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Fit of Furry Ensnares Ganahl's Campaign
It is a tale of told by an idiot, full of sound and furries, signifying nothing.
Holy cow Republican candidate for governor Heidi Ganahl just can’t stop talking about “furries.” To recap my previous article on the topic: “Furries” are a real thing, in that some small number of people often pretend to be, dress up as, and even “identify” as various animals. This is a minuscule subculture with barely any cultural relevance. I literally never heard of this phenomenon (at least that I remember) until Ganahl brought it up. There is no convincing evidence that “kids [are] identifying as cats . . . all over Colorado” in schools, as Ganahl claimed September 24 while on Jimmy Sengenberger’s radio show. There is good evidence that many conservatives around the country, including Ganahl, have fallen into ridiculous conspiracy theories to the effect that “furries” in schools are a serious problem.
Ganahl’s Claim about Furries
Ganahl created the “furries” controversy completely unprompted. Neither Sengenberger nor anyone else asked her about this ridiculous topic. She had absolutely no reason to bring it up. She just . . . did so, inexplicably. And once she made the bonkers claim that furries are overrunning the schools, rather than brush off the remark as a humorous exaggeration or the like, she breathlessly restated the claim.
Meanwhile, various conservative activists in the state expressed outrage that the “liberal media” reported Ganahl’s bizarre claims even as they went out of their way to throw kindling on the story by repeating the claims as though they were serious. I really don’t get it. If Ganahl and her supporters actually cared about winning the governor’s race, they would try not to strike the typical unaffiliated voter as bat-shit crazy.
Yes, this is a story about which journalists should report. True, Ganahl often has spoken sensibly. Yet once a candidate throws out a comment obviously inspired by conspiracy mongers, that comment merits attention. When a candidate doubles down on a seemingly delusional claim, that merits more attention.
We should be clear as to the claim in question. No one doubts that children often pretend to be animals. Just the other day, my child pretended to be a dragon while his friend pretended to be a fox. My child is fascinated by animals. He often pretends to be some animal or other. Such play is perfectly normal. A couple years ago he dressed up as a dragon to do math (we homeschool) and . . . it was totally fine!
In a few weeks children and adults will dress up as all sorts of strange creatures, including animals of many sorts (Google “animal costume” if you wish). My wife once won a costume contest dressed as a unicorn. Further, as anyone who has stepped foot in a history museum knows, adults too long have been fascinated by animals and often have dressed up as them. These days, movies and comics are filled with such characters as Batman, Catwoman, Hawkman, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and on and on. Both K–12 schools and colleges often are named after animals and have animal mascots.
Ganahl’s claim is not merely that children are pretending to be animals, but (returning to her original claim) that “we have furries in Colorado schools . . . kids identifying as cats . . . all over Colorado and schools are tolerating it. It’s insane.” Context makes clear that Ganahl is claiming that “furries” in schools are widespread and that they are interfering with children’s education (“teaching basics”). Ganahl claims that “furries” are an aspect of a “woke ideology” that drove her to move from Boulder Valley to Douglas County.
Ganahl Doubles Down
So I just heard from over 100 parents identifying 30 different schools across Colorado [where] this is happening. So I would suggest that the politicians and the media get out there and talk to parents on the ground, that’s what we’re doing. Jefferson County, there’s a lot of this going on.
A spokesperson from JeffCo schools told Fox31:
There is absolutely no truth to this claim . . . . There are no litter boxes in our buildings and students are not allowed to come to school in costume. There are no furries or students identifying as such during the school day.
Although Bostelman and others have claimed that schools are keeping litter boxes for “furry” kids, to my knowledge Ganahl has not made that specific claim. Many Colorado schools do have buckets filled with litter, not because of “furries,” but in case schools have to go into lockdown and children have to go to the bathroom.
Ganahl also told KRDO: “Schools tolerating kids dressing up as cats is not appropriate.” Obviously Ganahl is not talking merely about things like kids dressing up for Halloween or wearing cute cat ears or the like; she’s talking about disruptive, animalistic behavior.
Ganahl also sent KRDO the follow-up statement:
This is yet another example of how Jared Polis is living on Fantasy Island. As I’ve traveled and met with Coloradans across the state, I’ve been struck by how worried they are about many things, including the politicization of the classroom, which is distracting educators from addressing the shocking decline in Colorado’s academic achievement and teen mental health. Parents are ticked off. We need to listen to parents, teachers and students. They are the ones that know what is happening in schools—not legislators that voted down transparency in schools, lazy members of the media, and certainly not our out of touch Governor. Jared Polis denies that this is happening so he doesn’t have to take responsibility for it. We must hold him accountable in this election.
