Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bonsai Kittens!!!

Bonsai describes the ancient Japanese art of growing miniature trees by rigorous pruning of their roots and branches. Because of their small size, aesthetic appeal, and minimal upkeep requirements, Bonsai trees have long been popular additions to offices and homes.

In late 2000 a website debuted that described how to apply the same Bonsai principles to kittens. The idea was to seal the kittens inside glass containers. As they grew (fed and watered through a tube), the bones of the cats would supposedly conform to the shape of whatever container held them. At the end of the process a uniquely shaped 'Bonsai Kitten' would emerge—sure to be the envy of all.

"You no longer need be satisfied with a house pet having the same mundane shape as all other members of its species," the site declared. "With Bonsai Kitten a world of variation awaits you, limited only by your own imagination." The site also advertised that hand-grown Bonsai Kittens were available for sale to the public. almost immediately generated a huge amount of controversy. Furious animal lovers insisted that it be closed down. The Humane Society of the United States denounced it, and when it discovered that the site had been created by an MIT student (or students) and was hosted on the university's servers, demanded that MIT shut it down. MIT complied and pulled the plug on the site on December 22, 2000.

But that was not the end of What started was a game of 'cat and mouse,' as the site simply began relocating from one server to another. Whenever furious animal lovers discovered its new location, they would bombard its host with criticism until the weary host, buckling under the weight of the attacks, would force to move on and find a new home. This continued until the site finally found a permanent home on

During this time the site's creators at MIT began giving interviews to the press through the fictitious persona of "Dr. Michael Wong Chang." They explained that the site was a prank designed to satirize "the human belief of nature as a commodity." But this did little to calm the animal lovers whose anger continued to grow and grow.

In February 2001 even the FBI got involved and subpoenaed all information about the site from MIT. But its investigation came up empty when it found no evidence of animal abuse or of the sale of Bonsai Kittens.

Even today, years after its creation, continues to generate criticism, though it has by now been thoroughly debunked as a hoax. An email petition continues to circulate around urging people to help shut down the site. This petition itself is basically a hoax, since it's not going to get the site shut down.

Many argue that the Bonsai Kitten hoax is actually too shocking, that it crosses the line of decency and promotes cruelty to animals. Of course, the line of acceptability will fall in a different place for everyone, but one should consider that the best satire is often cruel. We here at the Museum are quite certain that the MIT students were not suggesting that people actually torture kittens, just as we are quite certain that Jonathan Swift was not actually suggesting that the rich should eat the children of the poor when he wrote his famous "A Modest Proposal" in 1729.

We take the students at face value when they said that they were satirizing "the human belief of nature as a commodity." But we also think that they may have unintentionally been giving voice to the mathematical spirit that lurks in the heart of every MIT student—that spirit which strives to transform the messy chaotic world into linear, geometric precision. In this particular case, it meant transforming cute kittens into rectangular monsters.

Wow. I hope people in general are a little more sceptical and less mob-like than in 2000. Then again, Nigerian scams still exist, so someone's still falling for them, right. Snopes. com even has a blurb....

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