Great Internet Hoaxes: The Bonsai Kitten Prank
P. T. Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame, once made his famous quote “There’s one born every minute” which gained worldwide acclaim. Apparently, the quote is as true today as when he made it, particularly when it comes to internet hoaxes. A group of MIT students decided to erect a prank website in late 2000 which put the theory to test. It was named Bonsaikitten.com
The site was so realistic it immediately raised outrage among animal rights activists including the Humane Society. Even the FBI, who was anything but amused, investigated the site. Boston FBI agents served MIT with a grand jury subpoena asking for "any and all subscriber information." However, no kittens were actually harmed in the perpetration of the hoax.
Bonsai describes the ancient Japanese art of growing miniature trees, and the site described how to apply the same principles to growing miniature kittens. It illustrated how to seal kittens inside glass containers in which they were fed and watered through a tube. Supposedly the bones of the cats would conform to the shape of whatever container they were in. The result, a uniquely shaped “Bonsai Kitten.” Although no kittens were harmed, many felt the mere suggestion of such a practice might actually give some people the idea to try it.
"You no longer need be satisfied with a house pet having the same mundane shape as all other members of its species," the site proclaimed. "With Bonsai Kitten a world of variation awaits you, limited only by your own imagination." The site also advertised Bonsai Kittens were available for sale.
The site contained numerous details intended to provoke the public. For instance, it claimed, "if you take a week-old kitten and throw it to the floor, it will actually bounce!" Also included were instructions on how to use super glue and plastic tubes for waste removal with an added reminder to drill an air hole.
BonsaiKitten.com generated a huge amount of controversy. Enraged animal lovers demanded that it should be immediately shut down. The Humane Society of the United States, along with many other prominent humane groups condemned it.
It didn’t take long to discover that the site had been created by MIT students. The students conducted a few interviews with the press using the name "Dr. Michael Wong Chang" to protect their identity. They explained it was a gag site and a prank designed to satirize "the human belief of nature as a commodity."
"To be honest, we never expected the animal organizations to get involved at all," the fictitious Chang said. "We thought they'd understand. I really thought the FBI had better things to do. That's your tax dollars at work."
The National Humane Society Responds
Karen Allanach, a spokeswoman for the National Humane Society, based in Washington, said she wasn’t sure if the site was a parody “…and even if it isn't, it should be taken offline because it could encourage people to experiment on their own household pets.”
Jered Floyd, an MIT graduate, said animal rights activists, who have successfully had the controversial site banned, “don't have a sense of humor.”
Bonsaikitten.com jokingly offered to sell visitors a “custom-shaped kitten” but didn’t list prices or a mailing address. However, they occasionally received requests for more information.
The site even unintentionally initiated a new kind of spectator sport: e-mail nastygrams, where the webmaster received tens of thousands of hate-mail messages. There was even a mailing list that let people view mail sent to the site's webmaster. A characteristic message would read: "This site is horrible! You should go in a mental hospital!”
The fact the site was a hoax had been obvious to many of the more educated amongst us from the beginning, but apparently not all. It would seem evident to most that bones of kittens couldn’t mold to the shape of any container.
The End of the Bonsai Kitten Hoax
The fact the site was a prank did little to quiet the mass hysteria. In the face of growing disapproval, MIT decided to remove the site from its servers. But that was not the end. BonsaiKitten.com simply began relocating from one server to another. Whenever irate viewers unearthed its new location, they harassed its host unmercifully until BonsaiKitten.com was forced to find a new one. Eventually, it found a home on infamous Rotten.com. It stayed there for years. As of 2007, a modified version of the site is hosted on shorty.com. The original domain name, bonsaikitten.com, now advertises cat food and discount pet medications.
Others have made attempts to copy the Bonsai Kitten joke. For example, omegagrafix.com created a similar satirical page advertising Bonsai Kitten Christmas Tree Ornaments for sale. Their site proclaims "Notice 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."
However, the page does include a disclaimer stating "This ad is strictly bogus. All checks and money orders will be donated to the local pet cemetery, who by the way have yet to register any complaints of abuse or unusual activities towards cats, kittens, deformed trees, Long Necks, or clueless retards who believe this to be God's Own Truth."
Bonsai Kitten continues to attract criticism even today, though it has been thoroughly debunked as a practical joke. An email petition is still in circulation, asking people to help shut down the site. Naturally, the petition is sponsored by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Surprisingly the American Civil Liberties Union didn’t get into the act.
It just goes to show how ridiculous the internet can get, all for the sake of making a joke.
© 2011 John Young