In late February, Barbara Streisand was interviewed in Variety magazine. She touched on her desire to disrupt the male-driven atmosphere in Hollywood, her experience with Harvey Weinstein, and her distaste for Donald Trump. However, the detail that garnered the most attention had nothing to do with her career or politics: she had cloned her dog before its death and was living with two genetically identical clones. This revelation drew attention (and ire) from many pet owners. The New York Times published a write-up, which led to a subsequent follow up article penned by Streisand herself. The practice of domestic pet cloning was pioneered in 2005 and offered to the general public in 2015 by Korean company Sooam Biotech. Between 2015 and the recent publication of Streisand’s interview, multiple pet cloning companies have emerged, and the process has become more streamlined.
Interestingly, some of the top selling dog products on Amazon are dog DNA kits designed to give pet owners the most accurate genetic information about their dogs in order to tailor environment, health issues, and ease aging to best suit their pets. The Embark (great name) Dog DNA Test, and the subsequent rise in canine home genetic testing kits, in my mind mirrors the rise of human home genetic testing kits. The advanced sophistication of cloning, genetic factor awareness, and bio-engineering technology has brought this information into mainstream discussion, and as a result the biomedical and consumer worlds have collided. Consumer pet cloning is a practice that calls into question issues of humans ‘playing god’, interrelations between species, and elitism within a technological context.
The age of cloning was dramatically ushered in by Dolly the sheep in 1996, bringing what was once science-fiction fare into tangible reality. However, while genetic clones of other species quickly followed, the process of producing a cloned dog proved more complicated. “Certain unique aspects of the reproductive process in canids” meant that traditional in vitro methods were not resulting in live births. Scientists in South Korea adopted the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT):
In this technique, eggs are removed from female dogs, the nucleus is removed (enucleated), and body cells from the to-be-cloned dog are injected into the eggs. The eggs serve as host for the genetic material of the dog to be cloned. Electric stimulation makes the egg divide, and divide, and divide to behave like a growing embryo, and eggs are then implanted into a dog who serves as a surrogate.
Fast-forward to 2018, where the technology is available for consumer use. In the same way that advanced human fertilization treatments have become commonplace for those who can afford them, companies offering pet cloning seek to offer pet owners a similar use of reproductive technology (at a steep price). This results in a unique combination of high-tech bio-engineering imagery with a sentimental appeal to pet owners.
American company ViaGen and Korean Sooam both feature pages of testimonials featuring pictures of the happy cloned pets thriving, along with their owners’ heartwarming stories. Both companies also offer detailed descriptions of the cloning procedures, again making use of language to emphasize how natural and ‘simple’ the process is, and how a support community exists for customers, including blogs with general pet owner information:
The Korean Sooam is more focused on the scientific information and raw details, whereas ViaGen focuses more on the emotional call to action and sentimental connection. On the main ‘dog cloning’ page, Sooam features instructions on what to do if your pet suddenly dies to keep the genetic samples viable:
Both sites feature rundowns on the science and ethics of animal cloning. ViaGen has an extensive FAQ, featuring questions such as: What is a cloned dog, Do pets delivered by cloning have normal lifespans, and Is a pet born through the cloning process physically and behaviorally identical to the “original” pet? This last question is particularly important in reinforcing the desire to clone a loved pet. ViaGen answers that, “This is best described as identical twins born at a later date” but does eventually admit that “The environment does interact with genetics to impact many traits such as personality and behavior.” Sooam does not go as far as to mention personality, instead focusing on identical genetics. ViaGen’s homepage offers an animated clip, with a comforting voice-over explaining how “the Anderson’s” considered their dog Buddy “an irreplaceable part of the family”. The minute and a half long video then briefly describes the cloning process in the most nonchalant way possible. The video finishes with the claim that the Anderson’s new dog will “most likely be smart, playful, and look like Buddy too”.
Only the more scientifically-focused Sooam readily mentions the success rate as “nearly 30%”; that information is not mentioned at all on the main ViaGen pages.
This relatively low success rate also leads into another big problem with dog-specific cloning: the process requires a lot of female dogs, for eggs and for surrogates. John Woestendiek, who wrote a book on dog cloning in 2010, “In addition to the tissue sample of the original dog, cloners will need to harvest egg cells from dogs in heat – maybe a dozen or so. And, after zapping the merged cells with electricity so they start dividing, they’ll need surrogate mother dogs, to carry the puppies to birth. That’s a whole lot of surgeries, on a whole lot of dogs.”
The other glaring issue involved in pet cloning is the price. ViaGen offers dog cloning for $50,000, while Sooam’s 2015 price was $100,000. With a huge number of dogs (not to mention humans) already living without a home, this sort of investment seems flippant, especially considering the cloned dog’s personality might not even resemble the original dog. While many owners’ love shows no bounds, that is certainly a high price to pay for an ultimately unrealistic desire to bring back the dead. Some have accused the cloning companies of playing on wealthy, grieving dog owners by using leading language. Both wealthy pet owners who opt for dog cloning, and the companies charging for an ultimately harmful facade have faced claims of selfishness and anti-cloning campaigns from concerned animal welfare groups.