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The Chronicle of Higher Education
Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Created at MIT, a 'Bonsai Kitten' Web Site Stirs Animal Lovers' Passions

By JENNIFER JACOBSON

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York has determined that a Web site showing kittens being stuffed into glass containers is only a joke. But the only people who seem to be laughing are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who created it.

The Bonsai Kitten site claims to be "Dedicated to preserving the long-lost art of body modification in housepets." The site, which has been online since December, allegedly portrays a kitten being grown in a small, rectilinear glass container after being injected with Valium. Alternatively, the site states, visitors who prefer non-rectilinear cats can request that a kitten be crammed into the shape of their liking.

Funny or not, the site has been investigated at least twice and has prompted hundreds of people to write to M.I.T. asking that the site be shut down and that its creators be expelled.

Jeffrey Swope, a lawyer in a firm that represents M.I.T., would not comment on the site or release the names of the students who created the site. Nor would the site's Webmaster respond to The Chronicle's e-mail request for those names.

The site has apparently angered pet lovers who chanced upon it and were horrified at what they found. An entry in the site's guestbook says, "I was appalled to come across your `Bonsai Kitten' site today as I searched with my young niece for Hello Kitty horticultural products. I told little Felicity that this didn't really happen to kittens, but she would not believe me." On the other hand, the guestbook may itself be part of the prank.

Though the site claims to sell Bonsai Kittens and says the typical waiting time for a "fully shaped one" is three to four months, no price is specified, no address is given, and nobody answers the New York City telephone number listed. The number, according to a spokeswoman for the A.S.P.C.A. in New York, is bogus. So the group dropped its investigation of the site, which was initially housed on servers at M.I.T. but has since moved to a commercial provider.

But agents of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have reportedly subpoenaed M.I.T. for information about the site and the students who run it. Barbara Castleman, director of public affairs for the M.S.P.C.A., said she was not allowed to comment on the case for "legal reasons."

Jeffrey I. Schiller, M.I.T.'s network manager, said that a student's on-campus computer was initially the server for the site, and that at the time lawyers for the institution found nothing illegal about the site.

Subsequently, however, an officer from the M.S.P.C.A. visited the site and informed Mr. Schiller that the agency's interpretation of Massachusetts law was that inciting cruelty to animals is a crime. Mr. Schiller said the agent told him that if anyone had harmed a kitten because of the site, that person could be prosecuted. So M.I.T.'s lawyers suggested that the institution ask the students "to make the site go away," Mr. Schiller said.

Others wanted the same thing. Mr. Schiller said M.I.T. had received hundreds of e-mail messages requesting the site's removal and the expulsion of the students who created it.

"It's a joke, a sick joke," Mr. Schiller said, adding that the kittens depicted on the site are not actually shoved into glass jars. He said a student who created the site told him that the kittens "can walk into the jar and walk out."

"The jar is bigger than the kitten," Mr. Schiller said. "It's an illusion."


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Copyright © 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education