “litter box” myth, I wasn’t offended. I laughed shamelessly and used it to write satirical promotion for a furry orgy at a club in San Francisco. The party was real and you could get a ticket (like almost nowhere else in the world.) For the Wild Things party, I made a Cat Box Cake.

The inspiration came from a 2014 post on Anthrocon’s forum by one of the con’s original founders:

Litterboxes: This one’s the bonafide urban legend, first circulated around 2007 when the Brewers baseball team and Bob Uecker shared one of our hotels.  Their subsequent sports broadcast ridiculing furries with manufactured tales of litterboxes and such was widely heard.  To this day, comments to articles about furries have often included one or more individuals making the litterbox claim, insisting eyewitness veracity.  It’s proven to stick with the same tenacity of CSI and Vanity Fair.  The inclusion of this in the respective comment thus throws every prior claim into question as well.

When I did another story about pro sports team mascots and fursuits, I found the exact Brewers baseball broadcast with Bob Uecker, from 2007. It’s a hoot! Here’s some of Bob’s snappy stories he told to all the sports fans, that he pretended were proved by hotel staff:

  • “These people dress as animals, and come together for a convention. What do they do? Gather in a huge furball. You can’t really see the leader, he’s in the middle. You can hear him mumbling and talking, trying to talk… Kind of like a mom with a cubby, trying to keep him warm. There were a couple of suffocations last year. Revived, I might add, by personnel at the hotel. They told us that this morning…”
  • “The Pennsylvania Animal Society are there to make sure none of the members are infected with anything, licenses are being issued”
  • “Two of the members were in front of the bus, they didn’t get out of the driveway in time… boom-boom, roadkill”
  • “They’re having a furball, with a dinner, catered by Purina”

I think it’s good humor. Bob Uecker’s co-broadcaster Jim Powell made a blog post too, and it has the much meaner judging that pitted the media against the fandom. A Hair-Raising Time In Pittsburgh: “Having the Furry convention at our hotel in Pittsburgh was quite disturbing, to be honest.” It joined a spate of “sports teams share hotels with furries” stories from that time. They juxtaposed weird vs. accepted fandom with the Brewers, the Sabres, the Yankees, the Mets

But those don’t mention litter boxes. Maybe the Anthrocon forum post mixed up Bob Uecker with another Bob. He’s the guy in the Anthrocon photo above, and source of the oldest example I could find, from a 2008 blog post titled “Frickin’ Weirdos”. Big Bob from Pittsburgh’s Morning Freak Show on 96.1:

14 years later, hearts change, and Bob is still on the radio. He covered the 2022 litter box story (at 18:40, 5 min). It criticizes “unhinged” rumor spreading and stands for fans: “Every year when we do a charity for Toys For Tots, we have a furry night when a bunch of furries come out, we have Anthrocon in Pittsburgh which is one of the bigger conventions… we absolutely love furries!” He also said Pittsburgh’s best-kept secret is Anthrocon: “It’s just a little taste of the magic of our city.”

Fandom origins for the urban legend.

The mists of time may hold more inside sources, complicating the attribution. Bob Uecker and Jim Powell did enough research to link alt.lifestyle.furry, the Usenet discussion group formed in 1996. I asked a contact familiar with 90’s fandom about it:

I would say that the litterbox and identifying as a cat stuff are all very old (like late 90s old) otherkin jokes brought into today’s hyper-fucked extremely online crapworld. Like, people were talking about bringing litterboxes along with them to cons or something on usenet, and it was so long ago I can’t remember how many layers of irony and/or hearsay that stuff had on it, but I doubt anyone actually did anything like that, it really sounded like people were just joking.

I wish I could narrow down when those posts might have been made and where, probably alt.lifestyle.furry or one of the many alt.fan.furry threads about lifestylers. But there’s no comprehensive, usable usenet archive available to the public as far as I know and I’ve always suspected that there are some rather seedy reasons for that (the possibility of old posts from virtually every politician and tech CEO under 50 for one).

Background of 1990’s Culture War.

The 1990’s fandom was part of culture war long before Vanity Fair, MTV, or the Bobs came calling.

The war rose out of 1980’s Reagan era policies and Moral Majority “family values” conservatism against social change. Activists clashed with official homophobia during the AIDS crisis. Now families had both parents out to work and latchkey kids home alone. That pushed Stranger Danger, high profile “ritual abuse” hoaxes, and Satanic Panic. Heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons were scapegoats. Obscenity trials targeted sexy rap music by 2 Live Crew and speech by N.W.A. and the Dead Kennedys. Comics faced censorship. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was founded from a first amendment battle with furry comic Omaha the Cat Dancer.

The war came to furry cons. (Dogpatch Press): A 1990’s fax to troll Confurence shows how long there’s been culture war with furry fandom. A parent sent complaints to the hotel about adult art dealers. The war came from outside fandom — and inside — with Burned Furs moralizing that flamed out in 1998-2001. Do you get a feeling of deja vu?

The new moral panic: Not just bad media.

The media informs and debunks, and this isn’t just blaming them. Sometimes the fans start a joke themselves and take it over the top. The problem is when there’s an OtherPhobic agenda behind it all.

