Hell hath no fury like animal rights advocates led astray on the Internet, and the now-infamous Bonsai Kittens led to exactly that. So, what are Bonsai Kittens, you might ask? The once-viral meme depicts kittens forced into jars in order to “grow” via the instructions of the ancient “Bonsai Kitticulture” techniques. A super-creepy and upsetting website by the name of Bonsai Kittens not only detailed such techniques, but also offered testimonials, useful tips for beginners, and a disturbing photo gallery.
Wait, what? Were Bonsai Kittens real? The answer is a resounding no, but given the reaction the website garnered, they may as well have been. Nothing like a fake viral image joke gone terribly wrong to raise hell from all corners of the Internet. It was eventually debunked as a sick hoax foisted by a group of MIT grad students, but not before it culminated in an FBI investigation and received a heated denouncing from the U.S. Humane Society. Here’s a list taking a look at some key Bonsai Kitten meme facts, and an attempt to understand how and why the joke became such a controversial topic.
Though the original website launched in 2001 and has been taken down numerous times, a mirrored site (depicting original content) still exists. The site introduces the idea of "Bonsai Kittens," the "animal complement" to bonsai trees. They assure the reader that, "By physically constraining the growth of a developing living thing, it can be directed to take the shape of the vessel that constrains."
Under another page, the website notes that kittens' bones are not fully hardened, and therefore can be molded to the shape of your choice, depending on the vessel you choose.
It is easy to see why people were so offended by the kittens back when the meme and website first emerged; the website makes disgusting claims such as, "if you take a week-old kitten and throw it to the floor, it will actually bounce!" The website also offers to deliver pre-molded Bonsai Kittens to those who are interested and have obtained the proper "Bonsai Kitticulture" licensing and permits.
The site's admin also suggests and lists different vessels and paraphernalia for shaping one's own Bonsai Kitten. They show images of wire cages, twisted glass vases, shoehorns, muscle relaxants, super glue, and even medieval-looking, torturous clamp devices one might use to fit their pet into a vessel.
Nearly 17 years later, even knowing the site is a hoax, their casual language and suggestions are enough to make the stomach turn. For example, they describe the Electronic Quadruped Traction Device as "a motorized clamping device with high torque motors to apply twisting and folding action to all limbs simultaneously."
The site's "Guestbook" section displays some of the best and worst messages the website had received. Some people seemed to get that it was a joke, even of such macabre quality, and responded with equally dark comments, encouraging and even praising the site for its "fascinating concept" and their "true creativity." Then, there are the downright pissed off people who threaten to summon lawyers. However, perhaps the most disturbing comments come from those who are genuinely interested in Bonsai Kittens.
The admin of the site posted their own responses to all messages displayed on the Guestbook. Unsurprisingly, they match the troll's enthusiasm and graciously accept kudos. Meanwhile, they taunt and mock those who are disgusted with the site, calling them "intolerant individuals" and "misinformed."
With the furor generated by outraged animal lovers and all-around just decent human beings, it was eventually discovered that the site was being hosted on MIT servers. It came to light that a group of students at MIT was behind the hoax, but their true identities were never revealed. However, it is known that the group's ringleader was a grad student who went by the alias of Dr. Michael Wong Chang.
In an anonymous exchange with the press and authorities, Dr. Chang stated: "The main aims were to punish the hypocritical and easily offended by upsetting them and to amuse those who understand... Both of which have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
Although the students succeeded in satirizing what they found ridiculous about human society, they somehow weren't smart enough to expect animal rights's groups to get mad. "To be honest, we never expected the animal organizations to get involved at all," Dr. Chang said. "We thought they'd understand." Yeah, well, they didn't, and things got worse for Bonsai Kittens.