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Cloning a pet friend - is it worth it?

Konstantin Sheiko
February 1, 2018

Twenty-five years ago cloning was a huge deal, and scores of articles were being published in mass media on this topic. Some authors predicted the emergence of national armies consisting entirely of clones; others discussed the possibilities of partially substituting the world’s extensive workforce with cloned individuals. They were also some that argued that humanity could maintain an almost endless supply of vital organs for medical purposes using the clones. Of course, experts and public alike debated a wide range of moral issues that were inevitably connected to such issues. 

Human cloning has been banned, but animal cloning is allowed, despite various levels of public apprehension. The very first commercially cloned pet was a cat named Little Nicky, produced in 2004 by Genetic Savings & Clone for a north Texan female customer, for the $50,000 fee. On May 21, 2008, BioArts International announced a limited commercial dog cloning service through a program called ‘Best Friends Again’ in partnership with the Korean based company Sooam Biotech, one of the leading researchers in the area of cloning. 

This program came on the announcement of the successful cloning of a family dog Missy, which was widely publicized in the Missyplicity Project. In July 2008, the Seoul National University created five clones of a dog named Booger for its Californian owner. The woman paid $50,000 for this service. However, in September 2009 BioArts announced the end of its dog cloning service. Sooam Biotech, on the other hand, continued developing proprietary techniques for cloning dogs based on a license from ViaGen's subsidiary Start Licensing. This company still owns the original patent for cloning Dolly the Sheep. 

Sooam created cloned puppies for owners whose dogs had died, charging $100,000 for the service. By 2015 Sooam Biotech was reported to have cloned 700 dogs, producing 500 cloned embryos of various species a day in 2016. In 2015 the longest period after which Sooam Biotech could clone a puppy was 12 days after the original pet dog’s death. 

While a cloned animal may be more similar to the original than its sibling, it will on average only be as similar as an identical twin. Cloning an animal's genetics is not the same as cloning what the personality of that particular individual animal has become over the course of his or her lifetime. When it comes to differentiating between the clone and the original, you won’t know that difference until your cloned pet dog comes home. 

In all probability, it will be a very close physical match. The cloners ensure that by making multiple clones for every dog they are cloning, and then passing along to the customer the one that most closely resembles the original. A good question is what happens to the rest? Experts that visited Sooam laboratory in Seoul claim that many of the surplus clones appeared to be languishing in cages. The fate of the surplus puppies should definitely be an ethical challenge to both parties including the customers and the service providers. 

Overall, the biggest difference between a clone and the original is likely to be personality, which, even the cloners now admit – although they did not at first - cannot be duplicated. Given that much of personality is shaped during the first months of puppy life, at least some of it will probably already be in place before a dog cloning customer finally, after four months at least, given quarantine issues, gets his or her dog. A clone is a twin, and we all know how different, personality wise, twins can be. 

So in addition to an overriding basic philosophical question of whether we really need new ways to make dogs when so many are already being put down in shelters every day, we have another dilemma on our hands: how much will we love the new replica if their behaviour and personality traits are not what we expected them to be? Chances are, some of the new owners might become somewhat disappointed and disillusioned, maybe even to the point when they will want to get rid of their new cloned pets.

This ‘high expectation attitude’ seems unfair to the clone as well, in terms of the behavioral stereotypes that the dog owner will likely have for it. When one of the early promoters of dog cloning presented his mother with a clone of her dog, and the pup knocked over her wine glass, she declined the clone, noting that her dog would never have behaved in such a way. The first true customer of dog cloning was also shocked at the behavior of some of the five clones of her dog she took home from Korea.

More often than not, the clone just cannot live up to the owner’s memory of the original dog. Expectations are just too high. When you get right down to it, the act of getting your dog cloned is, many would argue, motivated more by pure selfishness than anything else. It is safe to conclude that a person whose dog had died or is dying, and who wants the same dog again, can find much less expensive, and less intrusive, ways to do that.

First of all, it is important to understand that the very special pet friend of yours is gone forever. All you are getting is an identical animal in terms of its appearance. Secondly, it is perhaps safe to say that somewhere in animal-shelter there is a dog that looks just like yours looking for a home. Conduct an empirical experiment and check it out for yourself – eventually, you are bound to find your pet’s multiple doppelgangers out there that are in need of a home.

Beyond that, there are concerns about the number of dogs it takes to clone just one. In addition to the tissue sample of the original dog, cloners will need to harvest egg cells from dogs in heat, maybe a dozen or so. And, after zapping the merged cells with electricity so they start dividing, they will need surrogate mother dogs to carry the puppies to birth. That’s a whole lot of surgeries, on a whole lot of dogs. 

Add to that all the cases that go wrong, all the aborted fetuses, all the dogs that do not come out as exact matches, and an argument can be made that dog cloning is not only adding to the dog overpopulation problem, but also causing a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering along the way. 

The last, but not least negative factor is the corporate greed that the industry exudes. In its earlier days on the market, the industry was being outright deceptive, exploiting the grief of pet owners. It was pretty much promising a dog that would be same in every way. Since then this argument has been toned down because of overwhelming research and scientific evidence that the cloning process has produced, not some moral qualms. Now the companies admit personality cannot be duplicated. 

The industry’s drive is so strong because of the zealous quest to do something really exciting for the first time, with the added incentive of it being a profitable pursuit someday, with so many beloved companion dogs dying each year. However, from the standpoint of ethics, cloning companion pets falls into the “just because we can do something does not mean we should” category for many. Despite the technological wonder, it may be and despite the intriguing characters behind it, the majority of us would say that more than anything else we feel repulsed by the very idea of it. 

Photo by Geoff Gallice / Wikipedia Commons