On October 2, Ganahl repeated the claim that “kids are identifying as cats . . . it’s happening all over Colorado and schools are tolerating it.”
Ganahl joined radio host Mandy Connell October 3 to talk more about furries. Connell remarked:
STUPIDITY BROKE OUT ON TWITTER THIS WEEKEND OVER FURRIES: Heidi Ganahl, who has actually been TALKING to parents of kids in our schools has been told by MULTIPLE sources that kids are being allowed to dress as “furries” at schools, including hissing, barking and trying to bite other children. As she is trying to remind people that our kids can't read and write on grade level, it came up and OF COURSE the local Polis friendly media POUNCED on it as THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE of the campaign because they think gaslighting the lived experiences of a bunch of kids is a way to score cheap political points and make Heidi seem like some kind of maniac. I despise the way these people (Kyle Clark) make their smug assertions that this isn't happening followed IMMEDIATELY by another smug assertion that Heidi if punching down at kids they just told us don’t exist. Do not be distracted. Campfire Colorado has comments from parents in this article, something 9News couldn’t be bothered to do before Kyle smugged all over Twitter.
Ganahl remarked on how she came to be concerned about “children dressing as animals in schools” (as Connell put it):
Well it started with this rumor, and I started hearing from more and more parents across the state that it was happening. And then [redacted] Middle School in Jefferson County actually had to change their dress code because of it. But we’ve heard from about, oh gosh, now a couple hundred parents from around the state, and have heard about 30 different schools that this is going on. But, you know, this is yet another example of how the governor and many in the media are just living in a bubble. As I travel the state, I meet with Coloradans, I’m struck by how worried they are about a lot of things. But the politicization of the classroom is one of the biggies. And it’s distracting educators from addressing the shocking decline in our academic achievement here. . . . Sixty percent of our kids cannot read, write, or do math at grade level. And we have one of the highest suicide rates for kids, and one of the highest drug addiction rates for kids. And the governor and his team want to mock parents and kids, and say this stuff isn’t happening. They’re basically calling them liars, when I want to be a voice for parents and kids and always tell the truth about what I’m hearing, even if it’s uncomfortable. We’ve got to get back to just teaching them the basics, how to read, write, and do math. . . . It’s such a huge distraction to teaching kids. And like we’re really going to put that on teachers, that we expect them to monitor this stuff? At the end of the day, we’ve got to get back to just the basics, and letting teachers do their job, which is teaching kids how to read, write, do math, learn about civics, learn about chemistry. I mean that is completely missing right now in a lot of this conversation. And the governor and the Democrats are so out of touch when it comes to what’s happening in the classroom and with parents. Parents are ticked off. And honestly they created a tidal wave of parents who are really mad now that they’re being called liars. And the students are as well. So there’s going to be some backlash from this.
A Lack of Evidence
What is remarkable here is that neither Ganahl nor any of her supporters have offered a shred of concrete evidence that there is any truth to Ganahl’s claims. Instead, they have offered only he-said-she-said, “telephone”-style claims.
This is in the context of a large portion of the conservative movement making up or embracing bullshit conspiracy theories for years now on all manner of topics. And it is in the context of a long history of “moral panics” surrounding children. And it is in the context of conservative activists elsewhere spreading conspiracy theories specifically about furries that have been shown to be bullshit. So it would be remarkable if, in the midst of numerous bullshit conspiracy theories about furries, Ganahl happened to pick out a true story about furries in schools.
Now, it would not surprise me if, in a state with nearly a million students, someone were able to come up with some evidence that something like this (children acting as animals in schools) has happened somewhere. Again, we’re not looking for evidence that some kids pretended to be animals or dressed up as animals in a casual way, nor that there has ever been an issue with school “furries,” nor that there are “furries” outside of schools. We’re looking for evidence that many children “all over” in Colorado schools acted like animals in some way that seriously disrupted the learning environment, which is what Ganahl claimed. So far, there is no such evidence.
Instead of evidence, Ganahl has claimed that “hundreds” of unnamed people who claim to be parents of children in Colorado schools have heard claims from children about furries in schools.
