The controversial and expensive procedure by which the rich clone their pets
- Stav Dimitropoulos
- BBC Economics
When John Mendola’s beloved pet was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decided to clone her.
Mendola is a retired New York City police officer. I was on duty at a station in Long Island in 2006 when someone brought in a scrawny little stray dog.
“The dog was all matted, you couldn’t even brush her … and she had bad teeth, but she was absolutely adorable and so grateful,” he says.
At the end of his shift, Mendola told his co-workers there was no need to take the furry white and brown animal to a shelter: he would take her home. “It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says the 52-year-old.
The dog, a designer breed called a Shih Apso, loved children and games. Mendola named her Princess in honor of the many heroines of Disney cartoons.
It was 10 years later, in 2016, when a vet had to break the bad news that Princess had cancer. Mendola immediately called a Texas-based company called Viagen Pets and Equine, which is the first and only company in the U.S. to offer commercial cloning of dogs and cats.
Mendola says she learned about the process after seeing a South Korean documentary on the subject. The Asian country is a leader in the field and produced the first cloned dog in 2005
The company took a biopsy or a tissue sample from Princess before she died in 2017. From this genetic material were born two clones to a dog that acted as a surrogate mother, a year later.
The puppies were genetically identical to Princesa. Mendola named them Princess Ariel and Princess Jasmine, also after the Disney movies.
“The spots, the hair, everything is more or less the same, even the gestures,” he says. “You know how sometimes dogs get up and shake their whole bodies? They both do it at the same time, like a princess did.’
popularity on the rise
Pet cloning is controversial but growing in popularity despite its high price.
Viagen says it now clones “more and more pets every year” and has cloned “hundreds” since it first opened in 2015.
The company charges US$50.000 to clone a dog, US$30.000 for a cat and US$85.000 per horse.
Obviously, that price is out of reach for most of us, but several famous people have revealed in recent years that they have cloned their dogs or plan to do so.
in 2018 Barbra Streisand revealed that he used Viagen to clone two puppies for his former pet Samantha.
That same year, the British newspaper The sun reported that music mogul and talent show judge Simon Cowell “100% cloned” his three Yorkshire terriers.
There are a number of specific cloning techniques, but usually a cell nucleus of the animal to be cloned into a donor egg whose genetic material has been removed.
The egg is then grown in the lab until it becomes an embryo, which is then implanted in the uterus or womb of a surrogate mother who gives birth to a puppy.
Blake Russell, president of Viagen, says the genetic material of the animal to be cloned can be stored almost indefinitely before the cloning process begins.
This is thanks to the use of very low freezing temperatures or cryopreservation.
“A cloned pet is, simply put, a an identical genetic twinseparated by years, decades, maybe centuries,” he adds.
His company says it is “committed to the health and well-being of every dog and cat we work with” and adheres to all US regulations.
Diseases and high failure rate
However, animal welfare organizations have raised concerns about the procedure.
For example, several scientific studies show that cloned animals are more prone to disease.
Other critics point out high rejection rate of the industry: the large number of clones who are not born fit and healthy.
In a 2018 report from New York’s Columbia University, the average success rate was just 20%. This means that multiple surrogates are needed to allow multiple attempts.
Penny Hawkins, an animal welfare expert at the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says the process of removing a woman’s eggs for donation and preparation for surrogacy can be painful and exhausting.
Behavior is not cloned
Also, a cloned animal will never be an exact copy of the original pet, especially when it comes to behaviorExplain.
“There is much more to an animal than its DNA, and cloned animals will inevitably have different life experiences, resulting in animals with different personalities.”
A Viagen employee last year was even reported to have noted that 25% an animal’s personality comes from its upbringing.
“We recommend that anyone looking for a new pet to become part of their family adopt one of the thousands of animals at rescue centers looking for a home,” says Hawkins.
Eliza Allen, director of animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), also wants people to adopt a rescue dog instead of creating a clone.
“The personalities, the quirks and the very essence of animals just can’t be replicated,” he explains.
“And when you consider that millions of wonderful, adoptable dogs and cats languish in animal shelters each year or die horribly after being abandoned, you realize that cloning adds to stray animal overpopulation crisis.
“Peta encourages anyone who wants to bring another animal companion into their lives to adopt from their local shelter rather than encouraging cloning, cruel fashion to make money“.
Geneticist Andrew Hessel counters that cloning pets poses very few ethical problems if done responsibly.
“One might say, ‘why clone animals when there are all these other animals available for adoption?'” he says. “However, you can use the same argument with children.”
“Why have a child of your own when there are all these children you can adopt? And pets become family members too.”
Back on Long Island, Mendola says Princess Ariel and Princess Jasmine are healthy and happy.
Before the original princess died, she adopted another rescue dog named Baby. “When I brought the new puppies home, Bebe took to them right away,” she says.
“He missed the princesses. He smelled them and was happy. They are princesses.”
Bebe died unexpectedly this year, but Mendola was already prepared: he has some of his genetic material stored for possible future cloning.
Additional reporting by Will Smale, New Economics series editor.
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