I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, operating under the fake name of Dr. Michael Wong Chang, set up a website describing how to grow a kitten in a jar. The 2000 prank became an Internet sensation.
The originators were said to have been inspired by square watermelons that are grown in cube containers to give them their shape. It also makes them easier to ship.
Growing Technique Described
Grow your own or order a custom shape.
The Telegraph in the U.K. (August 2011) noted that the website “managed to convince the world … that it was possible – or desirable – to grow a kitten in a jar and mould the bones of the kitten into the shape of the jar as the cat grew, much like a bonsai plant is shaped via trimming.”
The kitten was supposedly fed and watered through a tube and waste removed using a contraption employing super glue. The creators claimed the growing felines were fed a special chemical that made their bones so pliable that they would bend to conform to the jar’s shape.
Finally, a uniquely shaped kitten was supposed to emerge: “You no longer need be satisfied with a house pet having the same mundane shape as all other members of its species,” the site said. “With Bonsai Kitten a world of variation awaits you, limited only by your own imagination.”
The website offered to sell custom-shaped kittens. Writing for Wired (February 2001) Declan McCullagh quoted the pranksters as saying “typical wait time for a fully shaped Bonsai Kitten is 3 to 4 months” - but the site does not list prices or a mailing address for where to send money orders. It does, however, occasionally receive requests for more information.”
Animal Lovers React
The website was launched in the fall of 2000 and immediately drew criticism from animal rights groups.
Humane societies were inundated with complaints about animal cruelty. The Michigan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stated that while “the site’s content may be faked, the issue it is campaigning for may create violence towards animals.”
The fictitious Dr. Chang, whose true identity has never been revealed, was quoted widely as saying the purpose of the hoax was to highlight “the human belief of nature as a commodity.” He also expressed surprise that animal rights organizations didn’t catch on to the fact that it was a joke. He must have been even more startled when the FBI began investigating Bonsai Kittens in February 2001.
Dr. Chang expressed his puzzlement: “To be honest, we never expected the animal organizations to get involved at all. We thought they’d understand.”
But that is more than a bit disingenuous as the website included the information that “if you take a week-old kitten and throw it to the floor, it will actually bounce!” It's to be hoped that nobody actually tried to see if this was true.
The Bonsai Kitten Hoax Lives on
The threat of police action caused the mysterious Dr. Chang to find new Internet service providers to host the website.
As the Bonsai Kitten Hoax moved from server to server it was followed by angry letters to the ISPs from animal lovers. The original site no longer exists but it has been mirrored in several places.
The Museum of Hoaxes writes that, “Even today, years after its creation, Bonsai Kitten continues to generate criticism, though it has by now been thoroughly debunked as a hoax. Various petitions still circulate, urging people to help shut down the site.”
Bonsai Kitten Knock-offs
Others have tried to build on the joke, tasteless as it may be. One website offered Bonsai Kitten Christmas Tree Ornaments. The operators boasted about “the splendid use of the tail to form a hanger. Imagine how this will look gracing your yuletide tree. Kids love to watch ‘em blink when they poke at them. And no mess to clean up! The ornament is its own kitty litter box.”
The decoration was priced at $149.95, although the website offered a disclaimer that the ad was completely bogus and intended only for “those with an IQ below 100, the gullible, [and] those lacking a sense of humour.”
Far more reasonably priced at $19.99 was the Bonsai Kitty Plush. The product of fertile minds at ThinkGeek.com, an orange, stuffed kitten was forced into a clear plastic jar. Potential purchasers were advised that “No cats kittens or kittehs (sic) were harmed in the creation of this product.”
Launched in 2011, this creation did not catch on like Pet Rocks and is “No longer available.”
In January 2010, a video was uploaded to YouTube entitled The Internet is Made of Cats. The Bonsai Kitten Hoax is referenced at 0.45
In 2000, an image of Snowball the Monster Cat began circulating on the Internet. The picture was the result of photo manipulation by one Cordell Hauglie, of Edmonds, Washington. He created the image as a joke and sent it to a few friends via e-mail. The beast was said to weigh 87 pounds and was the size of large dog. But the photo escaped into the World Wide Web and a prankster invented a back story involving the animal’s birth to a stray mother found near a Canadian nuclear plant.
The eHarmony Cat Lady was another feline spoof that got out of hand. A woman called Debbie posted a video on the dating site and had an emotional breakdown over her love of cats. The clip became so popular that eHarmony blogged that it was a parody. It prompted other pranksters to post memes about their love for beer or political parties.
- “Five Famous Hoaxes which Fooled the World.” The Telegraph, August 3, 2011.
- “FBI Goes after Bonsaikitten.com” Declan McCullagh, Wired, February 9, 2001.
- “Bonsai Kitten.” Museum of Hoaxes, undated.
- “Bonsai Kitty Plush.” ThinkGeek.com, undated.
- “Snowball the Monster Cat.” Museum of Hoaxes, undated.
- “We Respond to the ‘Crazy Cat Lady Video.’ ” Grant Livingston, eHarmony
© 2017 Rupert Taylor