The conservative publication Campfire Colorado mentions a few specific people who have made (second-hand) claims about furries, and one mentioned a specific school. (Both Ganahl and Campfire were extremely irresponsible to publicly name a specific school given the political atmosphere.) The article closes:
Campfire Colorado has been informed that JeffCo Kids First submitted a CORA request on the subject of furries and litter boxes to Jeffco Public Schools and they were told there were over 2,000 responsive emails. We eagerly await the results of that public records request.
Sure, let’s see what this fishing expedition pulls up. My guess is that it will pull up nothing of consequence.
Meanwhile, here’s what officials from school districts have told 9News:
Boulder Valley: “This hasn’t been an issue at all in our schools.”
Jefferson County: “There is absolutely no truth to this claim. There are no litter boxes in our buildings and students are not allowed to come to school in costume.”
Denver Public Schools: “This is not something the DPS has been experiencing.”
Cherry Creek: “This is a non-issue for our schools.”
October 5 Update: See my notes on additional reporting from the Denver Post, in which an official from Mesa County says some kids are dressing up with cat ears and the like.
A Change in Dress Code
The only part of Ganahl’s claims about furries that I’ve been able to confirm is that a Jefferson County middle school changed its dress code to explicitly forbid costumes.
I contacted the school in question for further details, but the school referred me to the Jefferson County schools communications office. That office sent me the following vague statement:
All Jeffco Public Schools maintain an environment that promote learning and are free of distraction. Our principals work with their staff to follow district policy around appropriate dress code. If clothing is disruptive, district policy gives the principal power to place restrictions on it, this would include students dressing in costume. We do not have litter boxes in schools. We are focused on delivering on our mission to provide a world-class education that prepares all Jeffco students for bright and successful futures as local and global citizens.
For reference I looked up the JeffCo code of conduct. Here is the dress code:
Responsibility for student dress and appearance generally rests with individual students and their families. Students may wish to express themselves by the manner of their dress and appearance; however, students shall not wear clothing or affect an appearance at school or school-sanctioned activities or events that is disruptive to the educational environment. Jeffco Public Schools standards on student attire are intended to help students focus on schoolwork, reduce discipline problems, and improve school order and safety.
Subject to approval, principals, working with their school community, may establish additional specific standards for their schools. Those standards should strive to be gender neutral and must be published and distributed to families.
Disciplinary action for violation of the student dress code shall include notifying the student of the violation and requiring that the dress or appearance be corrected before the student reenters the classroom, school environment, or school-sanctioned activity or event. At the discretion of the building level administrator, a family conference may be held. More serious consequences may result from repeated or serious violations.
As of its 2020–21 handbook, the middle school forbade things like caps, gang apparel, and pajamas. With the 2022–23 handbook, the school also forbade “costume-like attire that distracts from the learning environment (tails, headbands, face paint, capes, etc.).”
It’s reasonable to think that the school embraced this policy in response to some students wearing costumes. I do not have details about specifics.
All this shows is that one school had a minor problem with costumes and dealt with it. This hardly supports Ganahl’s far more ambitious claims that furries are widespread in Colorado schools, that animalistic behavior substantially interferes with learning, and that schools tolerate such behavior because of a “woke” ideology.
A Widespread Conspiracy Fantasy
In addition to Bostelman, other right-wing politicians and activists have made dubious claims about furries in schools. I got the following examples from Kyle Clark, who Tweeted about them.
CNN reports (links in original):
The Republican candidate for governor of Minnesota [Scott Jensen] repeated last week a bizarre hoax claim which has been debunked that children are being told they can identify as anthropomorphic cats and are being allowed to use litter boxes to urinate in schools. . . .
The claim reportedly originated from a community member at a local school board meeting last year and has since spread across the internet. They have been repeatedly shot down by fact-checkers from major news outlets as false. The bizarre conspiracy has spread so much that it even has its own dedicated Wikipedia page.
Nashville News5 reports:
School officials from two mid-state school systems—as well as the Tennessee Department of Education—say there is no evidence to support a claim a Tennessee state senator made during a legislative committee meeting this week . . . that some rural school districts in Tennessee are giving litter boxes to children identifying as “furries”. . . . Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, made the claims during a meeting of the Government Operations Joint Subcommittee on Education, Health and General Welfare on Tuesday.
