Cloning kitty

A California company is selling cloning technology to pet owners. But opponents say this technology holds false promises.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Three years after scientists in a Texas laboratory successfully cloned the first house cat, a company in California is now selling that same technology to pet owners who want a carbon copy of their cat or dog.

For $50,000 Genetics Savings & Clone can take a cat's DNA and create an exact genetic duplicate. They hope to do the same with a dog next year. So far they have five clients who soon will be among the first owners of the newest type of kitten: a clone.

GSC, the first company to commercially offer pet cloning, has already successfully cloned three cats of its own. Kittens named Tabouli and Baba Ganoush made their debut last month at a Manhattan cat show. Its third clone, Peaches, appeared last weekend at the Cat Fanciers' Association Cat Show in Houston.

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While delighting some of the finickiest feline fanciers, the introduction of cloned pets has raised the hackles of some animal welfare groups. Many wonder: Is this just weird science for the rich or a glimpse into the future of America's pet industry?

But what it means for the moment is that a few pet owners will be able to transfer the genetic characteristics of their pet into a new cat or dog. They aren't guaranteed an exact copy but something almost indistinguishable from the original pet with the same traits as their cell donors.

That's the promise that led Carol Meltzer to have a tissue sample of her golden retriever named Lucky sent to GSC to be frozen in its liquid nitrogen "gene banks." The process cost about $1,200, she says.

Lucky's cells will be stored until the company begins offering dog cloning, estimated to cost in the low five figures, or until Ms. Meltzer says she's willing to spend the money to clone her dog, a faithful stray who lived with her for 14 years until he died two years ago.

"I totally loved my dog and I read about [cloning] and I had the money in the bank," says Meltzer. "I wanted that exact dog. His personality. I thought cloning would get that same dog back."

Meltzer realizes now that if Lucky is ever cloned, it won't be the same dog. But it was a purely emotional decision at the time of Lucky's death.

"People are attracted to their particular animal and this is a way for their animal to keep on living after their demise; it's a false promise, essentially," says Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

"We hope that this is one commercial enterprise that fails," says Mr. Pacelle, whose group opposes all types of animal cloning and has been one of the most vocal opponents of the availability of commercial pet cloning.

"We don't need a new production scheme when there are plenty of healthy and adoptable pets," he says. "We've gotten along fine for thousands of years without tinkering with creating life, and this introduced all sorts of problems."

Those problems could range from health maladies resulting in the cloned pet's early death or other birth defects and shortened life spans, he says. Others say there are already too many homeless cats and dogs in shelters. Some wonder why anyone would want to spend so much money when most cats cost nothing.

But Ben Carlson, vice president of communications for GSC, says those issues have been exaggerated by cloning opponents. About 23 percent of all animals born through cloning do have cloning-related health problems. The company's website says, "Fortunately, this has not yet been the case in pet-cloning research. We're investing millions in developing embryo-assessment technology to ensure that each cloned embryo we transfer to a surrogate mother is normal, and will develop into a healthy cloned pet."

Another complaint about cloning is that animals born through chromatin transfer, the process Genetic Savings & Clone uses, are perceived to have much shorter life spans. "The theory that clones would age prematurely has not proven to be correct. However, the issue has developed a life of its own, and the perception, I would go so far as to say myth, about premature aging in clones is now quite widespread."

What was once the stuff of science- fiction movies or reserved for sheep, pigs, cattle, or laboratory mice has already attracted hundreds of pet owners to pay GSC as much as $1,395 to have their cat's and dog's tissue frozen.

Although scientists say pet cloning will always be a niche market, there may be enough interest in America's 76 million households with pets to eventually turn this into a viable business.

But right now, GSC is not a money-making operation, says Carlson. It is all being supported by one billionaire investor named John Sperling who loved a dog named Missy.

Mr. Sperling, founder of the Apollo Group, a for-profit educational company, wanted to clone his adopted mutt because she had "exceptional characteristics." He ended up spending $3.7 million to fund the Missyplicity Project at Texas A&M University. The project eventually cloned the first cat, CC (short for Copy Cat) in December 2001. But cloning a dog proved much too difficult then because of the unique characteristics of the canine's physiology, but GSC promises they'll be able to offer the service next year.

After the researchers perfected the technique to produce cloned cats from cell tissue, Sperling and partner Lou Hawthore, now the CEO of GSC, branched out from the laboratory to offer clones commercially.

Now, part of Carlson's job is to dispel impressions of cloning born mostly of science fiction, such as films like Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Sixth Day." In that film, Mr. Schwarzenegger's character is secretly cloned, battles gun-toting human clones, and even visits a pet-cloning shop where he can order a clone of his family dog, which had suddenly died.

The scene from the movie is a fabulous exaggeration of what a company like GSC offers. There is no instant cloning while you wait. You can't tinker with your pet's DNA to make your cat or dog smaller, larger, fluffier, or less likely to shed.

But that fictitious pet store, called RePet, was selling the same promise the pet shop for clones is peddling - to regain an emotional connection to a pet.

For Jack Dorler, cloning is about bringing back at least part of his dog. The genetics, he said, made his Labrador named Her-She, whose life was cut short by illness, so spectacular. "There is something desirable about those genes.... It had some extremely marvelous characteristics."

As Mr. Dorler explains it, he owes it to his dog because she saved his life. While walking in their rural upstate New York town, Dorler, a diabetic, fell. He says that his dog alerted a neighbor who was able to get help.

Although he realizes he can't bring Her-She back, he can preserve and carry on her genes to create another generation of dogs, he says.

And if Dorler, who is 67, doesn't live to see his dog cloned, he's written instructions and set aside money in his will to have the dog cloned.

But "cloning pets sort of rests on a fundamental mistake," says Lawrence M. Hinman, director of the Values Institute and a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego. "It's trying to eliminate a real integral part of life," he says.

And that emotion is grieving, he says. "I just don't think they'll get what they want in the end."

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