Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Clone of contention

Getting a DNA replica of a dying pet has become a reality for people with money, but the science is flawed and the ethics are murky

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I'll always love you and the one who looks like you, too. This isn't a misprint of a line from the famous Whitney Houston love song that everyone played as their first wedding dance in the '90s (and I do mean everyone). Instead, it's a declaration some pet owners might make as they consider cloning their pets.

The idea of cloning is no longer mere science fiction. For those who have enough money, it can be reality... that is, if you can call what you see on the TLC channel reality.

A recent episode of the TLC television show I Cloned My Pet outlined stories of dog owners who struggled to let their dogs die and wanted an exact replica.

The premise of cloning isn't new. You remember the first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep? Dolly passed away at the age of six with severe arthritis and cancer.

The science is simple: supply a scientist with some cells and voila, a Pomeranian. The science is also relatively young and has flaws.

According to a paper written by Brian Hansen and Torah Kachur from Genome British Columbia, "There has been some cloning success since... the disgraced South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk cloned Snuppy the Afghan hound. But it took the team 2,000 eggs and 1,000 embryos to get one cloned dog."

I Cloned My Pet followed three people desperate to clone their animals. Cells were harvested and stored (for thousands of dollars). Two of the individuals are waiting to see if Korean scientists have succeeded. One participant successfully cloned her 18 year-old dog. She may never meet it. She's awaiting trial and the possibility of being convicted.

According to Hansen and Kashur, some pet owners will spend thousands just storing the DNA. And a few companies in Canada and the United States have gone belly up as this new market tries to establish itself.

National Geographic News reported that a National Biotechnology study showed "23 percent of all cloned mammals produced by nuclear transfer -- transplanting the nucleus of one cell into another -- failed to reach healthy adulthood."

It's likely cloning will be perfected, but another issue will linger: ethics. Is it ethical to create a service that seems to prey on people mourning the loss of a beloved pet? We're accustomed to making choices about morality and scientific advances when it comes to humans. It was only a matter of time before this dilemma reached the animal world.

The American Humane Society makes a different, but valid argument. Homeless pets remain a problem. Shouldn't we adopt rather than replicate?

While I suspect the practice won't be common place enough for you to order a coffee, danish and cloned Chihuahua at your corner store, the issue might require advice from an expert on clones -- me. That's right. I've done it myself. Nearly 14 years ago, I carried clones to term. As icky as that may sound, I didn't birth a couple of toy poodles. Rather, I'm the mother of identical twins. Genetically speaking, they're clones.

From the second I felt my twins moving I could tell the difference between them. One was aggressive and the other only moved when she hiccupped. The more aggressive one was supposed to be born second, but when I was seven months along, she pushed her sister out of the way. My stomach moved as if I was recreating the odd womb scene from the movie, Alien. This twin has been fighting to be first ever since.

Although my girls are identical in DNA, there are physical differences, too. Their faces are shaped differently and their eyes are slightly different shades of blue. One is an inch shorter and the other and has a larger shoe size. They have only one true identical trait -- an aversion to cleaning their room that is immune to their mother's nagging. It's a habit no one would want to replicate.

I understand the desire to regain a lost loved one. But personalities in pets (and humans) are unique. While some similar skill sets or tendencies may seem to be passed on from breed to breed, it's unlikely every aspect of that pet will be the same.

There are traits of my former cat, Ninny, that I miss. Had I cloned her, however, I would have forgone the relationship I have with my cat Dim Sum. She's pushy, loud and the best mouser alive. When she passes, I'll be devastated.

I'd like to embrace being a pet owner in the same way I do being a parent -- not just a parent of twins, but a parent. Period.

Each child is unique. You love that child unconditionally. Shouldn't pets be treated the same way?

Losing a pet is difficult. Cloning may not make the struggle easier, it may just make it more complicated.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2012 C5

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