The superintendent of Greenville County Schools told Fox Carolina:
I want to address the false rumors that have been circulating in the community and on social media claiming that our schools are putting in litter boxes for students who behave like cats or other animals and allowing students to respond to teachers by meowing, among other things. The things that have been described would be disruptive to school and therefore would not be allowed. These types of rumors have been documented as circulating across the country for at least nine months and, to our knowledge, have all been unfounded. Regardless of what is or is not happening in other parts of the country, I can assure parents and our community that if students behave inappropriately, it will be addressed, and Greenville County Schools has not and will not be implementing any of the things described in these rumors or social media posts that are circulating. I never imagined that I would have to deliver this kind of message, but it is clear that some people are getting all of their information from social media and the internet and then drawing conclusions based on that information as opposed to going directly to the source. Before you believe something like this, and more importantly, before you pass that along, we would ask that you talk to the principal of your local school or reach out to the district’s ombudsmen. Thank you.
Wyoming’s Cowboy State Daily reports:
A long-debunked internet rumor was squelched again Tuesday when the Campbell County School District Board of Trustees buried the notion it’s placed litter boxes in school bathrooms to accommodate students who identify as animals.
This article offers a clue as to one reason the conspiracy fantasy has become so widespread:
In [the conservative documentary by Matt Walsh, What Is a Woman], a family therapist named Sara Stockton repeats the claims that students in classrooms are self-identifying as animals and cause disruptions.
“So now we are seeing kids that are identifying as animals going to school and they are purring instead of answering questions, and they meow, and the teachers are not allowed to question it because it’s considered a queer identity,” she says in the documentary.
Filmmaker Matt Walsh responds: “The teachers have to affirm them as a cat? So, the schools are literal zoos now.”
A July 6 article from Reuters (mentioned by the Wyoming paper) responds specifically to the claims in the documentary:
Reuters has fact checked claims around “furries” in U.S. schools in the past and found no evidence of them disrupting classrooms or schools developing a policy of including them as a formal identity (here) and (here) and (here).
Two town council members running for re-election in November are waging a public fight over school children dressing like cats, a silly notion with a serious underside.
Republican Mary Brimer and Democrat Katie Anderson, public officials seeking re-election in two months, are also tapping into a nationwide political issue in which school children as cats and having litter boxes are associated with other political issues, such as changing gender identification.
The recent flareup began when Brimer posted on a social media site that she had “no reason to doubt my sources” telling her that “at least two NK students identify as a cat.” She added, “To that end, they have been accommodated by the NKSD with a litter box in school bathrooms.”
A flood of comments followed repeating rumors and unfounded facts about the comment.
School Superintendent Michael Waterman said he felt compelled to issue a public denial last week to the parents of the 4,000 students in town schools.
“The North Kingstown School Department has not deployed litter boxes in any school bathroom,” Waterman wrote in an email sent to parents. “This is a baseless rumor and similar social media posts have appeared in many other states in recent months.”
Pennsylvania’s Morning Times opines:
No, there are not any litter boxes in local schools.
It’s hard to believe that this needed to actually be said, but like in other parts of the country in the past year, local school districts are now being accused on social media of having litter boxes in school bathrooms for students who identify as “furries.”
Waverly Superintendent Dr. Eric Knolles told the publication:
In school we teach our kids to verify information before putting it into writing. Let me help everyone, the Waverly Central School District has not ever had a litter box in our schools. Our students use bathroom facilities just like you do at home.
The fact that adults would speak about our children in such a derogatory fashion is a sad statement for society. If anyone bothered to take 10 seconds and run a Google search they would see this has been a hoax going on for the last few years nationwide.
I laughed at this at first, thinking how gullible people are to believe Facebook garbage. But then I thought, my kid goes to Waverly and you are talking about her and the rest of my Wolverines. I really would love to call you out by name and have you be accountable for spreading ridiculous statements about our community, children and school. In the end I feel sorry for those who continue to make up lies and spread rumors about our kids.
CLAIM: Dansville Central School in western New York has put a litter box in a school restroom for students who identify as animals.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. There’s no truth to this claim, according to Dansville Central School District Superintendent Paul Alioto. The same false claim has surged in school districts nationwide in recent weeks, aided by politicians and candidates amid the culture wars and legislative action involving gender identification in schools.
THE FACTS: The same nonsensical claim has lit up parent Facebook groups and school board meetings across the country since December: Schools are accommodating students who enjoy dressing and acting like animals by providing litter boxes for them in school restrooms.
