The FBI is reported to be investigating BonsaiKitten.com, the spoof Web site which has got animal lovers and anti-cruelty campaigners in uproar.
The site was started last December by a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was soon booted off MIT's servers and then moved from host to host, with protesters following it every step of the way. It has found a permanent home at Rotten.com, which routinely hosts distasteful material.
Now the FBI's Boston field office has served MIT with a grand jury subpoena demanding information about who runs the site, according to a report on Wired.
The Bonsai Kitten domain name was registered to a Dr Michael Wong Chang in New York, presumably a fake name and address.
MIT lawyer Jeff Swope said the student would be notified of the subpoena, as required by federal law, and then the university would hand over the information.
It isn't yet known on what grounds the FBI is investigating the site. Assistant US attorney Nadine Pellegrini, who signed the MIT subpoena, is quoted only as saying: "I would assume there's a case, if there's a law, but I'm not making any comment."
It is a federal felony to possess "a depiction of animal cruelty", but only if there is an intention of commercial distribution over state lines.
Criminal defense attorney Harvey Silverglate said he expected the FBI to drop the case when invesitgators found Bonsai Kitten to be a joke.
He believes the FBI has been 'infected' by political correctness, saying: "They want to be the good guys. They massively run rampant over Americans' liberties but they want to be seen as nice fuzzy guys who want to protect kittens."
Last month the US Humane Society said there was no evidence of actual cruelty in the creation of BonsaiKitten.com, but that the site "depicts and encourages cat cruelty".
A spokeswoman for the Humane Society told Wired: "If the FBI is looking into this, that's great. Anything to discourage animal cruelty would be very helpful."
"It's totally promoting animal cruelty. They consider it a sick joke. People will take it seriously. Animal cruelty is not funny. Animal torture is not funny. We would like bonsaikitten.com to be removed permanently."
People on Bonsai Kitten discussion sites and animal welfare forums have posted responses from other animal welfare groups.
PETA said: "We appreciate your concern about this matter and agree that this type of Web site should be shut down. Although after looking into this Web site, we found it to be a 'joke,' we still feel that it is inappropriate and certainly not funny. Unfortunately, it is legal to operate such a Web site."
The ASPCA said: "We are also horrified by this and similar websites and videos advocating animal cruelty. While technology has made a positive contribution to our society, it has also resulted in the rapid expansion of publicity for individuals who promote animal abuse."
Meanwhile, the joke continues, with an announcement on BonsaiKitten.com seizing on research into brain-damaging parasites found in cat faeces.
"The keeping of unmodified cats puts people at risk of a host of debilitating mental disorders," warns the sales pitch.
"No doubt this explains the crank e-mail we sometimes receive!"
"Your mental health is one of the most precious gifts you have -- don't you owe it to yourself and your family to make the switch to a Bonsai Kitten today? As a public service in response to this newly-discovered health risk, for a limited time we will be offering free disposal of your dangerous old cat with each purchase of a Bonsai Kitten." ®