Modern life has a disturbing habit of resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Take, for example, the 2000 sci-fi thriller ‘The 6th Day’ which featured a pet cloning company called RePet that allowed customers to graft their animal companion’s DNA onto a pre-grown biological blank and within a matter of hours have an exact replica of Spot or Fluffy. RePet promised pet owners: “Should accident, illness or age end your pet’s natural life, our proven genetic technology can have him or her back the same day, in perfect health, with zero defects, GUARANTEED.”
While same-day service is not yet available, pet cloning has been a real—and really expensive—option for more than a decade.
Scientists have been creating genetically identical animals in the laboratory since 1979. But it wasn’t until 1996 that Scottish researchers cloned the first mammal, a sheep named Dolly, by using a mature cell from an adult animal. Six years later, researchers at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences produced the first cloned cat, CC, short for “Carbon Copy.”
By 2004, a California company began taking the first orders for clones of pet cats. Five customers paid $50,000 a piece to have Genetic Savings & Clone perform the cloning procedure. Today, the procedure still costs about $50,000 for dogs but only $25,000 for cats. In a recent interview with Variety, singer Barbara Streisand said she had two dogs cloned from “cells taken from the mouth and stomach of her beloved 14-year-old dog Samantha, who died in 2017.”
Wealthy pet lovers may be disappointed with the results, though, since what they get for their money is not the pet they lost but a genetic replica. As the CEO of the first pet cloning service said,
There are people out there who use the statement that cloning is reproduction not resurrection. But the interesting part from the genetic perspective is that this is resurrection. It is not in terms of a level of consciousness, but in terms of genetics you are getting the same animal back. Personality-wise there are differences.
The result of the “genetic resurrection” is that cloned animals do not necessarily even look like the original pet, much less have the same personality or behavioral characteristics. As David Magnus, co-director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, noted in 2004, “The people who want this are spending huge sums of money to get their pet immortalized or to guarantee they’re getting a pet exactly like the one they had before—and it’s simply not possible.”
Exploiting the bond between pet lovers and their animals is troubling, especially since genetics has little impact on the characteristics that make animal companionship worthwhile—lovability, personality, shared memories. Arguments against taking advantage of wealthy eccentrics are unlikely to convince people that cloning should not be allowed. The relative rarity of the process also makes it an issue of seemingly minor concern.
But the best time to address the ethics of pet cloning is now, before the process becomes cheaper and more popular. As with many technological advances (think, for example of the cell phone), products and services once limited to the rich eventually become more affordable and more ubiquitous. If pet cloning is unethical, we should develop arguments now to reduce future potential demand.
A primary and biblically justifiable reason for opposing pet cloning is that the cloning process increases the amount of unnecessary animal suffering in the world.
In the process of reproductive cloning, a mature somatic cell, such as a skin cell, is taken from an animal to be copied and its DNA transferred into an egg cell, or oocyte, that has had its own DNA-containing nucleus removed. An electrical current is often used to
fuse the entire somatic cell with the empty egg. After the fusion, the early-stage embryo is implanted into the womb of a surrogate, adult female animal.
Veterinarian Katy Nelson says the cloning process involves a “really expensive, highly scientific puppy mill.” “These animals are being kept against their will,” adds Nelson “They’re being kept hormonally supplemented, so that they can create these embryos at will.” And as John Hopkins bioethicist Hilary Bok explains,
Cloning causes animals to suffer. Egg donors must have their ovaries artificially stimulated with hormone treatments and their eggs surgically harvested. Given the unusually high rates of late-term miscarriages and high birth weights among clones, the surrogate mothers are at greater risk of dying or suffering serious complications than animals who become pregnant naturally. The clones, themselves, however, suffer the most serious problems: They are much more likely than other animals to be miscarried, have birth defects, develop serious illnesses, and die prematurely.
No pet owner should be willing to allow hundreds of other animals to suffer needlessly just so they can obtain a “genetic replica” of an animal they love. As the book of Proverbs says, “The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel” (Pr. 12:10).
The loss of a family pet can be traumatic and painful. Animals can provide love and companionship, and their effects on their owners should never be mocked or dismissed as a silly, contrived attachment. But nothing fallen humans can do—not even “genetic resurrection”—can bring back that which is lost to the finitude of death. Cloning is not the answer to such loss and grief; it only leads to more unnecessary suffering and death. While beloved pets can’t be replaced, the love they provide can be. It doesn’t require a team of scientists, tens of thousands of dollars, or a morally specious process. All it takes is a trip to the local animal shelter.
Note: In a future article, I’ll examine the moral implications of cloning animals for other reasons.