Melvin was a special dog. A mixture of Catahoula and Doberman with black and tan markings, he was the office greeter, barking hellos to everyone who visited the Dupont Veterinary Clinic in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is owned by his human companions, Dr. Phillip Dupont and his wife, Paula. The couple say he's the best dog they ever owned.
When Melvin passed away, having two identical replicas helped ease the couple's grief.
He seemed to have an uncanny knack for understanding what they were saying, he could find lost car keys in tall grasses and the Duponts trusted him so much they felt comfortable having him babysit their grandson unattended in the backyard.
So when the 75-pound canine turned 9 and began to show signs of age, the Duponts sent off some of his skin cells to a lab in South Korea, the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, to have him cloned. The Duponts toured the South Korean facilities and were satisfied that the animals were being treated well. While the first cloned puppy died from distemper, the second attempt produced two healthy animals—which the couple named Ken and Henry. When Melvin did pass away nearly two years later, in 2014, having two identical replicas helped ease the couple's grief. Even though it cost about $70,000 to clone Melvin, it was well worth it. "Melvin gave us a lot of pleasure," says Paula Dupont, "and this was less than the price of a new Land Cruiser."
As the technology improves, costs will tumble, making pet cloning more affordable for the mainstream.
The news has been filled recently with stories of celebrities such as Barbra Streisand or billionaire Barry Diller and his fashion icon wife, Diane von Furstenberg, spending big bucks to preserve their beloved pets—a practice New York magazine called "a laughable, extravagant waste of money." But cloning Fido isn't just for the ultra-wealthy anymore. Texas-based ViaGen now offers a domestic cloning service that will replicate Lassie for $50,000 and Garfield's kittens for a mere $25,000. While the exact number of cloned pets isn't known, the South Korean company says it has cloned about 800 pets while ViaGen has cloned about 100 cats and dogs. And as the technology improves, costs will tumble, making it more affordable for the mainstream, says Ron Gillespie, who heads PerPETuate, a Massachusetts-based outfit that collects and cryo preserves pet DNA, and works closely with ViaGen.
Even if the animals are genetic twins, biologists say, there are no guarantees their personalities will match, too.
While replicating Fido is becoming more feasible, should you? Animal rights organizations like The Humane Society and PETA are sharply critical of the practice, which is largely unregulated, and think it's outrageous to spend $50,000 or more to preserve Fluffy's genetic makeup when millions of cats and dogs are languishing in shelters and millions more are euthanized every year. And even if the animals are genetic twins, biologists say, there are no guarantees their personalities will match, too. Like humans, dogs' personalities are influenced by their environment and there are always variations in how the genes are expressed--although the Duponts say that Ken and Henry seem more like Melvin every day. "Their personalities are identical," says Paula.
Clones Ken and Henry, with Dr. Dupont and 10-year-old Melvin. Though all three dogs are genetic twins, their markings differ because the environment can influence how genes are expressed.
Still, the loss of a beloved pet can be incredibly painful, and in some cases, cloning can help deal with deep psychological wounds. When Monni Must's daughter died suddenly at age 28, the Michigan-based photographer adopted her child's black Lab, Billy Bean. As the dog got older and frailer, Must realized she couldn't handle losing her last link to her daughter—so she ponied up $50,000 to have the animal cloned. "I knew that I was falling apart," Must told Agence France-Presse. "The thought of Billy dying was just more than I could handle."
But these heated disputes miss what bioethicists believe is the real ethical dilemma—the fate of the female animals that provide the eggs and gestate the cloned puppies. "This issue tends to get framed as 'it's their personal choice, it's their money and they can do what they want with it,'" says Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. "But this whole enterprise has all this collateral damage and behind-the-scenes impacts that people ignore. No one is talking about the dogs who are sacrificing themselves for this indulgence, and are suffering and being tormented just to have your clone."
"Even in the best-case scenarios, the cloned pet may go through several rounds of failed reproductive attempts—failed pregnancies, still births, and deformities."
Animal cloning, of course, is not new. Dolly, the sheep, made her debut in 1996 as the first cloned mammal. In 2005, Korea's Sooam Biotech cloned the first dog, and cloning horses and cows has become almost routine. Typically, the cloning process for dogs is fairly uncomplicated. It entails the use of a group of female dogs whose hormones are artificially manipulated with drugs to promote them to produce eggs. The eggs are then surgically harvested from donor dogs' ovaries. The immature eggs are stripped of their genetic information and then the pet's DNA is fused with the egg. When the embryo begins to develop, it is then transplanted to the womb of a surrogate dog.
However, cloning can have a high failure rate. When South Korea's Sooam Biotech lab cloned the first dog in 2005, there were 1000 failures—which means that number of eggs were fertilized and began to gestate, but at some point their development failed. And this figure doesn't include the number of dogs born with deformities serious enough that they are incompatible with life and need to be euthanized. "Even in the best-case scenarios, the cloned pet may go through several rounds of failed reproductive attempts—failed pregnancies, still births, and deformities," says Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "You can't do just one egg and one transfer. That won't happen. There is no guarantee that the very first time you will have a healthy animal. They're not miracle workers and you can't fight biology."
"You just have to let your pet go. It's all part of the experience."
But Ron Gillespie, who's been in the animal breeding business for decades, thinks these fears are overblown and that cloning is similar to the selective breeding that goes on all the time with cattle and even with champion racehorses. "We're really the victim of a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding," he says. "Right now, on average, we're dealing with three dogs: two that supply eggs and one to carry the embryo to term."
Still, this debate skirts the hard realities: dogs and cats simply have shorter lifespans than humans, and ethicists and animal rights activists believe there are better ways to deal with that grief. "You just have to let your pet go," says Hyun. "It's all part of the experience."