I’d like to call your attention to a paragraph in this CNBC story about Instagram and TikTok influencers cloning their famous pets.
The story begins with an anecdote about Kelly Anderson, a woman from Austin, Texas, whose cat Chai had become Internet Famous:
The white and tan ragdoll had 85,000 followers on Anderson’s Instagram account @adogandacat when she died from complications following a surgery.
“I lost about 20,000 followers on Instagram after Chai passed,” she explained.
Anderson said she sent a sample of Chai’s DNA to the Texas-based pet cloning company ViaGen Pets shortly after she died. It took four years and $25,000 for Anderson to get a successful clone, and now she’s back in business with Chai’s identical genetic clone named Belle, who was born in 2021.
Read it again.
Now think about that last bit: Anderson sends the DNA sample to ViaGen, one of two commercial pet cloning operations in the world. (The other is in South Korea.) “It took four years” the article says “to get a successful clone.”
It doesn’t take four years to extract DNA from a viable sample. It doesn’t take four years to implant that DNA in an unfertilized egg, and it sure doesn’t take four years to bring a cloned cat to term.
So what happened in that interregnum between Anderson submitting Chai’s DNA and ViaGen producing “a successful clone”?
A damn horror show, that’s what.
The first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy, was “successfully” brought to term and survived after birth in 2005, but only after the South Korean lab implanted more than 1,000 embryos into 123 surrogates.
Things have improved since then, if you can call it improvement: Success rates reached the high single digits by about 2010, and now the most successful labs produce “viable” clones about 20 percent of the time, according to geneticists.
What happens to the other animals?
The cloning industry likes to talk about its victories and present stories about grieving people reunited with their beloved cats and dogs, but cloning companies suddenly go mum when they’re asked about the animals who don’t make it to term, the kittens and puppies who are born with horrific defects, and the many animals put down because they don’t match the customers’ specifications. (Cloning companies don’t talk about the puppies and kittens who don’t physically match the clients’ late pets, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be reticent if the “wrong” babies had happy endings.)
Cloning results in “lots of abnormalities and genetic defects–and a significant percent of newborn animals die in the first few days or weeks of life,” geneticist Robert Lanza says.
Or as a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Science put it: “In all mammalian species where cloning has been successful, at best a few percent of nuclear transfer embryos develop to term, and of those, many die shortly after birth…. Even apparently healthy survivors may suffer from immune dysfunction or kidney or brain malformation, perhaps contributing to their death at later stages. Most frequently cloned animals that have survived to term are overgrown, a condition referred to as ‘large offspring syndrome.’”
Even when it appears a cloning has been successful, the cloned pets often succumb to ailments caused by congenital defects both in the short term and long term.
By 2008, just three years after the birth of Snuppy, “a total of 3,656 cloned embryos, more than 319 egg ‘donors,’ and 214 surrogate mothers ha[d] been used to produce just five cloned dogs and 11 cloned cats who were able to survive 30 days past birth,” the Humane Society and American Anti-Vivisection Society warned in a report about the trend.
The failed clones aren’t the only ones who suffer. The cloning industry has created “a whole canine underclass that remains largely invisible to us but whose bodies serve as a biological substrate” bioethicist Jessica Pierce wrote in a 2018 op-ed in the New York Times. A similar “underclass” of feline surrogate mothers exists, constantly being impregnated and giving birth to kittens who will mostly suffer brutally short lives.
Indeed, cloning doesn’t guarantee anything: It doesn’t mean the genetic copy of your pet will have the same coat color, pattern or personality. It does not produce the same animal, nor a real copy of the animal.
Barbra Streisand admitted as much in 2018 when she let slip in an interview that she’d had her late dog cloned, then wrote an op-ed in the New York Times to defend her decision after taking criticism from animal welfare groups. Streisand wanted another dog just like her late Sammie.
“One of the reasons I chose cloning was because I couldn’t find another curly-haired Coton [de Tulear],” Streisand wrote.
Cotons de Tulear usually sell for between $2,000 and $4,000 from breeders. Five puppies were born to a successful litter using Sammie’s DNA. The runt died shortly after birth, while Streisand gave two puppies away to friends and kept two.
Streisand said she’s happy with her decision and thinks of her Sammie every time she looks at the puppies, but says neither of them have Sammie’s disposition.
“You can clone the look of a dog,” she wrote, “but you can’t clone the soul.”
Really what the cloning companies are offering is a replacement built off the same genetic template. The clones are brought to life by crude, Frankensteinesque processes, and opponents say cloning takes away potential homes for lovable cats and dogs who already exist in our shelters.
Then there’s the whole nature versus nurture debate. Doubtless the way a cat or dog is raised will have a significant impact on personality, but a clone with the same DNA, raised precisely the same way as the original, could still have a much different personality.
Cloning opponents argue commercial pet cloning companies are grief vampires in the same way self-proclaimed mediums and psychics are in their willingness to exploit people for profit. The desperate daughter willing to fork over $800 so a vulgar woman with a beehive hairdo can abuse the memory of her father by “connecting” with him in death to discuss trivialities is in an emotionally fragile state, but so is the grieving cat or dog lover reeling from the loss of an animal companion who was closer to them than most humans.
I realize it’s easy to criticize. I can’t even contemplate the eventuality of saying goodbye to Bud, and I haven’t walked a feline companion to the foot of the rainbow bridge yet.
But there is no other Buddy. The idea that I could replace him like getting a new car or a new phone would be an insult to his memory, to his dignity and to his existence as a genuine individual. It’s an insult to our friendship, our bond, our shared experiences. The time he wouldn’t leave my side when I was stricken with Bell’s Palsy and the mother of all headaches, the many times he’s sensed my discomfort and offered comfort in his way, purring and nuzzling, the wonders he’s done for my seasonal affective disorder.
The time he pigged out on closed pistachios and I comforted him as he cried and cried until his tummy was better. The time I forgot he was sleeping on my back, let slip a fart and heard a confused “Mmmmmrrrrrppp?”, prompting me to laugh so hard, tears were streaming down my cheeks.
The time he jumped off the balcony as a kitten without thinking of how he’d get back inside, and I realized how much I loved the little guy as I searched for him and tried to bury the thought that I might never see him again.
No. A clone wouldn’t be Buddy, wouldn’t have his friendly nature, his boldness, his kittenish meow or, dare I say it, his singular obsession with turkey.
We can’t honor our little friends by paying large sums of money for a laboratory horror show to create a clone so we can pretend that clone is the pet we miss. But we can honor them by doing for other cats what we did for them, opening our homes and our hearts and making a difference to one animal at a time.
As for me, I’m pretty sure Bud would haunt me for the rest of my days if I cloned him. “That’s my turkey!” ghost Buddy would say. “That’s my toy! That’s my laser laser! That’s MY spot on the couch, that’s MY spot on your lap and your chest! Who is this pretender, and why does he look like me except less handsome and charming? Big Bud, you have some splainin’ to do!”