The 2022 panic in Michigan was not the first outbreak. I investigated one just a few weeks earlier in Minnesota.

A high school teacher was smeared by association with furry, and for poetry assigned in class. The hit piece shows no furry evidence, portrays “young students” at risk, and doesn’t mention it was advanced study for college credit. Right-wing parents got anti-gay activists involved (who supported “conversion therapy” that was banned for harming kids.) I saw a familiar bigoted therapist who attacks furries and lost his job. They roped in far-right politicians and blogs. When a local news source reported the story, it responsibly didn’t mention furry. I kept track…

Stories like this abound. In Missouri, a school’s only black teacher was threatened for showing kids a book about a black astronaut. Ironically, treating students like victims hurts them by taking away curriculum — maybe they don’t want kids to learn about anything after the moon landing or civil rights? This isn’t a campaign to protect kids, it’s an attack on information and media. The escalation shows libraries are next.

More escalation and reaction.

Embarrassment about faking didn’t stop it, and the claims get even more absurd. (TexasMonthly) A Texas GOP Candidate’s New Claim: School Cafeteria Tables Are Being Lowered for “Furries”. A conservative parents activist lied about accommodating lunch “like a dog eats from a bowl”; and Idaho radio lied that furries are being excused from homework because of struggling with paws.

Back to the 2022 Michigan story. Reactions shred the loaded wording: (Midland Daily News) Andrew Mullin: Recent Midland ‘furry’ scare is transphobia in disguise. The word “agenda”, “misuse of the word “identify” and her mention of the gender-neutral bathroom, signifies that this concern is merely a thinly veiled Trojan horse to fear-monger over transgender students and efforts to be more inclusive.” — “The “agenda” of making kids feel included is not scary, or a joke.”

More furry takes.

Lux weighs in:

From the Texas cafeteria article, it looks like patient zero was someone’s granddaughter getting bullied by kids wearing those Kitty Ear headbands.

But then again you can also get Barbie dolls in fursuits… so who the hell even knows what’s moving in the other direction, right?

To our inside guy at Mattel: maybe pump the brakes. The conservatives are asking about how we poop.

Since furry is something people “choose”, it’s safe to make us the butt of a joke. They can use furry panic as a dog whistle for just about any oppressed minority but brush it off and laugh. It feels like a stand-in for some kind of amorphous and frightening other. You can fabricate weird stories about funny animal people because you can’t do it openly about other groups. But weird xenophobic hate has to be metastasized into something. So the fandom has become a gutter in which conservative people can take massive steamy frightened shits. God this sucks.

How does this coalesce into a single person who ends up standing in front of their school board and stringing a bunch of gobbledygook together?

There’s malfeasance at the top layers of conservatism, but you can’t really plan chaos like this. This gal just seemed to follow a path of “something different at my school connected with something I don’t understand ooga booga” and then stumbled blindly into a school board meeting while goofed up on Boomer drugs. It’s not a long shot that it’s a combination of blood pressure medication and Ambien while browsing social media that caused this. It’s like the butterfly effect only really really stupid.

Soatok adds:

This is a proxy attack because conservatives think being trans means “I can choose my identity, willy nilly, and change my answer 6 times a second and if you get it wrong I get to imprison you for hate speech”. They’re trying to stoke hatred among their constituents. “Look, schools are indoctrinating your kids in these weird alternative lifestyles and they’ll choose weirdness over Jesus and the American Flag if you let them.”

This isn’t even coherent propaganda, they’re just throwing shit at the wall and seeing if it sticks. If not, they iterate onto something else. My conclusion is that hate and paranoia are the most impersonal things in the world.

Fear-mongering furry rumours started 20 years ago on Somethingawful and 4chan, now many internet bullies have trad-wives and red Maga hats, of course they’re gonna bring that energy to parent-teacher night. 20 year old cringe rumors are now entering the realm of pearl clutching parents as they dogwhistle about trans and queer kids existing.

Me:

Furry involves recasting Otherness to make it yours and make it fun. People who attack that are joykillers.

The fixation on bathrooms, and lies about eating like dogs in the cafeteria, shows how they’re imagining their kids. It’s failure to understand how kids think or what they care about. They’re reducing them to feeding and pooping. They’re the ones animalizing their kids! Like property at a zoo.

It’s about control when they target places kids have a little privacy, like lunch or bathroom breaks. It’s about fear too, to treat other people’s kids as so different they’re the wrong species. It’s othering on the most knee jerk level. They made a Human Centipede of credulous people, retrograde Anita Bryant style hatemongers, craven politicians, and mainstream media called to mop up the mess.

Joykillers and worse: the real cancel culture.

It goes from hobbies to teachers fired and books banned. But kids are having banned book clubs, and there’s a crowdfund to get support for a defunded library.

The rare times we made the New York Times.

There you have a chain from absurd jokes to culture war.

In this wild cultural moment, I dug up the few occasions furries were ever mentioned in the New York Times. In 2013 an online blog had Pirates fans and furries at Anthrocon (another clash of the weird and the accepted sports fandoms). And then we have to go all the way back to 1996. I looked up the featured fan, and he’s still around and as furry as ever. We’re here, get used to it.

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