Copycat, copydog: Is it ethical to clone your dead pet?
Barbara Streisand announced overnight that she’s cloned her dog, not once, but twice.
In an interview with Variety, the singer and actor revealed she swabbed cells from her dying Coton de Tulear dog, Samantha. These were used to make two clones, which she adopted along with a third pet – a distant relative of Samantha with which Streisand had become “smitten”.
The clones were called Miss Scarlet and Miss Violet, the relative called Miss Fanny. “They have different personalities,” Streisand said. “I’m waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have [Samantha’s] brown eyes and her seriousness.”
The cloning of humans is illegal. The cloning of farm animals has been banned by the EU parliament. The cloning of pets, however, is a grey area. In the UK, under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, it is considered to be an experimental procedure, and isn’t a recognised veterinary practice. Firms in the US and South Korea, on the other hand, do offer the service – for a hefty fee. Korean company Sooam Biotech charges $100,000 (£63,000) for a cloned pup.
The pet cloning business
Sooam Biotech clones dogs on a near-industrial scale. The company was set up by Hwang Woo-suk, a former leader in the field of stem cell research who fell from grace in 2005 after it emerged he’d fabricated a series of experiments.
Shamed and cast out from his academic post, Hwang turned to private lab work, creating Sooam Biotech as a base for researching industrial applications for animal cloning and stem cell research.
The lab made its name with dog cloning, although Hwang’s ambitions extend to cloning endangered animals such as the Ethiopian wolf. A partnership with China has also seen the creation of a cloning centre in Tianjin, which produced cloned dogs, cattle and racehorses.
Hwang’s method, similar to that used by Texas-based firm Viagen Pets, involves extracting the nucleus of skin cells from the animal that’s being cloned, then inserting them into a donor egg cell that’s had its nucleus removed. This is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) and is the same technique used to create Dolly the Sheep in 1996, and two monkeys just last month.
(Above: Dolly duplicates. Credit: University of Nottingham)
A number of British pet owners have bought into pet cloning, despite the fact it isn’t carried out on UK soil. Sooam Biotech ran a competition for UK dog owners to have their pet cloned for free, while in 2015 a British couple had their dead Boxer dog cloned after they were left bereft by the animal’s death. And it’s not just Sooam Biotech attracting UK customers. ViaGen said in 2016 that “a number” of UK veterinarians have supplied biopsies for pet owners to have their dogs clones.
The ethics of pet cloning
While Barbara Streisand seems pleased with her cloned pubs, there are a number of ethical concerns about cloning pets.
“Losing a much-loved pet is very distressing, and we understand that people can find it hard to let go of an animal who meant so much to them, but cloning is not the answer,” an RSPCA spokesperson told Alphr.
“There are serious ethical and welfare concerns around the application of cloning technology to animals. Cloning animals requires procedures that cause pain and distress, with high failure and mortality rates.”
The RSPCA also noted that there is a body of evidence to suggest that “frequently suffer physical ailments such as tumours, pneumonia and abnormal growth patterns,” concluding that it does not condone the procedure.
“In any case, a cloned animal is never going to be an exact copy of the original pet, either in looks or behaviour. There is so much more to an animal than their DNA and cloned dogs will inevitably have different life experiences, resulting in animals with different personalities.”
This is echoed by comments made to Alphr by the president of the British Veterinary Association, John Fishwick: “The loss of a beloved family dog is always upsetting and it’s easy to see why people may wish to clone their pet, but it is important that people are aware that cloned pets will not have the same personality and behaviour as the original animal.
“The process of cloning is invasive, involving a healthy surrogate animal undergoing procedures – for instance implantation and caesarean section – which are not for the animal’s own benefit and which may have health and welfare implications. In pet animals, these harms will not be justified by the hoped-for benefits.”
Ultimately, the reasons for wanting to clone a dog tend to be tied to the very real sense of loss that can come from losing a pet. Cloning can create a genetic imitation, but it will never be the same animal. With so many animals abandoned each year, you have to weigh up a very costly and ethically dubious procedure against adopting a pet that really could use a new home.