“There are always, due to their popularity and short life spans, many beloved dogs dying — and many families grieving.”
– John Woestendiek, author of ‘Dog Inc, The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend’
The worst thing that can befall a mother or father is losing a child, of whatever age. Even worse is losing a child to suicide. But that is what happened to photographer Monni Must. When Monni’s 28-year-old daughter Miya took her own life, left behind was Billy Bean, Miya’s young and lively black Labrador.
Naturally, Monni took Billy Bean into her care. The connection with Miya and the love of the dog provided comfort for her in her grief. But as the 10th anniversary of Miya’s death approached, and Billy by now 13, was getting increasingly frail –
“I knew that I was falling apart,” said Must. “The thought of Billy dying was just more than I could handle.”
So she took the radical step of having Billy cloned. It cost upwards of $50,000, and her family thought she’d lost her mind. For her money she got Gunni, essentially an identical twin of Billy, but a puppy version. It would be a hard-hearted person indeed who could sit in judgement.
Cloning dogs seems to be flavour of the month. It’s only a week or so since Barbra Streisand was roasted in the media after her public appearance with Miss Violet and Miss Scarlet, two clones from her beloved but now deceased Coton de Tulear Samantha.
The Guardian newspaper for one made no bones about its disapprobation. It even used the ‘t-word’, overused currency in the tabloids, but as a rule carefully avoided by the broadsheets – “A Modern Tragedy” its headline read. It went on, “To own an animal is to learn about the inevitability of dying – not that loved ones can be replicated if we cough up the cash.”
Streisand’s celebrity status may have turned the spotlight on this relatively new business enterprise, but cloning other animals has been a thing for years – since 1996 in fact when the creation of Dolly the sheep made waves. It took another decade for South Korean scientists to bring to birth Snuppy, the first cloned dog.
Of course cloning is not the only form of bioengineering current. There is also CRISPR. In the simplest of terms that I can understand, it means cutting out a section of the DNA double helix (see below) with something called Cas9 – biological scissors, in effect – and replacing the removed section with a new piece of DNA- which can be just about anything the scientists want it to be.
A US company called AgGenetics using gene-editing has produced mice with coats in different colours, and unbelievably, in a variety of patterns: squares, stripes and spots. Next stop – choose your preferred colourway and pattern for your own customised dog?
China, “where genetic engineers benefit from massive facilities and little oversight,” is ‘leading’ the CRISPR field for producing customised animals. Chinese labs “are full of cats, rabbits, monkeys, and other animals engineered with this, that and the other traits.” Already on sale are micropigs, gene-edited to grow only to “the apartment-appropriate size of a corgi”, if you have $1,600 dollars to spare. A bargain compared with the cost of a cloned dog though. Also up for grabs are fluorescent jellyfish and sea anemones, gene-edited to light up your aquarium.
“How much more would owners pay for the ultimate luxury: an animal designed to specification? A zebra-striped hamster, say, or a teacup elephant? ” Anything is possible, but does that make it right?
CRISPR sits along a different branch of bioengineering from cloning. If anything, its potential applications are even more disturbing, but a discussion for another day.
So back to cloning. What are the rights and wrongs of cloning, cloning our pets in particular? Is this yet another instance of science racing ahead at such speed it’s leaving the ethics trailing in the dust?
Some of the problems, practical and ethical
If your beloved Fido or Felix is growing grey around the muzzle and a little stiff in the joints, and you have the spare cash to go down the cloning route, you may end up disappointed with the result. Yes, cloning does produce an identical twin, a newborn one of course, but some things are not infallibly reproduced. The personality for a start, but isn’t that what we most love about our pets? You will not actually be getting, as you had hoped, your fur baby reborn in a new incarnation. Even the coat may be different. Worse, there is also the likelihood of reproducing genetic flaws.
Vicki Katrinak, program manager for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States has something to say on the matter:
Companies that clone animals are “preying on grieving pet owners, giving them a false promise that they are going to replicate their beloved pet,” she told AFP. “Pet cloning doesn’t replicate a pet’s personality.” Incidentally adding “There is no justification for the practice.”
That you cannot count on getting the exact replica of your pet is actually the least of the concerns around pet cloning.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) president Ingrid Newkirk said she would “love to have talked her [Barbra Streisand] out of cloning,” noting that “millions of wonderful adoptable dogs are languishing in animal shelters every year or dying in terrifying ways when abandoned.”
To visit a dog or cat shelter is a heartbreaking experience. All those fur babies waiting for a loving home, and ready to love a new family right back with unquestioning devotion. Isn’t it cruelty by default to artificially create more, when there are thousands, if not millions of beautiful animals, desperate for our love and care – many of which will be euthanised because no-one came forward for them in time?
All the other problematic aspects of cloning pets become apparent when we take a look at how the process works:-
You start by harvesting cells from the dog you want to clone. You can do this before or after the pet’s death, up to 5 days after provided the corpse is kept cool. (If you’re starting to feel a little squeamish already, brace yourself. It gets worse.)
Extract egg cells from as many donor dogs as you can get hold of. (To create Snuppy the world’s first cloned dog, Korean scientists surgically removed eggs from 115 female dogs.)
Merge your original dog cells and the egg and subject the new merged entity to chemicals and an electric shock to trigger cell division. You will have to do this multiple times to ensure success – hence the requirement for all those ‘donated’ eggs.
Implant the resulting embryos into surrogate female dogs. You will need lots of them. For Snuppy, it took 120. The bitches won’t be able to object of course. You will be using all those bodies for the pregnancies and births.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, you will probably have to abort a lot of the 120 foetuses along the way. Still keen to continue?
It can still go wrong. An American cloning company’s president cited a clone who was supposed to be black and white being born “greenish-yellow,” dogs born with skeletal malformations and one clone of a male dog who was born with both male and female sex organs. If that should happen while cloning your pet, what should we do with the less than perfect?
Even after eliminating the ‘failures’, there are still a massive number of ‘surplus’ clones from which you have chosen the one or two who truly resemble your original pet. What shall we do with the rest?
The cloning industry is staying mute on what are surely two huge ethical issues.
Maybe even grieving Monni Must may have thought better of cloning Billy Bean if she’d realised what went on behind the scenes. As with every instance without exception where humans make money from exploiting animals (and often other humans at the same time) the profiteers take great pains to keep their activities under wraps. They are fully aware of what would be an absolutely normal reaction to their exploitation/abuse – public outrage. Out of sight is indeed out of mind.
Time I think to take off the wraps!