A TikTok viewed hundreds of thousands of times has sparked rumours of students identifying as animals and requesting litter boxes in the bathrooms – all of which is untrue. But where did these stories come from? And why are they so dangerous?
If you’ve been online at all recently, you may have already heard fantastical anecdotes about litter boxes installed in school bathrooms to accommodate animal-identifying students or child “furries”. The yarn is so intriguingly bizarre that it’s perhaps unsurprising how quickly it captured the imagination and the whisper-mill of school children, parents, the general public and, in the US at least, politicians.
Like all the most successful schoolyard gossip, a key feature of these fictional tales is that they’re told by someone who is at least one person removed from the story. The rumours often sound something like: “My hairdresser’s daughter’s friend walked in on her classmate using a litter box at school last week” or “A neighbour told me his cousin does maintenance at a school where there are so many students identifying as cats that litter boxes were installed in the bathrooms”. Another quirk is that despite living in a world where almost everyone carries a camera in their back pocket, there’s no photographic or video evidence of these apparent kitty litter loo facilities, nor of the supposed cat-identifying students who use them.
A video posted by TikTok account @lordpeachy2rumble on Monday featured a pair of what seem to be ex-students of Whangārei Girls High School filmed on Auckland’s Queen Street. It’s night, and they’re speaking to camera about a supposed litter box incident at the school. “At Whangārei Girls High School…there was a petition to get litter boxes in our bathrooms for furries – girls who identify as cats and dogs and what not,” they say in the video. They add that the principal eventually went on stress leave because of the situation and the students who supposedly identified as cats and dogs “ended up taking shits in the toilet sink”.
At more than 700,000 views so far, the video is easily the most-watched on this user’s TikTok account. It has also generated more than 2,000 comments, many of which simply say “WTF”.
So did any of this actually happen?
“None of this has any truth to it at all,” Whangārei Girls High School acting principal Sonya Lockyer told The Spinoff. Despite stories of litter boxes at the school propagating among the community for the past year, “we definitely haven’t been asked to provide litter boxes, no one has been defecating in the sinks and the principal has not gone on stress leave,” Lockyer said. And beyond a memory of a student occasionally wearing a headband with cat ears attached, Lockyer said she has no knowledge of any students at the school identifying as animals. Since being made aware of the TikTok, she has reported the video to Netsafe.
Whangārei Girls High School may be the most prominent example, but speak to students or parents anywhere in Aotearoa and you’re likely to find someone familiar with the stories. The thing is, while the image of litter boxes in school bathrooms might seem harmlessly silly on the surface, this urban legend is no joke to those it indirectly targets.
Pinpointing an exact point of origin for the fictional stories is difficult, but media coverage of the school litter box hoax goes back to at least as early as 2021 in Canada. Similar rumours began to swirl in Michigan in December that year, in the wake of a video showing a board of education meeting in which a speaker claimed that litter boxes were placed in student bathrooms for those who identify as “furries”. The existence of both child “furries” and litter boxes in bathrooms was debunked the next month by Reuters but similar stories continued to spread among schools in other states. Ahead of the 2022 US elections, various prominent Republican politicians and media personalities continued to propagate the hoax. Despite there being no confirmed instances of schools providing litter boxes for students, social media has helped to amplify the tales.
In August last year, the NZ Herald republished a story from news.com.au with the headline “Year 8 girl identifying as cat at school in Melbourne”. It was only taken down from the Herald website, almost a week later, after journalist David Farrier debunked the story in his newsletter.
While there is a real subculture of people known as “furries” – people who role play as animal characters – the overwhelming majority of them still identify as humans.
Separately, both classrooms and bathrooms have become battlegrounds in the larger culture wars. The litter box rumour has perhaps been so successful because of the way it combines the two. Against a backdrop of growing fearmongering around gender diversity, the hoax is seen by many as an implicit attack on gender diverse and transgender communities, part of a backlash against recognition of gender variance in schools. It’s a rumour implicitly crafted to provoke a kind of “what has the world come to?” alarm from those who stumble across it, with the insinuation that growing acceptance of and protections for LGBTQ+ students in schools are a slippery slope ultimately leading to bathroom litter boxes and animal-identifying kids.
Unfortunately, New Zealand is not immune to this rhetoric, and it could be why we’re seeing this type of rumour propagated locally. Research published in May shows how online anti-trans hate intensified this year around the visit from anti-trans campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (Posie Parker) in March.
A Ministry of Education spokesperson said in an email to The Spinoff, “Schools play an important and trusted role in responding to mis/disinformation by teaching our young people critical thinking so they can make reasoned judgements about what they are reading, seeing and hearing.”
It added, “however, this responsibility stretches beyond schools and into our wider communities. We all have a part to play in challenging mis/disinformation and supporting young people to do the same with confidence.”