What’s the matter with cloning Rex?

Humane groups oppose cloning dogs for pets. But we've been designing dogs to suit our whims for generations. Why stop now?

Topics: Noble Beasts,

What's the matter with cloning Rex?

Shadow Anne is a dog adored. “She is smart, very independent, graceful, beautiful and elegant,” says her owner, Marianne Schlegelmilch. “She likes to stand on the second-story beam of our house, gazing over her kingdom, with her long ears blowing in the wind — sort of like Kate Winslet in ‘Titanic.’ She is a diva.”

Shadow Anne is an Afghan hound, an aristocratic breed designed to be thin, hairy and refined. Afghans may lag behind labs and retrievers in popularity, but they recently secured a spot in history as the first canine to be cloned. In August, South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang and his colleagues announced they’d successfully produced an Afghan hound clone, dubbed “Snuppy” for “Seoul National University puppy.” The cloning milestone grabbed the public’s attention. This wasn’t just another Dolly the sheep. This was man’s best friend.

“It would be really hard to replicate the life experiences that made Shadow who she is today,” says Schlegelmilch, of Homer, Alaska. “Still, if I could clone her when she reaches old age, I might be tempted.”

Schlegelmilch is not alone in her desire to keep her canine companion around indefinitely. In recent years, a trio of pet-cloning companies, Genetic Savings & Clone, ForeverPet and Perpetuate, have sprung up to meet the growing demand for carbon copies of Rex and Fluffy. Already the companies have a backlog of customers who have paid to store their pets’ genes in the companies’ freezers. So far, Genetic Savings & Clone is the only company that has cloned kittens for clients. (Recently it dropped the price from $50,000; a cat clone can now be had for just $32,000.)

Beneath the utopian science are some unsettling ethical questions about animal welfare and health. With city pounds across the country filled with homeless dogs and cats, should a person pay tens of thousands of dollars to essentially manufacture a new pet? Given that cloning is not a perfected science, is it premature to clone dogs and cats that could later suffer a bevy of medical problems?

The spotlight on cloning also illuminates the seldom acknowledged fact that, in many ways, cloning dogs and cats is redundant. We’ve more or less accomplished with breeding what cloning aims to create — animals nearly identical in appearance and temperament. Since domesticating dogs from wolves more than 10,000 years ago, we’ve engineered the species to suit our needs and our whimsies — border collies for herding sheep, malamutes for hauling sleds, teacup Chihuahuas for accessorizing starlets.

When it comes to dogs, “we’ve been doing seat-of-the-pants genetics for at least 12,000 years,” says Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and author of numerous books on dogs. We did so, for the most part, with little knowledge of the underlying genetics. Today, sophisticated geneticists are tinkering with dog DNA in all sorts of ways. Some experiments are resulting in key cures for canine afflictions. And cloning, which at first glance may seem a quintessential act of human vanity, could become a reliable method for duplicating ideal pets.

Snuppy was created by somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same technique that produced Dolly the sheep. The genetic material is sucked out of donor eggs and replaced with DNA taken from skin cells of the clone “parent.” The resulting embryo is stimulated to divide with chemicals or electricity, then implanted into a surrogate mother.

From nearly the moment Snuppy was born, groups such as the American Anti-Vivisection Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States expressed their opposition. “There are millions of animals who are euthanized every year simply because they don’t have a home,” says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society. “To clone a pet when there are so many animals that need homes, we think it’s a technology that’s completely unnecessary.”

Not only is the technology unnecessary, Shain says, but it’s imperfect and potentially dangerous. Cloning is extremely inefficient. To produce the first dog clone, the Korean team implanted multiple embryos into more than 100 surrogate dogs; only Snuppy survived. The lifespan and health of cloned mammals has also been called into question. Dolly, the famous first mammal to be cloned from an adult, suffered from lung disease and arthritis and was put down at a relatively young age. Whether her health problems were related to cloning is unknown.

Critics also contend that commercial cloning is consumer fraud, given that a clone won’t be identical to the original pet. Although they will look alike and share the same genes, clones will grow up in different environmental conditions than the original animals, and have their own personalities and behaviors. Clones are essentially identical twins displaced in time. “There’s no way to replicate an animal’s personality,” Shain says. “They’re toying with these people’s emotions.”

Autumn Fiester is a senior fellow at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and the owner of a purebred bichon frisé. She believes the jury is still out on pet cloning and will be until we know more about the health of the clones. But, she says, “it seems like Genetic Savings & Clone, for its part, has produced healthy animals.” In the meantime, she says, “the preliminary arguments made by the opposing camp are not strong arguments.”

Fiester points out that spending $30,000 on an animal that may live 15 years works out to just a couple hundred dollars a month. We often spend that on other so-called luxury items, like going to the movies or dining out. And at the end of a month of fine dining, you aren’t even left with an object — let alone one that loves you unconditionally. “In principle it is not irrational to want a later-born twin of a beloved pet,” Fiester says. “Clients can say, ‘At least I have something left, a little bit of my animal for me to cherish.’”

For some pet owners, replacing a lost pet with an animal from a shelter isn’t an acceptable alternative. “Pet owners do not want any old pet,” Fiester says. “They are after a certain genetic constellation, a certain cat or certain dog.”

One such owner is Kathleen McNulty, from Long Valley, N.J. She has banked her dog Riley’s genes with Genetic Savings & Clone and has posted a testimonial on the company’s Web site. “I am very sympathetic to homeless cats and dogs,” she wrote. “I have a barn full of cats that have been adopted from shelters. But I had this one very special relationship with this one dog, and I know that I’m not going to find that relationship with a dog that I get out of a shelter.”

