Is cloning your pet the best way to deal with its death? Rho­dri Mars­den finds out

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

Acat named Gar­lic died a year ago. His owner, Huang Yu, from the Chi­nese city of Wen­zhou, was over­come with grief. There are many ways of cop­ing with the loss of a loved one, but Huang’s method was un­usual: he gave Gar­lic what he saw as a new lease of life by pay­ing $35,000 (Dh128,537) to have him cloned.

In July, the new kit­ten, also named Gar­lic, was born of a sur­ro­gate mother at pet cloning clinic Sino­gene in Bei­jing. He be­came China’s first cloned cat, and the lat­est pet to be con­ceived in a lab­o­ra­tory for an owner who couldn’t bear to say good­bye. Images of the two cats re­veal one cru­cial thing: they’re not iden­ti­cal. Their fur mark­ings are dif­fer­ent and their eye colour­ing isn’t matched. In an in­ter­view with The New York Times, Huang said: “If I tell you I wasn’t dis­ap­pointed, then I would be ly­ing to you.”

It’s a fact that be­dev­ils an in­dus­try with big am­bi­tions: a cloned an­i­mal won’t be­have the

same as the orig­i­nal, and it’s far from guar­an­teed to look the same, ei­ther. With such huge prices be­ing paid for pets whose only sim­i­lar­ity may be some in­vis­i­ble ge­netic ma­te­rial, there’s con­cern that the in­dus­try may be ex­ploit­ing the grief-stricken.

Cloning has al­ways been con­tro­ver­sial. The very first an­i­mal to be cloned, a sheep by the name of Dolly, pro­voked deep con­cern when it was born in 1997. “[It’s] the theatre of the ab­surd acted out by sci­en­tists,” said med­i­cal ethi­cist Dr Ron­ald Mun­son at the time. “This tech­nol­ogy is not, in prin­ci­ple, po­lice­able.”

Over the years, how­ever, ex­per­i­ments have con­tin­ued, many of them with prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions: sheep have been cloned and ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied to pro­duce milk that could be­come a medicine to aid blood clot­ting in hu­mans; oth­ers have been bred for an­i­mal test­ing of new drugs; and in the US, it has been ruled that meat and milk from cloned an­i­mals is safe to con­sume, open­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of them be­ing used in agri­cul­ture.

In an era of grow­ing con­cern for an­i­mal wel­fare, all these ven­tures come with some level of con­tro­versy. But the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for cloning pets – emo­tional ful­fil­ment for their own­ers – is both con­tentious and deeply sen­si­tive. “Let us be of aid to you and your fam­ily,” reads the sales pitch for Not You But You, a South Korean dog cloning ser­vice. “With re­spect to the com­pan­ions who have con­soled our weary hearts and made the happy mem­o­ries … How would it feel like to start again with your com­pan­ion? It is now pos­si­ble to make your dreams come true with biotech­nol­ogy.”

The va­lid­ity of this claim has been en­hanced by high-pro­file celebri­ties tak­ing up such ser­vices. Fash­ion de­signer Diane von Fursten­berg had her Jack Rus­sell ter­rier, Shan­non, cloned to pro­duce two pup­pies named Deena and Evita. Singer Bar­bra Streisand re­vealed in an in­ter­view that she also has two dogs, Miss Vi­o­let and Miss Scar­lett, cloned from a pet named Sa­man­tha who died in 2017. But how sim­i­lar are they to Sa­man­tha? “They have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties,” Streisand ad­mit­ted. “I’m wait­ing for them to get older so I can see if they have her brown eyes and her se­ri­ous­ness.”

Sci­en­tists say that the only way a per­son­al­ity could be cloned would be the ex­is­tence of a par­al­lel uni­verse, but hope re­mains for many pet-own­ers. A doc­u­men­tary for Amer­i­can Na­tional Public Ra­dio tells the story of a tame bull named Chance, cloned at the wishes of his for­mer owner, Ralph Fisher, in or­der to pro­duce a new bull: Sec­ond Chance. The clone was re­ported to have the same man­ner­isms as Chance when eat­ing; rather than put his head in the feed bucket, he would raise his head, close his eyes and chew. “I’ve never seen an­other an­i­mal do that,” said Fisher. “I thought it was the same an­i­mal. I would say we got him back.” But later in life, Sec­ond Chance would re­veal him­self to be much more ag­gres­sive than Chance, at­tack­ing Fisher twice. “Peo­ple want to be­lieve it is res­ur­rec­tion,” said Mark Westhusin, an aca­demic in­volved in the pro­ce­dure. “It is in fact not res­ur­rec­tion. It’s just re­pro­duc­tion.”

An anal­ogy is of­ten drawn be­tween clones and twins. Ed­in­burgh’s Roslin In­sti­tute, where Dolly the sheep was con­ceived, of­fers one: “In a sense, [twins] are even more iden­ti­cal to each other than a clone would be to its DNA donor, as they of­ten share the same en­vi­ron­ments both be­fore and af­ter birth.” Given that iden­ti­cal twins can some­times look markedly dif­fer­ent, it’s even more likely to hap­pen with cloned pets. The very first cloned cat, CC, born in 2001 in Texas, looked very dif­fer­ent to Rain­bow, the cat from which it was cloned. John Woes­tendiek, au­thor of a book about dog cloning – Dog, Inc – has ex­pressed con­cern about the num­ber of dogs needed to pro­duce one clone: not just the dogs pro­vid­ing eggs and the sur­ro­gate moth­ers, but also “the cases that go wrong, all the aborted foe­tuses, the dogs that don’t come out as ex­act matches.” Peo­ple who pay for a cloned pet are of­ten pay­ing for many pets: the an­i­mal they get at the end of the process is merely the one that turned out best.

Sev­eral stud­ies have shown that pet cloning can lead to higher in­ci­dence of disease and health prob­lems. “These in­clude an in­crease in birth size and a va­ri­ety of de­fects in vi­tal or­gans, such as the liver, brain and heart,” re­ports The Na­tional Hu­man Genome Re­search In­sti­tute, based in Bethesda in the US. “Other con­se­quences in­clude pre­ma­ture age­ing and prob­lems with the im­mune sys­tem.” Dolly was cloned from a 6-year-old sheep. She died when she was six. The av­er­age age of a sheep is 12 years. The math­e­mat­ics may not be co­in­ci­den­tal.

Clones have been de­scribed in the in­dus­try as an al­ter­na­tive to a fu­neral, but life is com­plex and death can­not be cheated. For those in the midst of grief, cloning a pet may seem like the per­fect con­so­la­tion. But the dream of get­ting your best friend back can never truly be fa­cil­i­tated. It may be kinder – while ad­mit­tedly more painful – for us to ac­cept death, re­mem­ber fondly, and move on.

The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for cloning pets – emo­tional ful­fil­ment for their own­ers – is both con­tentious and deeply sen­si­tive


Above and be­low right, China’s first cloned kit­ten, Gar­lic, at Sino­gene, a clinic that has cloned more than 40 pet dogs since 2017


Clock­wise from above left, the first an­i­mal to be cloned was Dolly the sheep; Sooam Biotech Re­search Foun­da­tion of­fers pet cloning in Seoul; Sino­gene in Bei­jing

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