Why cloning is a terrible way to bring your pet dog back from the dead

This weekend, Frankenweenie is teaching children about the wonders of brining your beloved pooch back from the dead. We may not have perfected doggie resurrections by electroshock, but some folks have tried to bring their dogs back from the dead (or at least create a genetic facsimile), through cloning. But in addition to the scientific challenges associated with cloning, there are aspects of the pet cloning industry that are bound to make dog lovers shudder.

Top photo by Manik.

BioArts, the California-based company that famously cloned the 9/11 search and rescue dog Trakr, shut down its pet cloning business in 2009, citing financial and ethical concerns (more on those later). But pet cloning is still available from RNL Bio in South Korea. Cloning animals for research purposes and developing methods to make it safer and more effective is one thing, but commercial cloning, especially in its current form, feeds on the emotional hopes of distraught dog lovers to make them complicit in the poor treatment of dogs—including dogs genetically related to the ones they so love.

One of the big questions when it comes to pet cloning is why people will shell out tens of thousands of dollars (BioArts charged upward of $150,000 for dog cloning services; RNL has done it for as little as $30,000, although $50,000 and up seems to be more common) for a clone of their pet. Last year, I happened to speak to John Woestendiek, author of the book Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man's Best Friend, who said that, at least on an intellectual level, that identical nuclear DNA does not make for identical animals. But in his book, it's clear that many of the people who pay for dog cloning do so in the hopes that they really will get their dogs back. One of the men featured in his book told Woestendiek that he believed his deceased dog's soul had found its way into his clone. Joyce Bernann McKinney (who, incidentally, was also the subject of Errol Morris' 2010 documentary Tabloid) lied, coaxed, and begged to have her dog Booger cloned—a dog who, 10 years earlier, saved her from a dog attack. Thanks to the close bonds that can exist between human and dog, there are powerful emotions that swirl around a dog's mortality.

Why cloning is a terrible way to bring your pet dog back from the dead

But of course, a clone is not the same dog. In fact, thanks to a cloned dog having different mitochondrial DNA from its genetic donor, they're slightly less related than identical twins. Nuclear DNA is certainly an important contributor to a dog's physical and behavioral makeup; just look at all the dog breeders who will guarantee dogs who are good bird flushers or child-friendly or particularly adept at sniffing out bombs. But nurture is an important component as well. For example, dogs start to become socialized toward humans in their third week of life, but can't become socialized long after the first 16 weeks of life. McKinney's Booger was a rescue dog; she wouldn't have been able to replicate those early months that turned him into the dog he was. Joan Hawthorne, whose dog Missy was BioArts' first success story, didn't much care for MissyToo, her dog's clone, insisting that they were nothing alike. Missy, she told the New York Times in 1998 was calm, while MissyToo was rambunctious. Admittedly, Hawthorne's expectations may have low; it wasn't her idea to clone Missy, but that of her son, BioArts founder and CEO Lou Hawthorne.

Photo of Missy's clones, Mira and MissyToo, by Steve Jurvetson.

Ultimately, though, some people will have the money or be willing to make the financial sacrifices to have their dogs cloned and will make that decision based largely on emotion. What's more troubling is the industry they are supporting with their cloning dollars. Although 3.5 to 5 million dogs (mostly purebreds) are kept as pets in South Korea, the treatment of dogs is not as strictly regulated there as it is in, for example, the United States. Although most South Koreans do not consume dog meat regularly, dogs are farmed and 2 million are killed each year for their meat. Factory farming in South Korea is notoriously gruesome, with dogs frequently kept in tiny metal cages, and the dog farming industry continues to exist thanks in part to the scientific research community. Sometimes dogs used in scientific research are sold for dog meat instead of being euthanized. This is not to pass judgment on people who view dog meat as an integral part of traditional Korean cuisine, but to illustrate the chasm between the consumers who are will to shell out $50,000 for a chance to see their dog's face and the culture of the researchers doing the cloning.

After Missy's clones were born, Lou Hawthorne distributed the clones amongst his family members, who treated the dogs as beloved pets. By contrast, Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog, was still living in a Seoul National University laboratory five years after his celebrated debut. But there are more dogs to consider than the clones. Cloning requires egg donors and surrogate mothers. After McKinney toured the facilities at SNU, she told Woestendiek that she was horrified by what she saw, including dogs, both sick and healthy, in tiny cages. She said one of her puppies' surrogates was skin and bones and the other one didn't produce enough milk so the lab "sent her back."

And then there are the clones who aren't quite perfect. When Lou Hawthorne announced that BioArts was getting out of the dog cloning business, financials were a big part of his calculus. The market for cloning was tiny, and RNL, which was operating without a cloning license, was grossly undercutting them price-wise. But Hawthorne cited another concern: a certain percentage of the puppies suffered from "physical abnormalities," which led him to conclude that it's not a consumer-ready technology. He also accused RNL of mistreating their dogs, saying that the low price of their cloning service could only mean that surrogate dogs were not adopted out and unwanted puppies were not being cared for in perpetuity; according to Hawthorne, RNL must be terminating the unwanted dogs. SNU's lab does not release the number or nature of attempts made before the birth of a successful clone, which might be a disturbing thought to cloning clients who truly believe that their dog's spirit is reborn in each clone.

There may be a time when cloning technology is safe and effective, and when it is no more morally dubious than purchasing a dog from a breeder. But those who would consider having their dogs cloned should examine the current state of the cloning industry and whether the people who would be involved in the cloning value dogs as highly as they do.

For more on Hawthorne, RNL, and especially McKinney's strange and fascinating story, check out Woestendiek's Dog Inc..