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, more than 43 million U.S. households keep nearly 74 million dogs as pets and de facto family members. We love our dogs and are often willing to spend exorbitant sums for the perfect pup. The American Kennel Club estimates that one in four dogs are purebreds.

Individual dog breeds are so familiar to us, it’s easy to forget that they are just races of a single species — races that we’ve invented. In the wild, nature selects for particular traits and behaviors. In dogs, we’ve stepped in for Mother Nature and made our own selections.

Those selections have produced a species that comes in shapes and sizes that are all over the map. English mastiffs tip the scales at up to 200 pounds, while Chihuahuas weigh in at less than six. The faces of a bulldog and a basenji give no hints that they belong to the same species. “Some people design dogs like it’s an art form,” says Coren.

Unfortunately, those art forms often beget health problems, linked not to genetic diseases but to the dog’s body shape. We’ve selected for physical traits in dogs that would never have originated in nature because they’re not adaptive. The English bulldog is a classic example, says Raymond Coppinger, an evolutionary biologist at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and co-author (with his wife, Lorna) of “Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution.”

Bulldogs’ heads are so big that they cannot fit through the birth canal, and their puppies must be delivered by cesarean section. And their radically flattened faces lead to deformed respiratory machinery, Coppinger says. As anyone who’s come into contact with a snorting, snoring bulldog knows, they have a hard time breathing. Such a hard time, in fact, that they often have abnormally low levels of oxygen in their bloodstreams. “The dog isn’t adapted to be that shape,” he says. “The biology can’t go there.”

Some of our aesthetic choices have no apparent bearing on a dog’s well-being; chances are, fur color doesn’t much matter to a dog that doesn’t have to camouflage itself in the wild. But in other cases, our choices could very well affect a dog’s quality of life. Is it animal cruelty to create teacup breeds that are so small their mouths can’t support a healthy set of teeth? Or to engineer Chinese Shar-Peis whose absurdly wrinkled skin harbors ulcers and mange?

Breeders themselves sometimes debate where to draw the line in shaping a dog’s anatomy, says Patrick Venta, a professor of veterinary medicine at Michigan State University and a collaborator on DogMap, one of several canine genome projects. “If you breed to the extreme, you enhance the features of the breed, but if you push too far, it can create some type of health problem for the dog,” he says. “There will be gray areas.”

While much of current genetic research aims to benefit human medicine, a large number of scientists are working to improve the health of our favorite pet. Dogs suffer from an impressive collection of genetic diseases and disorders, thanks to a high incidence of inbreeding. Breeds such as Labrador retrievers and Afghan hounds are crippled by hip dysplasia, golden retrievers are prone to a specific type of cancer, and narcoleptic Dobermans fail as watchdogs when they topple over into a deep and sudden sleep.

Those and other health issues may very well be resolved with genetics research, but cloning isn’t likely to play much of a role in identifying and eliminating genetic disorders. “Cloning is incredibly expensive … and extremely inefficient,” says Venta. “There are so many things people involved in canine genetics can do without whole-organism cloning.”

In 2001, scientists at Cornell announced a gene therapy technique to cure congenital blindness in Briards, a type of French herding dog. Traditional genetics work has so far produced tests for as many as 30 canine diseases, Venta says, allowing breeders to avoid carriers of conditions like narcolepsy and hip dysplasia.

Animal rights activists often condemn genetic tinkering as well as cloning. But whether a dog was conceived by breeding or by cloning, maybe they have it made. Sure, they suffer a little manipulation, but they get food and healthcare and a warm place to sleep. While we’ve exterminated the wolf from much of its original habitat, we’ve made sure to ferry our pampered dogs into this millennium and probably the next.

“We wouldn’t have any dogs if humans over the course of thousands of years hadn’t selected certain characteristics,” Venta says. “We’d be living with wolves.”

Coren agrees and even calls dog breeds vital. “My wife and I recently got a beagle and we knew he’d be sweet and kissy-faced and dumb as a stone,” he says. “Predictability is what you’re paying for when you pay for a purebred dog, and it’s a good thing. You don’t want to have to roll the dice.” Cloning would take that purebred predictability and bump it up a notch.

Schlegelmilch first fell in love with the Afghan hound when one ran by her house more than 30 years ago. “I had never seen any animal quite so elegant and graceful,” she says. Within six months she owned one, and she and her husband have kept them ever since. With each new dog, they know just what to expect: a graceful, athletic, independent dog that doesn’t necessarily obey commands.

Schlegelmilch now deals with a trusted breeder who tests for genetic disease and produces healthy puppies. Not all breeders are so responsible. Schlegelmilch’s first Afghan hound Desiree died at age 3 from the canine version of Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder. “In retrospect, I think she came from a puppy-mill type of breeder,” she says.

The irony of cloning, says bioethicist Fiester, is that it may prove more ethical than breeding, as there’s no dearth of evidence that breeders can be irresponsible. Commercial cloning companies can also be fairly certain that a person spending thousands of dollars on a clone will pamper her pet. The average dog breeder has much less reassurance that clients will be loving owners. “Our initial reaction [to cloning] may be a yuck factor against Frankenpets,” Fiester admits. “But ethically, cloning may have a leg up.”

Kirsten Weir is a science writer who lives near Portland, Maine.

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