Pet cloning is here. So, would you clone your aging pupper?
An endless supply of the exact same pet may be the future
Bringing us ever closer to a sci-fi utopia (or dystopic horror, depending on your stem cell stance), two primates were successfully cloned last week. Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, 8 and 9 weeks old respectively, are healthy (and adorable) baby monkeys. They are also human constructs that have erased a good deal of the gap between fiction and science. The Island, The 6th Day, Never Let Me Go, Alien Resurrection, Multiplicity: all popcorn fodder exploring the catastrophic consequences of cloning in film. Maybe none of these so much as Multiplicity - far, far too many wacky Michael Keaton's. Note that you, me, Keaton and last week's monkey clones are all primates within the suborder of anthropoids.
That means we are now uncomfortably close to having something pretty close to gram gram sitting at the table long after her funeral. Pass the peas. For now, there are stringent laws keeping that from happening for a host of reasons. The laws governing animal clones, though, are far less rigid, much to the dismay of animal rights ethicists. With that freedom we've cloned a whole bunch of sentient creatures in the last 70 years leading up to Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. A frog in the 50s, a carp in the 60s, a mouse in the 80s, Dolly the sheep in the 90s, lots more mice since the millenium, thousands of pigs, cows, a cat (called CopyCat - nailed it), a deer, plenty of horses, a brown rat, a fluorescent puppy (fact - managed by mixing in the DNA of a sea anemone), eight coyotes, a rabbit, a mule, two wolves, and a camel. We even cloned an extinct species a la Jurassic Park in 2009. It was a Pyrenean ibex (think wild goat). Unsurprisingly, all this daring DNA duplication was both criticized and costly (multiple millions have been spent).
Of course, biotech is no different than any other tech, the more we pump it out and perfect it, the cheaper it gets. With more pets than babies in Canadian homes, and plenty of people in those homes willing to spend money on all kinds of pet perks it's no surprise that commercial animal cloning is on the rise. Reproduction can't stay the reaper's hand when he comes for Rover but it can very nearly offer us a reversal of furry fortune - something that soothes many as they count more white hairs in their pet's whiskers. ViaGen is a Texas company that since 2002 has very successfully commoditized the cloning of your favourite creatures by making it more affordable to bond with them for life - the nuisance of canine lifespans solved handily with multiple copies.
Affordability may be relative. Today, it'll cost you $50,000 US (almost $62,000 CAD) to resurrect a reasonable facsimile of your family pet if it's a canine but only $25,000 US to copy a kitty. Maybe because dogs have more neurons in their brains? I really don't know but that's the price of a reprint for each species. Those prices are sure to drop over the next decade. Just over 10 years ago, the going rate to clone a dog was double that.
How popular is the procedure? Melain Rodriguez, client service manager at ViaGen Pets told media that "over a hundred" pet owners have had their fave animals cloned proper while "thousands" more have had prized pet cells cryopreserved for future use. That freezing process is good for over 50 years - plenty of time to save up or wait out the market.
What 60 large really buys you is the same tried and true-ish cloning method that made Dolly back in 1996. It's called a nuclear transfer. A cell nucleus from your domestic dog or cat is zapped into an enucleated egg (an egg that has had its nucleus removed) with an electric jolt. That egg mashup is then fertilized and placed inside a surrogate mother who eventually gives birth to a genetic twin of your pet. While the impetus to never really have to say goodbye to our fuzzier family members is an understandable one, cloning of course generates a new animal entirely, however physically similar. Memories don't make the jump. Mittens 2.0 has never met you. It's also not as simple as it sounds - it can take dozens of tries to get the recipe right enough to produce a healthy housepet. Consider it took 127 eggs to yield Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua.
This is one of the hot buttons for animal advocates. Following last week's monkey clone announcement, PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo released a damning statement explaining that "cloning has a failure rate of at least 90 percent". For Guillermo, "cloning is a horror show: a waste of lives, time and money."
Still, for Matthew Johnson of Newmarket Ontario, the juice is well worth the squeeze if only for a close copy of the real thing. Last year Johnson's aging German Shepherd-Dingo mix was in her twilight years (20 years after he rescued her from a New Zealand garbage pile) and the thought of living without Woofie was insurmountable for him. Woofie, as dogs do, once offered unconditional love while Johnson was in palliative care fighting a losing battle with meningitis - he wasn't expected to live. His specific thought was "I'll be screwed without this dog ... I think I'm going to clone her." So he contacted ViaGen who happily did just that and produced two tiny copies: Woofie Jr and Blondie. Johnson says that Woofie Jr cuddles, plays and walks just like the original.
ViaGen isn't the only company to offer pet owners a chance to be reunited with a genetic twin of their deceased dogs. In 2015 Sooam Biotech in South Korea had successfully cloned as many as 700 dogs for pet owners willing to pay the equivalent of $100,000 US.
One question hangs over all of this reproductive science: will we explore some of our darker fictions and copy a human? Cloning a four-legged furry animal to mitigate grief and attempt to replicate a relationship or service opens duplicate doors to cloning a much less furry one. If you think laws governing ethical genetic science just won't let us, gentle reminder that last week we cloned a couple of two-legged fur people from a very close branch of our biological family tree.
Maybe we should find some humble solace with a simple pic of our pets once they've crossed over or just freeze dry them instead (much cheaper by the way at $4,000 for a dog and $850 for a cat). All snark aside, if I had deeper pockets and a strong sense that the science was safe, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted to bring back a fluorescent version of my childhood dog, Hunter. He was the best. Still, we could also opt to mourn appropriately and eventually visit a shelter, open to bonding with another creature so awesome you'd be tempted to clone it.