This Popular Meme From The 2000s Was So Disturbing The FBI Had To Get Involved

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. 

Photo: lynsybyster / Instagram

  • The Bonsai Kitticulture Technique Advocates And Instructs How To "Grow" A Kitten In The Vessel Of Your Choice

    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 Website Even Lists Suggested And Necessary Tools

    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."

  • Watch The Hate Mail Roll In: The Site Is Designed So Users Can See The "Best" Emails The Admin Has Received

    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."

  • The Site Was Eventually Linked To MIT Servers

    The Site Was Eventually Linked To MIT Servers
    Photo: Dr. Kenneth / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    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. 

  • The FBI Served MIT With A Grand Jury Subpoena

    The FBI Served MIT With A Grand Jury Subpoena
    Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons

    In a move that shocked all involved with the joke website, the FBI served MIT with a grand jury subpoena, asking for "any and all subscriber information" about the site. 

    Dr. Chang, the alias of the website's leader, responded to the FBI investigation by saying, "I was surprised, I really thought that the FBI had better things to do. That's your tax dollars at work." A lot of people seemed to agree, thinking the FBI investigation was a bit of overkill, especially after the site had turned out to be false. 

    A prominent Boston criminal defense attorney noted that he thought that "political correctness" had overtaken the FBI, but animal rights groups continued to argue that even if it were false, the site was harmful because it advocated for the abuse of animals and that the creators should be punished accordingly.

  • Even After Bonsai Kittens Were Officially Declared A Hoax, People Continued To FLIP Out

    Even while knowing the Bonsai Kitten phenomenon was a hoax, Yahoo groups and petitions were formed while animal rights groups lobbied hard to make sure the site saw its demise. The site was removed from the MIT server but quickly popped up on another, and then another, as it was chased down.

    Critics argued that, even if the Bonsai Kitticulture was a hoax, it was far too gruesome to continue. They maintained that animal cruelty was NOT funny and that the site would only compel people to abuse animals.