Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Copy cat: Why cloning dead pets doesn't always have a happy ending

It may seem like the perfect solution for bereaved owners, but genetically copying animals isn't the exact science some think it is

Garlic was not identical to its predecessor, also named Garlic. AFP
Garlic was not identical to its predecessor, also named Garlic. AFP

A cat 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.”

Garlic , the kitten cloned by grieving pet owner Huang Yu earlier this year, has been described as 'disppointing'. AFP
Garlic , the kitten cloned by grieving pet owner Huang Yu earlier this year, has been described as 'disppointing'. AFP

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.

Back in 1997, Dolly the sheep became the first animal to be cloned. AFP
Back in 1997, Dolly the sheep became the first animal to be cloned. AFP

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.”

People want to believe it is resurrection. It is in fact not resurrection. It’s just reproduction.

Mark Westhusin, academic

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.”

Chinese company Sinogene has cloned more than 40 pet dogs since 2017. AFP
Chinese company Sinogene has cloned more than 40 pet dogs since 2017. AFP

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.

Updated: November 19, 2019 05:03 PM

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