Administrators across dozens of districts, from Michigan to Texas to Wisconsin and New York, have batted down the false narrative, which has been promoted on social media by radio hosts, politicians and pundits who have used it to drum up outrage toward school policies on gender and bathroom use.
There are no litter boxes in [Illinois] Quincy Public Schools’ bathrooms.
That’s the message from Quincy Public Schools, QPS, Superintendent Dr. Todd A. Pettit, who sent a statement to parents to address rumors that QPS had installed litter boxes in restrooms.
“This is simply not true,” Pettit wrote.
Dr. Pettit said rumors about litter boxes in school bathrooms are part of a national trend he called a hoax.
“Almost every rumor includes the same core proponents: children identifying as animals, usually cats or dogs, and schools allowing those students to use litter boxes,” Dr. Pettit said in the note.
Oregon’s News-Review reports:
Roseburg Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cordon responded to the controversy [about furries] in an email message to families.
“You may have heard of the so-called ‘furry’ trend around the U.S., in which students claim to identify as animals and act accordingly at school,” Cordon’s email read. “While we do encourage our students to express their creativity and individuality, I can assure you that all of our students are required to act like humans on our campuses. We take disruptive behavior seriously and work to ensure all of our students can focus on learning and gaining the skills needed for future success.”
Canada’s VOCM reports:
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District is slamming recent social media posts making what it calls broad claims about students who identify as cats and/or animals.
The School District says it has been fielding questions from members of the public about posts claiming that schools in the province are placing litter boxes in their buildings.
The NLESD says that the claim, and many others associated with that line of thinking, are completely false and causing undue stress on schools and school communities.
We can reasonably conclude from all this that “furries in schools” is a conspiracy fantasy widespread within certain conservative circles.
Why This Matters
So Ganahl is spreading unsubstantiated, even absurd claims about widespread furry behavior in schools. Why does this matter? I see three main reasons:
This speaks to Ganahl’s judgment. The governor’s seat is the most important political role in the state. The governor is the person who takes the lead in any large emergency response. So, yes, it is important that the governor have good judgment. That Ganahl was so easily duped by such a widespread and well-reported conspiracy fantasy, and that she chose to double down on her claims rather than backtrack, displays poor judgment.
Talk about “furries” often is not-so-subtle code for transgenderism. This is obvious given the link to Walsh’s anti-trans film. I guess the idea is something like, “If children can identify as the other gender, they can identify as animals or whatever else too.” So it’s pretty obvious that politicians who talk about “furries” often are self-consciously signalling the anti-trans ranks among their supporters, but in a way they can plausibly deny. (Ganahl denies that she or her party is “anti-trans.”)
Insofar as any kids do sometimes pretend to be animals (again, almost all children do this sometimes) or wear animal-themed attire (I think almost all of my child’s t-shirts feature animals), the moral panic over “furries” could result in more bullying of some already-vulnerable kids.
Let’s further contemplate that third point. Kyle Clark remarked about the “furry” debacle:
There have always been kids on the margins, kids bullied to the point of possible self-harm. When powerful adults make a target of marginalized kids, that’s a whole other level.
But if there aren’t furries in school wtf are you yapping about? . . . You can’t have it both ways. If there aren’t furries in school, then the kids in the margins you’re worried about don’t exist. Expecting a bit of sanity in our schools instead of bowing to the whims of attention seeking hormonal teens is hardly punching down.
Connell’s remarks miss the point. No one is claiming that no child ever acts or dresses like an animal at school. There’s a big difference between, say, momentarily hissing while pretending to show cat claws and going to the bathroom in a litter box, between wearing a headband with cat ears and donning a full-blown cat suit. Rather, the position is that Ganahl’s claims about schools tolerating widespread and disruptive furry activity are false, but that Ganahl’s claims might nevertheless inspire some bullying of unpopular kids. That’s plausible.
Where Are the Sane Republicans?
I think Democratic single-party rule has been a disaster for Colorado. I’d really like Republicans to take over one of the legislative chambers or perhaps even the governor’s mansion. But that just isn’t going to happen with major Republican candidates embracing conspiracy fantasies about the election, furries, and whatever else. Not in Colorado.
The serious problem is not children pretending to be animals. It is credulous fearmongers pretending to be viable candidates.
I only hope that Ganahl can press pause on this perfectly nonsensical issue, as in every clause it is literally the most hysterical political story I’ve covered, and a catastrophe for Republican politics in Colorado.