Fido 2.0: Is cloning pets bad for animal welfare?
For anyone who's lost a beloved pet, a genetic clone of Fluffy or Fido may sound tempting, but some experts say it harms the animals involved — and the people who own them.
"The dogs who are doing the actual reproductive work are invisible," says bioethicist Jessica Pierce, who is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Bioethics and Humanity at the University of Colorado.
"We have this underclass of dogs: the dogs who are the egg donors, and the dogs who are the surrogate mothers, whose lives really don't have much value, except in as much as they're cogs in the wheel of human commerce."
Last week, Barbra Streisand revealed that she had her dog Samantha cloned after her death in 2017, resulting in two puppies: Miss Scarlett and Miss Violet.
The news put the issue in the public eye, but Pierce says that it's often framed as a personal — albeit quirky — decision that's up to the pet owner.
Animal welfare gets sidelined, she says, as well as the question of whether people are trying to buy a bypass for grief.
Why people want to clone their pets
Cloning a dog can cost up to $65,000; a cat costs about half as much.
Ron Gillespie, founder of PerPETuate, says that his clients choose to clone for various reasons.
Emotional attachment is only one aspect, he says, adding that many do it for the same reasons they breed animals together. They want to reproduce the traits of animals they find exceptional.
"This is the ultimate breeding," he says. "You're able to get 100 per cent of the genetics, rather than 50 per cent when you use natural breeding."
"All these dogs are exceptional. All these cats are exceptional."
The cloned animal is an identical twin of the original, he says. But that doesn't mean they will look identical, as coat patterns are not genetically determined.
"If you've got spots on your pet, the spots are going to be there, but they're going to be in different places and may be different sizes."
Every other physical feature is transferred, he says, as well as intelligence, and traits like aggression or gentleness.
"It becomes the task of the owner to develop that intelligence into behaviour that was similar to the dog they had before," Gillespie adds.
Prized pooches and pauper puppies
Pierce is bothered by the idea of being able to buy exceptionalism.
She says it feeds into the idea that "if you spend a lot of money on a dog you're going to get a dog that's more beautiful, more intelligent, more athletic, better behaved… and that's just not true."
The system creates two tiers of animals she adds: one desirable, one forgotten.
"Different dogs can inhabit very different moral habitats within the human mind and within our culture."
"You have a group of dogs upon which we place extreme value — monetary and emotional. And then this whole other invisible class of dogs, who are really treated as objects."
The Humane Society of the U.S. outlined concerns about the practice in 2008, particularly in South Korea. It said that numerous cloned animals died in gestation or birth; survivors often suffered from pain and health issues.
Gillespie says the problems are particular to South Korea, where dogs are often bred as livestock, not pets, and have little connection with people.
"The biggest problem was that the surrogate mothers had never been around people, and so when the little clone was born and the caretaker would go in to attend the clone, the mother with the frightened of that caretaker."
"That fear transferred to some of our clones."
He says that practices in South Korea have improved since 2008, but that his company now only works with labs in the United States.
Pierce also points out that "there are a lot of false starts, there are a lot of mistakes."
"There are a lot of cloned puppies who are not adopted," she says, "because maybe somebody just wants one, not five."
You can't cheat death
Pierce sympathizes with people facing the loss of a pet; her own dog Maya is nearly 15 and "the end is in sight."
"There is no avoiding it," Pierce says. "It's awful to think about, I can't bear it."
"[But] even if I had a million dollars at my disposal, I would never clone Maya."
"Not because she isn't exceptional, but because she is, she's unique and she's special."
While cloning may replace a pet, it shouldn't be used to sidestep the grief of using the original, she says.
"What they're offering is an illusion: the illusion that you don't have to lose your pet," she says.
"And that's really unhealthy, as far as I'm concerned. It would be much better to deal head on with a client's grief."
"Denying death doesn't make it go away."
Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.